Taking a Tour of the MLK Collection at Sotheby's

Ed Gordon takes a tour of the personal papers and books of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on display at Sotheby's auction house. The collection, valued at about $30 million, was meant to be auctioned this week. Instead, private donors purchased the collection and will donate it to Morehouse College in Atlanta, the civil rights icon's alma mater.

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ED GORDON, host:

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

Tomorrow is the last day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s collections of books and documents will be on display at Sotheby's auction house in New York. The massive collection was bought a week before it slated sale this Friday. The buyers, a collection of philanthropists and corporate donors. The buying effort was led by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young, one Dr. King's closest advisors.

After doors closed on the exhibit at Sotheby's, it will head to its new home -King's alma mater - Morehouse College in Atlanta. Earlier this week, I toured the King collection, which includes report cards, sermons, notes, and speeches. Sotheby's Vice Chairman David Redden was one of my tour guides. He described one major discovery he made as he looked over the collection. But first a note: this piece has language that will offend some listeners.

Mr. DAVID REDDEN (Vice Chairman, Sotheby's): I was going through a folder, and inside that folder was a magazine called the Christian Century. And it had on its cover, Letter from Birmingham Jail, which was printed inside. So I opened it up and looked for the letter, and I turned the page, and then some pieces of paper fell out, too, which were covered with King's handwriting. And what I had in front of me was a complete revision of Letter from Birmingham Jail.

What King had done is take this magazine and use it, essentially, as a manuscript for changing what he wanted to say for his final version. And King, in fact, begins that version saying that I've taken the author's prerogative to polish my prose. I think it's interesting that he just pulled up scraps of paper from wherever.

GORDON: Wherever he was.

Mr. REDDEN: Yes, the back of an envelope. One of my colleagues said that no scrap of paper was safe with Dr. King.

GORDON: Was safe...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: What did you find out after seeing and perusing so many of these items that you've found out about King that was most surprising to you?

Mr. REDDEN: you know, when someone like Dr. King is made into sort of a sainted figure - you know, has a day named after him and holiday and all the rest of it - he begins to become a bit of a cardboard figure. And one of the marvelous and moving aspects of this collection is he comes alive again.

I mean, you really do see a man who was a deep thinker, a deep reader. You see somebody who isn't simply a name on a holiday, but is somebody who actually was real. And he was incredibly thoughtful. He was incredibly insightful. He had a wonderful way with words. And he was a great man.

GORDON: I continued my tour with Elizabeth Muller. She is Sotheby's Vice President of Books and Manuscripts.

Ms. ELIZABETH MULLER (Vice President, Sotheby's Books and Manuscripts): This is a sermon which he actually composed in Montgomery shortly after the bus boycott had started. And he speaks about the bombing of his house. He says, "One night, toward the end of January, I settled into bed late after a strenuous day. My wife had already fallen asleep. And just as I was about to doze off, the telephone rang. An angry voice said, listen nigger, we've taken all we want from you. Before next week, you'll sorry you ever came to Montgomery. I hung up, but I couldn't sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I have reached the saturation point."

Mind you, here is someone who is not even a native to Montgomery. He's from Atlanta. His wife has just had a baby who's three months old. And he is exhausted and tired, and he is thinking, what am I doing in the middle of this?

And then he says - a little bit later on he went down to the kitchen and made himself a pot of coffee - and he said, "At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experience him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever. Almost all at once, my fears began to go."

GORDON: The collection includes roughly 10,000 documents, more than 7,000 written in King's own hand - on stationery, torn scraps of paper, even the margins of books and magazines. Some of his most famous speeches hang on the wall, page after glorious page. Every letter of King's angular scrawl tilts hard to the right. The collection isn't just paper, either. One of my favorite items sat in a corner inside a glass display.

MR. REDDEN: Part of the collection here is a briefcase carried by Martin Luther King. It has his initials embossed on the suitcase, and we see some of the contents inside that probably tell you a little bit about his life. There is a tin case of aspirin, there's a bottle of Alka Seltzer, some shaving powder, a Time Magazine, a book of the meaning of prayer, much of his workings, and a number of credit cards receipts where we actually see Martin Luther King, Jr.'s signature as he traveled across the country and made his way from New York. We see Birmingham, Atlanta. So, as he crisscrossed the country, to able to see the credit card receipts and where he was and what he paid for is extraordinary.

Ms. MULLER: The thing about the question which is wonderful, why it really does need to stay together as an integral whole is that it's so many pieces. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. And when you put them together, you get a bigger picture.

GORDON: We also see later on in his life, toward the end of his life, that he became more vocal - he being King - in terms of the political thought. And that is what he took away from the Vietnam War and his outspokenness during that time.

Ms. MULLER: Absolutely. I mean, he began to think about the Vietnam War as early as 1965, but he didn't come out and publicly speak against the war until 1967 here in New York City at Riverside Church. Also, what we found within the files was a manuscript note by King, "Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam." And the first thing that he does is he quotes from the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not kill." And what people forget is that he is a minister. He is a man of God. And, of course, this is a primary reason for opposing the war.

He published a circular letter, which he sent to people who said we're not going to donate money to SCLC anymore. And he says at the end, he says, "There comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular. But he must take it because it is right, and this is where I find myself today."

GORDON: The exhibition has drawn visitors from across the country. I met Patrice Adams from Birmingham, Alabama. She told me how she felt when she heard Morehouse College would house the King collection.

Ms. PATRICE ADAMS: I was absolutely thrilled when I heard that. I think the thought that went through both of our minds when learned that it was going to be up for auction was how sad it made us at the idea that someone might have this collection and not share it with the rest of the public, with children for years to come. So when I personally heard it, I was moved and touched and just very grateful. So I'm excited.

GORDON: Again, that was Patrice Adams of Birmingham, Alabama viewing the King collection in New York City.

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