Martin Luther King's Personal Papers to be Auctioned Madeleine Brand talks to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., biographer Taylor Branch about the upcoming auction of thousands of the civil rights icon's personal papers. Many historians worry the documents will become less accessible to the public if they are auctioned off to a private bidder.
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Martin Luther King's Personal Papers to be Auctioned

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Martin Luther King's Personal Papers to be Auctioned

Martin Luther King's Personal Papers to be Auctioned

Martin Luther King's Personal Papers to be Auctioned

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Madeleine Brand talks to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., biographer Taylor Branch about the upcoming auction of thousands of the civil rights icon's personal papers. Many historians worry the documents will become less accessible to the public if they are auctioned off to a private bidder.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand and this is DAY TO DAY. Historians will be writing about the life and legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. for decades, but their work may be getting a little tougher. The auction house Sotheby's announced the King family is putting thousands of King's documents, letters, and handwritten sermons up for auction. I'm joined now by writer Taylor Branch. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Dr. King. And Mr. Branch, welcome to the program.

Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH (Biographer): Thank you. Nice to be here.

BRAND: Well, I understand that these papers are documents that scholars haven't seen yet, or some of them are, and I'm wondering what kind of historical value they hold for scholars such as yourself?

Mr. BRANCH: It's a mixture of things that have never been seen before that Mrs. King had in her basement, of old sermons and private papers and all of his private library. And also kind of the best of some of the primary documents that have been in the King library, kind of the all-stars, I suppose. Things like the draft for the Nobel Prize lecture and edited versions of a letter from Birmingham jail. It's really quite a prize collection. But, you know, since some of them are new I can't really tell you what the value is. I just - I know that the issue, since it's so fundamentally affected the practice of American democracy, is genuinely historic.

BRAND: Sotheby's has estimated that these are worth between 15 and 30 million dollars. It's conceivable that a private bidder could bid on these and have them. What is the problem with that? What do you fear will happen if that happens?

Mr. BRANCH: The great fear is that they'll be lost to posterity. It's not necessarily a bad thing if Oprah Winfrey wanted to buy them and donate them to the Library of Congress. The great fear is that a speculator will buy them and then turn around and sell them piecemeal, on the grounds that to maximize the revenue you want to get a thousand collectors to pay lots and lots of money to have some original document from the Freedom Rides or something in Dr. King's handwriting to President Kennedy on their wall.

And if that's true, they'll be disbursed and essentially lost. I've done my work. I won't be using them, but the scholars of the future and the citizens of the future who will be deprived of new interpretations of freedom and democracy will be at a loss if these things are disbursed.

BRAND: Before she died five months ago, Coretta Scott King had been trying for years to sell the documents to the Library of Congress or other public institutions, but she had no success. Why is that?

Mr. BRANCH: The search for an institutional home, a library - I know a number of libraries have been interested - was hampered by some of the conditions that the King family itself put on the sale, which is that they not only receive money, but that they retain control.

That is some of the stuff that has given them some bad publicity in recent years, of setting preconditions on researchers, wanting to know what use they'll make of them, what they're going to say, in effect trying to control the use that's made of them, which is contrary to the spirit of a good research institution.

So the Library of Congress or most university libraries are not going to put out a lot of money and maintain the upkeep for documents like this, if they then are not going to be allowed to let researchers use them freely. So if the King family is still saying we want to sell these things, but you have to come to us if you want to quote from them, that will drive these things into the hands of speculators and collectors. Because individual collectors are the only ones who will pay a lot of money to put it on their wall and not care that, you know, researchers can't use them.

BRAND: Taylor Branch is the author of America in the King Years. It's a three part biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Taylor Branch, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. BRANCH: You're welcome. Thank you.

BRAND: Stay with us, DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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