David Garrow: Criticizes the sale of King Papers

Historians in the News

... In Atlanta, local cheerleaders hailed the purchase as a municipal triumph. The papers will remain in the city King called home, with their ultimate destination his alma mater, Morehouse College. But the cheering obscures serious problems that the sale does not resolve and may exacerbate.

What will be the fate of the rest of King's Atlanta papers? What kind of access will be provided to the papers already sold? And what precedent does this sale set for other historical collections, which traditionally have been donated for the public good rather than sold for private profit?

Topping the list of problems is what's missing from the collection the Atlantans acquired. The set of papers offered for sale was "cherry-picked," with an emphasis on "holographic" papers - those that carry King's handwriting or the handwriting of other notable people and thus have the highest market value to King's heirs. They were drawn from an archive at the nonprofit King Center in Atlanta and from materials the late Coretta Scott King kept at her home.

King Center archivists, working under federal grants obtained by Coretta Scott King in the 1970s and '80s, organized the center's documents and sequestered the valuable holographic items in a secure vault.

According to the terms of those grants, the widow's private materials were supposed to join the other papers as part of a widely accessible, permanent scholarly archive. Instead, the King heirs decided to partner with Sotheby's and auction the most valuable papers to the highest bidder.

What's most important is the fate of the hundreds of boxes of civil-rights papers that remain at the King Center. They may not contain valuable autographs, but that does not make them any less historically significant. The richest single collection left behind comprises the papers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the 1960s' major protest groups. King's office files and those of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he led, also are still at the center, which is understaffed and in poor repair. It is imperative that Mayor Franklin use her influence to reunite these documents with the ones purchased through Sotheby's.

Equally troublesome is that the terms of the King sale prohibit quoting any of King's published or unpublished works without permission from the family. The $32-million price tag - a premium, given that Sotheby's auction estimate was $15million to $30million - did not include literary rights.

Franklin and others insist that "fair use" rules will apply to the materials. That would allow some unfettered quotation. But Franklin and company also have refused to make public the exact terms of the publication rights. Because "fair use" is a notoriously gray area, historians, biographers, journalists and researchers likely will have to beseech King's heirs, and meet whatever price they set, to make extensive use of what is in the papers....

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