Ralph Luker: Access to King's papers also key

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ralph E. Luker of Atlanta co-edited the first two volumes of "The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr." He is now preparing the Vernon Johns Papers for publication.]

Thirty-two million dollars and what do you get?

Fifty years ago, Tennessee Ernie Ford scored a hit with his recording of "Sixteen Tons," originally recorded by Merle Travis. The song's lyrics said:

"You load 16 tons and what do you get?" The answer was "Another day older and deeper in debt."

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin may have reason to remember those words. Don't misunderstand me. I'm one of her biggest fans, and Atlantans should be grateful that she put together a coalition of institutions and resources that saved Coretta Scott King's collection of her husband's papers from auction and will bring them back to Atlanta.

As almost always, however, the devil's in the details and, in the rush to settlement, not many of the details were made known to us. Some of the most important of them may have been left — well, unsettled.

What we know is that $32 million bought only the physical property. The King estate continues to hold literary rights to the documents and will have a voice in how they may be displayed. That means that whoever holds title to the documents will have the pleasure of dealing with attorneys for the King estate and their demands for compensation ad infinitum.

The other thing that we appear to know is that title to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. papers that were to have been auctioned will now, at the request of the King estate, pass to the hands of Morehouse College. Fair enough. The family has a three-generation relationship with Morehouse, where young King graduated in 1948. Shortly after King's death, Morehouse President Benjamin Mays invited Coretta Scott King to donate her husband's papers to Morehouse. What might have been a gift then has now cost $32 million.

The college doesn't yet have an appropriate place to keep them, but its president, Walter Massey, has announced that, in the long run, he expects the King papers to be housed at Morehouse. But wait; Franklin tells us that she expects them to be the "cornerstone" of a new $100 million civil rights museum in Atlanta. Will it be built on the Morehouse campus and administered by the college?

These questions need to be raised now because Morehouse does not have a strong track record of making its manuscript holdings available to researchers.

For 15 or 20 years, Morehouse has held a collection of 40 boxes of Mays' papers. They are held under lock and key in the bowels of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. To anyone's knowledge, no record has ever been made of what is actually in those boxes. All requests by researchers on the lives of King, Mays, Vernon Johns and Howard Thurman for access to the Mays papers have gone either unanswered or rebuffed.

The community has already once built a building with an archive to house the King papers. It's called the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Now, at the invitation of the King estate, the community, or at least its federal taxpayers, is also being asked to buy that building back — from, ah, the King estate.

In the Atlanta University Center's Robert W. Woodruff Library, there is already a substantial archive. Both the library and the archive are underfunded, but well-staffed by highly qualified professional librarians and archivists.

Needless to say, it would be much less expensive either to Morehouse or the city if both the Mays and the King manuscripts were placed in the AUC/Woodruff archives and its funding commensurately increased than it will be for either Morehouse or the city to build yet another facility to house the King papers. At the least, in the AUC/Woodruff library and archives they would be available for historical research.

Thirty-two million dollars and what do you get? Maybe we'll do it right this time.

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