The Significance of MLK's Personal Papers

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Ed Gordon discusses the significance of the auction of the personal correspondence fo the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., with Patricia Sullivan, an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina, and Clay Carson, editor of Martin Luther King's papers and director of the King Institute at Stanford University.

ED GORDON, host:

We're joined now by Patricia Sullivan. She is an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and a scholar of the civil rights era. Also with us, Clay Carson editor of the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. He is also Director of the King Institute at Stanford University. Mr. Carson was asked by Coretta Scott King to edit her husband's papers.

As a result, he and his staff at the institute have had unparalleled access to the King papers and they have personal examined many of the documents that will be up for auction. I thank you both for joining us. Let me start with you, Mr. Carson. There are many who see this sale as simply sacrilegious to a great degree.

And you've suggested the best solution would have been for the Library of Congress or the National Archives to acquire the collection. In terms of that, how do you see what will ultimately be the disbursement of all of these papers?

Dr. CLAY CARSON (Director, King Institute at Stanford University): Well, first of all, I think everyone should be clear that regardless of what happens to the papers, the information in the papers will be widely available. We've photocopied or scanned all of the documents at Sotheby's; so this not a matter of fear that history will be lost. I think it is important where the original documents end up; and I fully expect that they will be in an archive some place.

And these documents will be available to scholars to a certain extent; obviously, when you're talking about documents worth a million dollars, we might make the photocopies available rather than the originals. But I think that they will be available in some form.

GORDON: You dealt with Mrs. King directly. What were her wishes?

Dr. CARSON: She was the one who invited my colleagues and I to go into her basement, and many of these documents came out of her basement. About ten years ago, we began the process of cataloging these materials and determining which were her personal items and which were historically significant.

And so from the very beginning, she has been the one who has made these materials available to scholars at the King Center; and many of these documents in question are available through copies at the King Center today.

GORDON: Professor Sullivan, let me ask you; we heard in Joshua Lev's piece the idea that the South, Atlanta in particular, wants to keep hold of these papers as one might imagine, as best they can. Others will suggest that King was an iconic figure that spoke to all of America and it's not a big deal if these papers are disbursed across the country.

Talk to me about the historic value of keeping the papers in the South, if at all?

Professor PATRICIA SULLIVAN (Professor of History, University of South Carolina): Well, I think that there is a value, given the fact that that was the major side of civil rights movement, and of course King, Atlanta being his home; and Atlanta being a major center of scholarship and research with the Atlanta University complex and Emory University.

So I think that that is in its favor. But I really think the most important think is that the papers are archived where they will be - have the resources to be well taken care of and be available to scholars. And so I think the Library of Congress is an appealing thought.

I know the King family had been in discussion with the Library of Congress at one point; and Washington certainly has a great appeal in the major archival center in the country. But I think the main thing is that they find the kind of home that's going to make them easily available for research.

GORDON: Do you think that we've been, as a nation, too Pollyanna, to naïve about the idea of sale of these papers? There's been criticism of the King family, particularly of the children, as to whether or not they're trying to, quote, “make money off this.”

At some point, there are many families that end of selling, quote, "the legacy" of the past of their fathers, mothers, uncles, et cetera.

Prof. SULLIVAN: Well, I think individuals have, you know, sell their papers to research institutions, and I think that is fair enough. But I do think the fact that it's come to this - you know, sold to the highest bidder - I just think there were opportunities in the past to, you know, make arrangements to sell the papers. I think auctioning them off opens it up - you know, we don't know, you know, who the highest bidder will be, and will it be the best place for, again, making these papers fully available to scholars. So I think that piece -it's not selling the papers, because that is common. And why not? But I think, you know, it's been totally commodified to highest bidder. That's the controlling element here, and I think that's unfortunate. And I don't think -you know, I think that that it is unfortunate that we're at that point.

GORDON: Yes. Clay Carson, money aside, we should note that this is an extraordinary collection of documents that really speaks to the man, King.

Dr. CLAY CARSON: It certainly is. I've spent the last decade going through these materials, and the items are just wonderful, in terms of historical documents. It's not often that we get this many handwritten documents - the immediacy that we have, something where King would jot a note to himself or write an outline for a sermon or a speech, write a draft of a speech as important as the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Many of these documents open a window into King's career as a clergyman - the kinds of files that he kept in order to prepare his Sunday sermons. You know, I think we learn a lot about Martin Luther King, as a human being, from this collection.

GORDON: What did you find either most surprising or most extraordinary when you were allowed to go through the papers?

Dr. CARSON: Well, I think one of the things that comes through is the way King thought. He was a person who took care to leave his speeches and sermons open to extemporaneous remarks. Now, another way of putting that is he rarely wrote out a full draft of anything. He would typically write a few notes to himself, maybe an outline, perhaps a page of notes, and that was it. And the rest of it was just the inspiration of the moment. And so you begin to see the way in which he prepared himself for his oratory and the influences that he had. I mean, the library is filled with books with these marginal notations in them, where you begin to see him in dialogue with various authors, and it's just a lot of fun for scholars. I think that for the next few decades there'll be a rebirth. You know, King scholarship has always been very lively, but I think that this will liven it up even more.

GORDON: High demand for these papers. It's expected that all will be sold in about six or seven minutes, and that's extraordinary. Patricia Sullivan is an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina. She's also a visiting fellow at Harvard's WEB DuBois Institute, and Dr. Clay Carson is an editor of the papers of Martin Luther King Jr, and the Director of the King Institute at Stanford University. I thank you both.

Prof. SULLIVAN: Thank you.

Dr. CARSON: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, black hairstyles not all-American enough for one amusement park, and gang leaders and desperate housewives. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable.

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