Paper Chase

Martin Luther King's papers have been saved from being auctioned off, but scholars, historians worry about family's treatment of the archive

September 03, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun staff

When a coalition of Atlanta business leaders and philanthropists pledged to purchase 7,000 pages of the private papers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in June for $32 million, its efforts were hailed by many as a step toward preserving an important chapter of American - and Atlanta - history.

The collection, which was headed for the auction block at Sotheby's, serves as a virtual timeline - for the civil rights movement, the turbulent 1960s and King's personal life. The agreement, which lets Morehouse College house the documents in a library it shares with three other schools, spared the papers from possible purchase by a private collector.

Rights to the documents, however, remain under the control of the King family, and because the terms of the sale have not been disclosed, many historians and researchers question whether they will really be able to plumb the records with the freedom they need to do their work.

Among the documents are a typed draft with manuscript notes of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, under its original title - "Normalcy -- Never Again" - and King's blue-inked revisions of his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

The concern arises from the way the King family has exercised its control over documents since Martin Luther King's death in 1968. For one, the family has often asked for payment, especially for reproducing famous quotations from King's speeches.

But most of the concern comes from historians such as Ralph E. Luker, who co-edited two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., who say that the family has made viewing the archives at the King Center in Atlanta difficult, if not impossible, for those trying to research King's legacy.

"You can't just go to the front door of the King Center, go in and expect to see what you want to see," said Luker. "The building is ordinarily locked. You have to call in advance. You may or may not get an appointment to see the archives, or you may have to wait months to get an answer.

"The word on the street is that the King Center archive can't be gotten to, so there's no point in even considering a [research] project."

Researchers fear similar limitations will be placed on the recently purchased collection, which contains all documents with King's handwriting, taken both from the King Center and from the basement of the house of King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who died this year. Nothing is known about specific restrictions on access contained in the sale documents, beyond the fact that the King family will still have its hands on the reins.

"This is far too important and [the King family's] record is far too spotty, if not far too poor," said biographer Taylor Branch, who recently completed a much-praised trilogy on King and the civil rights movement.

"What I would hope is that the donors and the city of Atlanta would wake up to the responsibility of securing them."

Neither King's children nor Phillip Jones, an adviser to the King estate, responded to requests for comment. Officials at Morehouse and the King Center were similarly unresponsive.

However, Morehouse has tried to assure researchers that their concerns are unfounded. In an interview with the online journal Inside Higher Ed, Phillip Howard, vice president for institutional advancement at the historically black college, said that making the papers available to the public was why the officials worked to keep the papers in Atlanta. He said that the King family has placed no restrictions on how Morehouse can handle the documents.

And Jones, the family adviser, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that concerns about access to the documents have been addressed - though he did say that the King family and estate would retain the "intellectual property rights" to the papers.

"Scholars need not worry," Jones told the newspaper. "Scholars will be able to follow his thinking up to the `I Have a Dream' speech. His thinking is what's critical to a scholar."

Morehouse announced last month that it had hired Brenda S. Banks, deputy director of the Georgia Department of Archives and History, as the chief archivist for the King documents.

Nevertheless, concerns remain.

Asked about Howard's comments, Branch said that though he did not know Howard, "I know he has an interest in believing that everything is going to be all right."

Branch remains concerned that scholars will be given limited access, primarily because of more than two decades of setbacks in researching the documents.

"They say they'll be available," said Branch of his work while the documents were at the King Center, "but what they mean is that you can only look at them, or you can occasionally look at them, or to quote them you must fill out an application first.

"That's the track record, and the burden of proof is on someone saying that the track record has changed and what the conditions are," he said. "And have they done that? No."

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