New Set of MLK Papers Sparks Controversy An Atlanta auction house is advertising a new collection of documents that it claims once belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But the King family questions the authenticity and ownership of the papers.
NPR logo

New Set of MLK Papers Sparks Controversy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
New Set of MLK Papers Sparks Controversy

New Set of MLK Papers Sparks Controversy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, nurturing the future of music in New Orleans. But first, an Atlanta auction house is advertising a new set of documents it says once belonged to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a small collection containing position papers, articles and a 1964 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But it has created a response that's called into question whether the auction will take place next week as scheduled.

NPR's Kathy Lohr has this story from Atlanta.

KATHY LOHR: The 25 or so documents contained in a weathered green folder frayed around the edges are causing quite a stir in the city that's spent 32 million to obtain thousands of Martin Luther King's personal papers just last year. Among the documents up for sale is a typed address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where King called the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham one of the most brutal acts of this phase of the movement.

Here is King eulogizing the victims.

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution...

Ms. CLARISSA MYRICK-HARRIS (Historian, One World Archives): Whenever you can find documents that provide some insight in to the thinking and the feelings of an individual of this magnitude, they are important documents.

LOHR: Clarissa Myrick-Harris is a civil rights historian with One World Archives. It's still somewhat of a mystery how an anonymous elderly woman in Maryland received the documents. WERD radio, the first black-owned radio station in the country, apparently gave the woman King's papers as payment for a debt about 40 years ago.

We do know that the offices of WERD and the SCLC were in the same building. Harris says one story is often told about the relationship that Dr. King had with the radio station.

Ms. HARRIS: He would tap on the ceiling of the SCLC office because directly above the SCLC office is where the WERD radio station. And we're told that would lower a microphone and he would then, from his office at his own desk, deliver the speech or talk about whatever the activity was going in the community that African-Americans needed to support.

LOHR: We don't know if that story is true. But the radio station did have a close relationship with Dr. King and aired his early sermons. Among the questions now: are the papers authentic and does this elderly woman who claims to have known King as a child have the right to sell them?

Mr. ISAAC NEWTON FARRIS, JR. (President and CEO, King Center): None of it seems to make sense to me.

LOHR: President and CEO of The King Center Isaac Newton Farris, Jr. says the documents belong to the King estate.

Mr. FARRIS Jr.: If he wrote WERD a letter talking about how great your radio station is and blah-blah and this, you know, that's a letter written to them, that is their property. But from what I understand, these are supposed to be drafts of speeches, which is not related to either of these people. So do you have some documentation or a letter that says, I'm giving you this draft of my speech? I don't think so.

LOHR: Farris says there is only one collection of papers and that the King estate owns the intellectual property rights to them. Meanwhile, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin says the city is not planning to try to purchase the collection that recently surfaced.

Mayor SHIRLEY FRANKLIN (Atlanta): People have been collecting Dr. King's writings, his letters, for years and years. What Atlanta bought was nearly 10,000 documents that were his personal collection. And we are thrilled that other people are now making their collections available, and we would hope that some people out there would consider donating them.

LOHR: The owner of the auction house, Gallery 63, says ideally he'd like to see the papers go to a museum, but he says he really has no control over that. The collection is expected to bring up to a quarter of a million dollars. It's set to be auctioned April 15, but the King family says they'll do whatever it takes to stop the sale.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.