So where, exactly, is Martin Luther King’s stuff?


Happy birthday, Martin Luther King Jr. But where’s all your stuff?

The answer is a complicated one, and “a cautionary tale,” according to Elena Danielson, author of The Ethical Archivist and sometime contributor to the Book Haven.

Principally, problems arise when collections are seen as windfalls and brain bling, rather than social and cultural responsibilities.

Here’s Elena’s story:  MLK got his PhD from Boston University and met his future wife Coretta in Boston.  The transfer of his papers to Boston University began “by an exchange of letters, a once-common practice.”  King intended to make a loan or deposit, that would evolve into a gift.  The terms were never finalized.

After his assassination in 1968, the family established the King Center in Atlanta.  Most pre-1961 are in Boston; most post-1961 papers are in Atlanta.

The problem is, Boston University isn’t a hotspot for academic research on civil rights.  Its special collection is famous for collector the papers of Hollywood figures, who jostle with King on its website.

That’s not all, of course: hundreds of letters and bits of paper are all over the country, many held privately.  For example, Harry Belafonte had several major King documents.  He tried to sell them at public auction in 2008, but withdrew them under protest.

Martin and Coretta in 1964

Coretta King tried to get Boston’s papers back, beginning in 1987.   Could a lawsuit be far behind?  James O’Toole, an expert archives witness, recommended consolidating the collection in Atlanta, and testified that at least one item had been lost in Boston, and that the university had not provided the appropriate levels of professional care.

Boston University won the case.  “The decision was narrowly based on property law that treated archives as objects, no different from a dispute over the ownership of furniture,” Elena writes.

The situation worsened with Coretta King’s death in 2006.  The estate put a large collection of King papers up for auction at Sotheby’s – “The commodification of the King legacy directly threatened its integrity,” Elena writes.  Public outcry resulted in a $32 million fund to keep the papers in Atlanta, housed at Morehouse College.

Believe it or not, this tangled story has kind of a happy ending.  There was another strand of activity:  In 1985, Coretta King asked Clayborne Carson of Stanford to edit King’s papers for publication.  The multi-volume edition brings together the scattered texts for researchers – volume 1 came out in 1992, and several more have been published since (14 in all are planned).

Coretta and Clay at Stanford in 1986

Carson turned the limited funding to good use by hiring a regiment of student research assistants – that is, a new generation of researchers.  Technology has reunited the the collection with high-tech images.  The “virtual collection” at Stanford augments the published volumes.

Clay is an affable kind of guy, a natural uniter.  Maybe peace and reconciliation are contagious:  “After decades of divisive competition, threats of auctions, and obstructed access, curators in Boston and Atlanta are cooperating, as envisioned by the archival code of ethics.  If the program proceeds according to this vision, the results could be remarkable,” she writes.  “This kind of documentation gets to the core of history as it happened.”

Elena’s point:  Archival ethics are about more than academic nitpicking.  “When papers preserve the shared remembrance of society, they become a shared cultural heritage.  In these cases the traditional archival concept of respect for the integrity of the collection is something more than a professional technicality.  Remembering is a core value.”

Happy Martin Luther King Day, everybody.

Postscript: Just found this video — Clay Carson speaking on what MLK would say about the USA today. Enjoy.

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One Response to “So where, exactly, is Martin Luther King’s stuff?”

  1. Copyrighting the Dream: Selling Martin Luther King, Jr. | Archaeology and Material Culture Says:

    […] King has fallen into an ambiguous position between historical figure and commodified brand.  King’s estate is not necessarily guilty of hawking a world of Martin Luther King, Jr. knick knacks adorned with his image, but they have often zealously controlled his image and words in a way few other historical figures are guarded.  King’s estate aspires to manage his symbolism across a vast range of discourses ranging from hamburger ads to historical scholarship to physical and aesthetic representations of King.  In 1999, for instance, the King estate negotiated a tentative agreement with the Library of Congress to sell King’s papers for $20 million (and a $10 million tax deduction) that King’s son indicated was “substantially below market value.”  That deal fell apart, though, and in 2006 about 7000 of those items were going to be sold at auction before funds were raised to keep them in Atlanta at Morehouse College. […]