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Morehouse College to Get MLK Collection

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Morehouse College to Get MLK Collection

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Morehouse College to Get MLK Collection

Morehouse College to Get MLK Collection

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Nearly a week before its scheduled auction at Sotheby's auction house, the collected personal correspondence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was bought by a group of investors and philanthropic leaders to be given to King's alma mater, Morehouse College. Ed Gordon talks to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and King family attorney Phil Jones about the sale.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Last Friday, it was announced that Morehouse College will inherit a collection of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s documents and books put up for auction by the King family. The collection had been valued by Sotheby's Auction House to be worth between $15 and 30 million. While Morehouse College was closely involved in the negotiations, the sale also involved a coalition of businesses, individuals, and philanthropic leaders.

We're joined now by the woman who helped lead the effort, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. We are also joined by the King family attorney, Phillip Jones. I thank you both for being with us.

Mayor SHIRLEY FRANKLIN (Democrat, Atlanta): Thank you.

GORDON: Mayor, let me start with you. There were, quite frankly, last week -and we talked about it on the show - not a whole lot of people that were necessarily very optimistic about these papers staying in Atlanta. You must be terribly gratified that this deal was pulled off.

Mayor FRANKLIN: Well, I am gratified. But more importantly, Atlanta is ecstatic. This is Dr. King's birth home. His family has deep roots in Atlanta. And Morehouse College is the perfect location for the papers.

GORDON: It really is. We should note this is his alma mater, King's alma mater. Talk to me about the group. I know that many individuals don't necessarily want to be named. But you and Andrew Young spearheaded this. Who did you - give me a thumbnail sketch of the kind of person, businesses that you were looking for to gather and galvanize for this effort?

Mayor FRANKLIN: Well, we started with businesses that have their national or global headquarters in Atlanta, businesses that have stepped up before: Home Depot, the Coca-Cola Company, Georgia Power, the Southern Company. There was a broad group of businesses who stepped forward when asked to help us guarantee a loan, and then who actually came forward to pledge. Then joined by companies that were not headquartered in Atlanta like Wal-Mart, Bell South, and AT&T -which are in a merger. Both came through in a very big way. And many individual philanthropists who live in Atlanta, who have made their fortunes in Atlanta -like Tom Cousins and Tom Glen, John Williams - there was a broad base of people including Herman Russell, and then our very own Tyler Perry, who is a movie producer.

GORDON: Phil Jones, we should note when we're talking about this kind of money, no deal is simple when you talk about tens of millions of dollars. Talk to us about the interest in keeping the King family happy with not only the sale of -and we note and have talked about there are those who have been critical of the family for even putting these documents - unfairly so many say - about putting these documents up for sale. But talk to me about the nuances of the deal and what you had to make sure of.

Mr. PHILLIP JONES (King Family Attorney): Well, I think that as Mayor Franklin stated, the first phase of any transaction like this is being certain that the papers were going to the right place - Atlanta, Georgia - and that the right amalgam of individuals and corporations were there to support it. I think Dr. King has always been a bit controversial in his homeland in Atlanta, as well as around the world. But I think that, you know, this controversy - you read about it and you hear about it, but the bottom line is that the real nuance of this is that everyone wanted to receive these documents. They are historic documents.

And some of the complexities involved were just being certain and making certain that the King family felt that they were going to the right place and that the intellectual property was preserved for all time.

GORDON: From your side, Mr. Jones, were there certain stipulations - certain restrictions, if you will - that were put forth that were non-negotiable?

Mr. JONES: I think on both sides. There were things that had to happen, and that's where I have really have to acknowledge our mayor. She understood that she needed certain things, but she also was clear that the intellectual property belonged to the King family and the King estate, and that that was not what was being transferred. It was simply the physical property of these historic documents.

GORDON: Mayor Franklin, I know that you will be coming to New York to view the documents. I'm actually going this afternoon so we can do a story on it. These are extraordinary papers that give you a keen insight into who this man was.

Mayor FRANKLIN: What's so wonderful for Atlanta, and frankly, for the United States, because there was no guarantee if they went to auction that they would remain in the United States. But what's so wonderful is that they span from 1940 all the way through the 1960's. So you have a chance not just to see the finished product, but the evolution of his thought, the influences on his thought. His book collection is included. Over 100 sermons handwritten by Martin King will be a part of this collection. And I was planning to be in New York this week to help with some business issues related to Atlanta. And now I'll be able to add a tour of the exhibit, and I'm very thrilled that it will still be up and shown. And I think there'll be others to join me.

GORDON: Mayor, as we suggest, this is an extraordinary property. Talk to me, if you will - we've seen so much growth in the city of Atlanta over the course over the last decade, and certainly in the last couple of years of your reign, you have continued that growth and accelerated it.

I'm wondering what this means from an intellectual and a financial side for the city, and moreover, for African-Americans in this country.

Mayor FRANKLIN: For African-Americans, it means that Morehouse College - one of the most historic colleges in America - will have a chance to own the legacy that it helped to produce, which is Dr. King's legacy. And Walter Matthews -the president of Morehouse College - has already started the planning for the public display, and simultaneously, the planning for scholarly and academic research.

In addition to that, Atlanta - in my opinion - is claming its legacy, its legacy as a leader from civil rights and human rights. And I believe that this will catapult all of our discussions about human rights and civil rights into the future, which is what I believe Dr. King would want us to do - to use his work and legacy to build a community that is safe, that is peaceful, that is forward-thinking and inclusive.

GORDON: Phil Jones, you talked about the controversy surrounding this man. There's also been, frankly, controversy surrounding the family and how they dealt with much of what has gone on since his death. Talk to me about how the family feels about this sale.

Mr. JONES: Well, interestingly enough, the family's very excited about - and always wanted the papers to remain in Atlanta, never wanted the auction, and the - as far as the controversy is concerned, most of it is lack of education on the part of those who write about the estate, Dr. King's legacy, and the King family.

It should be noted that Dr. King copyrighted his work, his intellectual property, while he was alive and litigated to protect it. He actually sued 20th Century Fox Records who wanted to put out the I Have A Dream speech because it was - he had already made a prior commitment to Berry Gordy at Motown.

His speeches, his sermons, all of these things - he had a book agent. He had a book deal. He was a private citizen, albeit a public figure, he was still a private citizen, and his intellectual property, it was his desire that it be descendible to his family. And his book agent, Joan Davies(ph), remained the agent for the family after his passing and educated them on how they should conduct themselves and how they should manage the intellectual property, you know, giving it away to churches, schools, and nonprofit usages.

But, at the same time, those usages that are coming from for-profit publishers and corporations should have an industry-standard license fee, and unfortunately, those who are writing about it after Dr. King's passing had this belief that he never did any of these things, that he was simply doing the work, making the speeches, writing the sermon, but never protecting his work, which was just not true. So it just - it's an education process, and I think that as people begin to learn about Dr. King and how he handled his own affairs, they won't be so hard on the family.

GORDON: And, Shirley Franklin, we should note, we heard from Andrew Young when the announcement was made, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., and he was very emotional in the sense of wanting to keep it in, quote, "the family." But the idea that this is a grand road map, if you will, for the African-American community to understand and know that properties like this, and others that are near and dear to us, can be kept.

Mayor FRANKLIN: Well, they definitely can be kept. Andrew Young came to me two weeks ago and suggested that we should make an Atlanta bid. I confirmed that with him and then approached Phil Jones, who really was the mastermind and architect of this entire process for the city of Atlanta.

I then became the vehicle to mobilize the city, but it is a huge opportunity for us to understand copyright, intellectual property, and also the scholarly pursuit of new ideas. And hopefully, we can build new ideas that will lead to peace, brotherhood and sisterhood not just in the city of Atlanta, but around the world as people study Dr. King.

GORDON: Phil Jones, with about a minute left, there were some who were concerned that there might be, or have to be, an overpayment to keep these documents, books, et cetera, in the city. Are you comfortable with what was finally paid?

Mr. JONES: You know, that - I'm glad you asked that. The actual final price of the King papers collection is a price based upon the Library of Congress independent appraisal of the papers. The family never knew what they were valued at, and so when the Library of Congress initially approached us about it, they had an independent person come in, examine the documents, and the appraisal was what you really see now as the final price. And we are told by those in the know - some scholars and some professionals - that had the papers actually gone into an auction situation...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: ...it would have been much, much more than they were actually sold for.

GORDON: All right, Phil Jones...

Mayor FRANKLIN: And I, of course, add - believe that the price - that the papers are priceless. The value of the legacy...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mayor FRANKLIN: ...in Atlanta, in its context, is more important than any amount that we could pay.

GORDON: Absolutely. Absolutely. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, as always, thank you so much for joining us. And King family attorney Phil Jones, we appreciate it. Thank you very much.

Mayor FRANKLIN: Thank you.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick finds a - files a lawsuit against Ward Connerly. We'll tell you why. And a Georgia library bans fiction in Spanish. Just two of the topics on our Roundtable.

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