Sotheby's to Auction Martin Luther King's Papers The personal papers and correspondence of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., have long been considered priceless. But this week, the King family and the Sotheby's auction house will start the bidding at $15 million.

Sotheby's to Auction Martin Luther King's Papers

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

ED GORDON, host:

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

Today, for the first time, the public will see historic documents from the collection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the end of the month, Sotheby's will auction off the collection, which includes King's personal library.

Research libraries and other institutions that could potentially house the collection are poker faced. They don't want to let other bidders know their plans or the price they might pay. But one thing is certain, the city of Atlanta, where King was born, will be in the competition. Joshua Levs has the story.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting

Drafts of some of Dr. King's most famous speeches and sermons, such as I Have Dream and Drum Major Instinct, papers showing final revisions to a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a college essay that Sotheby's is calling his earliest surviving theological writing. These are just some of the more than 7,000 handwritten items in the collection.

Mr. DAVID REDDEN (Vice Chairman, Sotheby's): It's the most important American archive in private hands today.

LEVS: David Redden is Vice Chairman of Sotheby's, which will auction off the collection on June 30. By the King family's stipulation, the collection will be sold as one block and cannot be broken up during the lives of King's children. Redden says the documents are ideal for display.

Mr. REDDEN: He wrote on one side of sheets of paper, so you can actually put an entire speech up on the wall and frame it like precious works of art and read it from start to finish.

LEVS: Several years ago, Sotheby's poured through the collection, mostly in Coretta Scott King's home, which included King's personal library. Sotheby's tried to sell everything for the King family, but some potential buyers, such as the Library of Congress, balked over price and stipulations.

The auction was announced this month and reaction was swift. Civil rights leader Andrew Young, a former Atlanta mayor, is one of many who want the collection to stay in Atlanta. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that losing the collection would rob Atlanta of its heritage.

Current Mayor, Shirley Franklin, also says the documents are part of Atlanta history.

Mayor SHIRLEY FRANKLIN (Democrat, Atlanta, Georgia): We want our children to understand that heritage and these would be a special way to celebrate the heritage of the civil rights movement in Atlanta.

LEVS: Discussions are underway involving the public and private sector. Atlanta's Emory University has offered to take part. But with the auction coming, Franklin was careful not to let on exactly what's being planned.

Ms. FRANKLIN: We are certainly exploring the possibility, but we know New York is exploring the possibility; we think they are. We know that the Smithsonian is exploring the possibility. So mum is the word.

LEVS: It's believed that New York's Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture is interested. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also wouldn't let own.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Republican, New York City): Historians and librarians are interested. It will be one of the major collections that people will look to see if they can afford to collect.

LEVS: Right on the street where Dr. King grew up and preached, one side is speaking openly about its hope to become home to the documents, the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History; its right near the King Center, which is devoted to Dr. King's life and legacy.

This library doesn't have millions of dollars sitting around; so administrator Francine Henderson is making a lot of phone calls.

Ms. FRANCINE HENDERSON (Administrator, Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History): I very, very strongly feel that the money is there; how to quickly get it is a question that we are concerned about.

LEVS: The library says it would offer a fitting legacy to Dr. King. Archivist Kerrie Cotton Williams says King had international impact, but this was home.

Ms. KERRIE COTTON WILLIAMS (Archivist, Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History): If you want to make an argument to say that he existed beyond boundaries, that's fine, but he was born in Atlanta and born on Auburn Avenue. And there's something to say about coming full circle.

LEVS: Whichever place gets the collection can expect a lot of visitors, especially since the King family has put limits on how much can be shown on the Internet or in catalogues. Sotheby's says it's realistic to believe the collection could fetch $30 million. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta.

Copyright © 2006 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 an NPR contractor. 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.