Taylor Branch: Complains about the King Papers deal

Historians in the News

All Atlantans can rightly celebrate Mayor Shirley Franklin and the donors who have pledged to keep 7,000 historical treasures together in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s home city. But these leaders have assumed a responsibility that goes far beyond money and civic pride. A noble work teeters precariously, less than half-done, and the whole world has a stake in the outcome.

Hidden conditions imposed by the King family helped frustrate two previous sales that would have preserved the great civil rights collection — to the Library of Congress in 1999 and the University of Texas in 2003. Now, again, the fine print needs attention. The Atlantans who made this purchase possible — the donors — still have an urgent decision to make. And what they do will have a lasting impact on those who value King's movement and democracy itself, plus our descendants. Will the legacy of freedom be secure with the pending transfer to Morehouse College?

Please don't begrudge the four offspring of King their private fortunes from the reported $32 million sale. He wanted very much to provide for his family in life and would surely be pleased that he has been able to do so now. Still, it's important that the King heirs accept a few easy steps to safeguard the larger public interest.

In recent days, sponsors have tried to deflect scattered warnings that the King heirs will restrict access to the papers even after they are sold."Scholars need not worry," announced Phillip Jones, a key adviser to the King estate. But his defense merely exposes flaws on six key points:

•First, the terms of sale remain secret.

•Second, the words of intended assurance make clear that the King heirs expect to regulate who gets to see the papers, what they get to see and how they quote from the collection on a case-by-case basis.

•Third, the stated exceptions confirm an alarming rule, as Franklin herself has been told that no visitor or student will be allowed to copy even the"I Have a Dream" speech, which is readily available in published sources.

•Fourth, the appeal for trust rings hollow from heirs whose arbitrary practices have tarnished the King Center's reputation for the past decade or more — screening researchers and their topics, shutting down whole collections, charging selective fees.

•Fifth, the sale provides only for selected items of the greatest souvenir value, leaving behind the bulk of King's papers along with all the Southern Christian Leadership Conference records and the original Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee papers, plus the King Center's invaluable oral histories and scores of vital collections entrusted by civil rights pioneers from Hosea Williams to Connie Curry. These resources languish unmentioned at the King Center, where the roof leaks and the doors most often are locked.

•Sixth, skewed priorities for the sale distort history. The focus on celebrity icons conveys a false image of King as royalty, ignoring his humble stance that a great citizens' movement raised him up more than vice-versa. Sponsors justify hopes for revenues after the $32 million windfall by asserting that King copyrighted his speeches to bolster his estate.

This is almost exactly backward. King stopped bootleggers from selling the"I Have a Dream" speech for one explicit purpose: to safeguard proceeds for the movement. He died a relatively poor man because he devoted to the cause nearly all lifetime earnings above a modest preacher's salary, including his entire purse from the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

To follow King's own prescription, the heirs should consult the written bequest that same year of all current and future papers to his alma mater at Boston University. (This is not to say that the Atlanta collections must join the early files delivered to Boston. What matters is the guiding principle.) King donated his papers without charge. He chose an institution strong enough to keep them perpetually safe and available for public debate. Librarians there openly welcome students and professional writers alike, from all countries, without censorship or delay....

comments powered by Disqus