STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Later this month, the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. return to his hometown. Atlanta's mayor gathered donors to pay for them and that $32 million payment prevented a public auction. Instead of being scattered, the historic records will be housed at the Woodruff Library where NPR's Kathy Lohr paid a visit.
KATHY LOHR reporting:
The Woodruff Library, where the King papers will be kept, is a library for all the historically black colleges and universities in the area. Where the special collections are, there is a reading room with tables to review materials. Beyond that is a secure space.
Ms. KAREN JEFFERSON (Head of Archives and Special Collections, Woodruff Library): Our staff will go into this back area...
(Soundbite of beeps)
Ms. JEFFERSON: ...and we will then get the material that they want. So researchers cannot come into this area.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
(Soundbite of closing doors)
LOHR: Karen Jefferson is the head of archives and special collections. The shelves here hold more than 35,000 volumes in the book collection alone. Many are first editions. Some are autographed.
Ms. JEFFERSON: Most of the books are documenting the African diasporian(ph) experience. But, of course, we have a large focus on the African-American experience. So we do have books that document African history and culture. We have books on the Caribbean. But we also have a lot of materials, of course, on the African-American and the Southern experience, because we are in the South as well.
LOHR: Beyond the books, there are more than 100 manuscript collections, large and small, in three storage areas. The library houses the papers of C. Eric Lincoln, a noted professor and scholar of black religion. Jefferson shows me several postcards that Malcolm X sent to Lincoln.
Ms. JEFFERSON: This is when Malcolm X went to Mecca, and you can watch the transition from a black Muslim to a traditional Muslim, just in these six postcards, just by his signature. So you can see here: Brother Malcolm X, Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik, El-Hajj Malik Shabazz. So just in that time period, and he's writing in these brief postcards, just what his experience is.
LOHR: When the King collection gets here, the staff will take inventory and check the condition of the papers to see whether they need to be stabilized. Then archivists will begin the process of putting the papers in order, so that students and researchers can access them. They will be kept in a separate vault for security.
Some outside Atlanta were surprised to learn that the papers, including a hand-marked copy of King's I Have a Dream speech, would be housed at this library rather in New York or at the Smithsonian. But most in Atlanta say it's the right thing to do.
Outside the Student Center at Clark Atlanta University, Greg Ballard from Minneapolis, is signing up for the fall term.
Mr. GREG BALLARD: He put down a lot of work here. So, I mean, I think it's pretty good that it's coming back to his old stomping grounds and where he accomplished a lot of things. It's kind of the home of civil rights, so I think it's pretty important that it should be here.
LOHR: Others who are older and remember the Civil Rights era, seem to feel even more strongly about the King papers ending up in this city. Michael Francois works in financial aide at Clark Atlanta.
Mr. MICHAEL FRANCOIS: This is where all of it begun. So I don't think it could be a better place to house the papers than house them where, of course, Martin King himself actually attended school and the legacy begun.
Ms. JEFFERSON: Other collections probably wouldn't touch people in the same way.
LOHR: Again, Karen Jefferson at the Woodruff Library.
Ms. JEFFERSON: But people really relate to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, because it had an impact on everybody's life - on how we live, how we think about ourselves, what kind of rights we think we have. So I think that's why people are so interested and so concerned about it, because they feel like this is my history.
LOHR: Acquiring the King papers may be the foundation for another project in Atlanta - a human and civil rights museum. A few city leaders have spoken out in favor of such a museum, including former mayor and ambassador, Andrew Young.
Mr. ANDREW YOUNG (Former Mayor of Atlanta and Former Ambassador to the United Nations): I say it's got to be more than a Civil Rights museum, though. I think we've got to go back to pre-slavery because America has never dealt with slavery. I think the only people who can deal with slavery in a positive, meaningful way are people from a predominantly black center like Atlanta.
LOHR: Young says other communities have not been successful in building such a place. But he says Atlanta, with a strong black community and economic power, could come forward to teach others about slavery and about the Civil Rights struggle ever since.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
INSKEEP: You can get a look at the new home of the MLK papers and plans to preserve them by going to npr.org.