Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King’

Geoffrey Hill on “the poem as selfie”

Monday, June 2nd, 2014
Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: "It terrifies me."

Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: “It terrifies me.”


Geoffrey Hill, who turns 82 this month, is on a roll. His first Collected Poems of 1985 was less than a fifth of the length of Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 – that’s an unusual degree of late-life productivity. ”It is a bumper harvest later and richer than anybody dared hope for,” writes Daniel Johnson over at Standpoint. Hill is now the Oxford Professor of Poetry; his lectures are available as podcasts. Johnson is the founding editor of Standpoint and former literary editor at The Times.His excellent article, “Geoffrey Hill and the Poetry of Ideas,” is a must-read for any user of the English language … or any language.

A few excerpts:


“Monumentality and bidding.” He passed the test.

As I entered, the Professor of Poetry was reciting: not verses, but extracts from Lincoln‘s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King‘s “I have a dream” speech. He went on to explain that his theme was “Monumentality and Bidding” — terms of art taken from one of his heroes of prosody, Gerard Manley Hopkins — and that his argument was that enduring, not to say great, poetry and prose must combine these two qualities. Monumentality speaks for itself, but by “bidding” Hopkins meant speaking directly to the reader and keeping his attention, “making it everywhere an act of intercourse” — “social intercourse”, Hill interjected with a wry smile. … The great speeches of Lincoln and King, a sonnet by Hopkins, the music of Purcell: each was analysed minutely, with frequent reference to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was all of a piece and, in its endearingly idiosyncratic way, “Hillian”.



Not a “selfie” kind of guy.

In his March Oxford lecture, he scandalises the audience by questioning the most revered of the war poets: “To say that [Wilfred] Owen wrote two of the great poems of the 20th century, in ‘Sensibility’ and ‘Spring Offensive’, but that some of his poetry, even some of the most loved, is a bit sloppy . . . well, if one had a career to lose it would lose one one’s career, I suppose.” If language is, as he believes, the last repository of meaning, “it is essential to apply the most rigorous technical demands to these sanctified objects of public worship.”

This leads Hill to the gravamen of his charge against much of the poetry of today: “It is public knowledge that the newest generation of poets is encouraged to think of poems as Facebook or Twitter texts — or now, I suppose, much more recently, as selfies.” The mention of such an improbable neologism from such a source elicited an embarrassed titter from the audience, as if Hill had caught his academic peers indulging a secret vice. “The poem as selfie is the aesthetic criterion of contemporary verse,” he continued. “And, as you know, in my malign way I want to put myself in opposition to this view. That is to say, the poem should not be a spasmodic issue from the adolescent or even the octogenarian psyche, requiring no further form or validation.” Hill came back to the theme in his vindication of Hopkins, whose sonnets did not, he expostulated, deserve the condescension of posterity: “I do not think that they are Hopkins’s selfies.”

The underlying reason for Hill’s rejection of poetry as pure self-expression is that he sees such narcissism as beneath the dignity of his calling. He preaches, rather, what he has practised ever since his youth: a poetry of ideas. It is this determination to place ideas at the heart of his work that sets him apart from even his most celebrated contemporaries. Disputing Auden‘s claim that “art is a product of history, not a cause”, he argues that the true poem is “alienated from its existence as historical event”. To capture the realm in which it exists over and above history, he proposes the notion of “alienated majesty”, the invisible repository of ideas, values and faith. “Alienated majesty signifies a reality, however, even if not an actuality.”


brokenFor Hill, we who are privileged to dwell in the land of Shakespeare and Milton are in danger of squandering our most precious inheritance: our literature, and especially our poetry, which is the enduring source of our national identity. “The writing and criticism in depth of poetry is an essential, even a vital practice,” he told the Oxford audience. “We are in our public life desperately in need of the energy of intelligence created by these pursuits.” Only poetry and its rigorous criticism can discern “how the uncommon work moves within the common dimension of language”. Politics is no less dependent on language than poetry, but it is a great deal less attuned to the uncommon work. Poets, if they could only raise their sights from their navel-gazing, could and should be the unacknowledged legislators of our hearts.


For Hill, a poem must be “at once spontaneous and exacting” and “simultaneously wild and strict.” He said, “This is a quality which somehow must be brought back into English poetry this century, or English poetry will die.”


Read the whole thing here. It’s worth it.

Malala on “the importance of pens and books”

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Today is the day the kids took over the U.N. – first time ever, and about time, if the Malala Yousafzai’s address is representative.  You can read about it here and  here.  Said the inimitable Jim Erwin: “Heard an interview on radio from … a 13 year old from Uganda. She was so succint and direct in her answers that the BBC interviewer seemed a bit flummoxed.”  The lead speaker is the girl known around the world simply as “Malala,” the Pakistani student who was shot by the Taliban for going to school, and for advocating that other girls do the same.

It’s also her sixteenth birthday – to which we can only add our birthday salutations, and can think of no better present the Book Haven can give on the occasion than the full text of her speech below, along with the youtube video above (courtesy of Al Jazeera).  Here goes:

In the name of God, The Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful.

Honorable UN Secretary General Mr Ban Ki-moon,

Respected President General Assembly Vuk Jeremic,

Honorable UN envoy for Global Education Mr Gordon Brown,

Respected elders and my dear brothers and sisters:

Today, it is an honor for me to be speaking again after a long time. Being here with such honorable people is a great moment in my life.


An inspiration…

I don’t know where to begin my speech. I don’t know what people would be expecting me to say. But first of all, thank you to God for whom we all are equal and thank you to every person who has prayed for my fast recovery and a new life.

I cannot believe how much love people have shown me. I have received thousands of good wish cards and gifts from all over the world. Thank you to all of them. Thank you to the children whose innocent words encouraged me. Thank you to my elders whose prayers strengthened me.

I would like to thank my nurses, doctors and all of the staff of the hospitals in Pakistan and the UK and the UAE government who have helped me get better and recover my strength. I fully support Mr Ban Ki-moon the Secretary-General in his Global Education First Initiative and the work of the UN Special Envoy Mr Gordon Brown. And I thank them both for the leadership they continue to give. They continue to inspire all of us to action.

Dear brothers and sisters, do remember one thing. Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights. There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for human rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goals of education, peace and equality.

Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them.

So here I stand…. one girl among many.

I speak – not for myself, but for all girls and boys.

I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.


Another inspiration (Mother Teresa, not the Reagans)

Those who have fought for their rights: Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.

Dear friends, on the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed.

And then, out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born. I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same.

Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak up for the right of education of every child. I want education for the sons and the daughters of all the extremists, especially the Taliban.

I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Mohammed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone.

Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.


Happy Sweet Sixteen!

The wise saying “the pen is mightier than sword” was true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.

And that is why they killed 14 innocent medical students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they killed many female teachers and polio workers in Khyber Pukhtoon Khwa and FATA. That is why they are blasting schools every day. Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.

I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist, “Why are the Taliban against education?” He answered very simply. By pointing to his book he said, “A Talib doesn’t know what is written inside this book.” They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would send girls to the hell just because of going to school.

birthday cakeThe terrorists are misusing the name of Islam and Pashtun society for their own personal benefits. Pakistan is peace-loving democratic country. Pashtuns want education for their daughters and sons. And Islam is a religion of peace, humanity and brotherhood. Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility.

Honorable Secretary General, peace is necessary for education. In many parts of the world, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, terrorism, wars and conflicts stop children to go to their schools. We are really tired of these wars; women and children are suffering in many parts of the world in many ways.

In India, innocent and poor children are victims of child labor. Many schools have been destroyed in Nigeria. People in Afghanistan have been affected by the hurdles of extremism for decades. Young girls have to do domestic child labor and are forced to get married at an early age. Poverty, ignorance, injustice, racism and the deprivation of basic rights are the main problems faced by both men and women.


Martin Luther King on his day: “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

Monday, January 16th, 2012

One people, one reality (Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute)

Today is the day set aside to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.  It came upon me quickly – I hadn’t even managed to bake a cake or send cards.  Do I get extra credit for my MLK post of a few days ago about the wording on the civil rights leader’s  memorial?

No matter.  Facebook and Twitter are awash with quotations from King, and somehow that seems a fitter and more dignified way to honor the Baptist preacher on a holiday that falls in bleak mid-January, after post-New Year sobriety has set in.

Two of my favorite newly discovered quotes below (hat tips to Laura Frew and Tess Kincaid):

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality . . . Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize the basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
1967 Christmas Sermon on Peace


“Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

― Martin Luther King, Jr.



Maya Angelou complained – and stone gives way. Words on MLK Memorial to be fixed.

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Just plain wrong. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Remember that cliché?  “It’s practically etched in stone.”  Meaning, fixed, immutable, can’t ever be changed.

Not so, when it comes to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial on the National Mall.

Back in September, Maya Angelou kvetched about King’s words on the statue, saying it made King sound like “an arrogant twit.”  She was right. And she wasn’t alone:  Martin Luther King III told CNN: “That was not what Dad said.”

Here’s what’s one of the inscriptions, placed on one side of the statue says:

“I was a drum major for justice peace and righteousness.”

Here’s what King said on Feb. 4, 1968, two months before he was assassinated, in a sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church about a eulogy that might be given in the event of his death:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

According to the Washington Post, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has given the National Park Service 30 days — because “things only happen when you put a deadline on it” — to consult with the King Memorial Foundation, family members and other interested parties and come up with a more accurate alternative.

“This is important because Dr. King and his presence on the Mall is a forever presence for the United States of America, and we have to make sure that we get it right,” Salazar said.

“Get out the chisel, Washington!” I wrote.  And believe it or not, they did.

Troy Davis, Duane Buck: What would Martin Luther King have said?

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

"I have a dream." (Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute)

On Friday, 300 protest rallies around the world were held over the planned execution of Troy Davis. The petition delivered to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles had 638,000 signatures and it’s growing.

The execution is planned for September 21.

Meanwhile, in Texas,  the Duane Buck was given a stay of execution last week. Texas held off until the last appeals had been decided.  According to the Guardian:

At Buck’s sentencing hearing, the jury that set his punishment was informed by a psychologist that black people had a higher rate of violent behaviour, a statement used by the prosecution as its key argument against giving him an alternative penalty of life imprisonment.

So what would Martin Luther King, Jr., have said?  Tenisha Armstrong of Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, home of the King Papers Project, forwarded me King’s message of April 6, 1958, in Montgomery, Ala.

It was Easter Sunday, King delivered a statement at the “Prayer Pilgrimage” protesting the electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves.  King led 15 black ministers on a one-block procession from Dexter Church to the state capitol, where he addressed a crowd of 2,000.  Some of his words on that occasion:

We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves.

Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rarely ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.  …

It is regrettable but true that in almost any session of our city, county and state courts one can see all of the injustices which the prophet Amos so bitterly decried and which he predicted would mean the ruin of their once glorious civilization.

Here Negroes are robbed openly with little hope of redress. We are fined and jailed often in defiance of law. Right or wrong, a Negro’s word has little weight against a white opponent’s. And if the Negro insists on the right of his cause, as opposed to a white man’s he is often violently treated.
There is another injustice in the courts which is equally as bad. Cases in which only Negroes are involved are handled frivolously, without regard to justice or proper correction. We deplore this type of injustice as much as we do the injustice whcih the Negro confronts in his court relations with whites.

We appeal this afternoon to our white brothers, whether they are private citizens or public officials, to courageously meet this problem. This is not a political issue: it is ultimately a moral issue. It is a question of the dignity of man.

We would not close without asking God’s forgiveness for those who unjustly treat us. We are still inflicted with economic injustice – Father forgive them. Simply because we want to be free there are those who will threaten our lives, cripple us with economic reprisals, and bomb our homes and churches – but Father forgive them. … Let us go away devoid of bitterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. It hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue.

If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society. If some of us must go to jail for the cause of freedom, let us enter it as Gandhi urged his countrymen, “As the bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber,” that is with some trepidation but with great expectation
Is is significant that we assemble here on Easter Day. Easter reminds us of two things. On the one hand, it reminds us that there is something wrong with human nature and human history. It reminds us that man is separated from God and separated from his brother, which leads to the tradegy of Good Friday. On the other hand it reminds us that God is in Christ seeking to reconcile the world unto himself. It reminds us that God ultimately rules history. So Easter is a day of hope. It is a day that says to us that the forces of evil and injustice cannot survive.

Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.




Maya Angelou is complaining – and she’s right.

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Not arrogant. (Photo: Something Original, Creative Commons)

Somehow, in all the events of Hurricane Irene and the crashing economy, I missed the quiet unveiling of the impressive and dignified Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial on the National Mall.  It was probably a smaller event than originally envisioned, pre-earthquake, pre-hurricane. (We wrote about MLK a few days ago, in connection with the postponed opening).

So when I first saw the headline that poet (laureate) Maya Angelou was kvetching about King’s words on the statue, saying it made King sound “arrogant,” I thought, well, that she was just kvetching, the way everyone on the internet kvetches.  I ignored the article.

Then I read it.  She’s right.

Here’s what’s one of the inscriptions, placed on one side of the statue says:

“I was a drum major for justice peace and righteousness.”

Here’s what King said on Feb. 4, 1968, two months before he was assassinated, in a sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church about a eulogy that might be given in the event of his death:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Context is all.

Get out the chisel, Washington.

Postscript #1 : Elaine Ray wrote in to say: “I like your bookhaven item on the King monument. Just wanted to clarify that the opening of the monument was not postponed. In fact, the monument had a quiet opening days before the scheduled dedication. It was the dedication that was postponed.” Also read her comment and link in the comments section below.

From Jim Erwin: “Maybe I’ll feel differently once I see it in person, but from the photos it looks like Stalinist monumentalism, which could hardly be more wildly inappropriate for the subject. I suspect Frederick Hart, who did the ‘Three Soldiers’ Vietnam memorial sculpture, could have come closer.”

Happy birthday to Martin Luther King’s dream

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

August 28, 1963 (Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute)

Today should have been the day that the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial was dedicated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Then a bad-ass lady named Irene rolled into town.

The celebration has been postponed.  Nonetheless, a quieter memorial has been overlooked in the weather warnings: it’s the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

I reread the speech for the occasion – it’s no surprise that it’s considered one of the top speeches of the century.  It marked the height of the non-violent movement, and the beginning of its fall.

However, this surprised me too:  “I think one of the misconceptions people have about King was that all of his material was spontaneous and did not repeat,” said Stacey Zwald-Costello, assistant editor at the King Papers Project at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

“However, the opposite is true – he spent a lot of time preparing his speeches and often recycled material, using it in different places and ways in order to get his point across.”

So I also read the speech that served as a sort of rough draft – his June speech in Cobo Hall, Detroit.  I think I liked this passage the best (and I enjoy the italicized audience interjections!), which wasn’t included in the August 28 speech:

For nonviolence not only calls upon its adherents to avoid external physical violence, but it calls upon them to avoid internal violence of spirit. It calls on them to engage in that something called love. And I know it is difficult sometimes. When I say “love” at this point, I’m not talking about an affectionate emotion. (All right) It’s nonsense to urge people, oppressed people, to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. I’m talking about something much deeper. I’m talking about a sort of understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. [applause]

We are coming to see now, the psychiatrists are saying to us, that many of the strange things that happen in the subconscious, many of the inner conflicts, are rooted in hate. And so they are saying, “Love or perish.” But Jesus told us this long time ago. And I can still hear that voice crying through the vista of time, saying, “Love your enemies, (Love them), bless them that curse you, (Yes) pray for them that despitefully use you.” (Yes) There is still a voice saying to every potential Peter, “Put up your sword.” (Yes, Put up your sword) History is replete with the bleached bones of nations; history is cluttered with the wreckage of communities that failed to follow this command. And isn’t it marvelous to have a method of struggle where it is possible to stand up against an unjust system, fight it with all of your might, never accept it, and yet not stoop to violence and hatred in the process? [applause] This is what we have. [applause]

More here.

Elena Danielson: The scintillating world of an archivist, and “a masterpiece”

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

She's more bubbly than this picture suggests

In April, I commented on Stanford’s “A Company of Authors” event, “a warm and friendly gathering of about 100 or so booklovers at the Stanford Humanities Center,” in which Humble Moi participated:

Particularly memorable: Elena Danielson‘s breathy presentation of the ethical issues of archiving.  Don’t think that sounds exciting?  You have to hear Elena tell about it.  The author of The Ethical Archivist has been privy to billets-doux of the long-dead and recently dead, and all the burning secrets held in donated letters and memorabilia.

Archivists aren’t usually considered to live scintillating lives, but Elena sure makes it look like hot stuff.  I recounted her vivid tale of the Martin Luther King, Jr., legacy here.  (She also wrote a guest review for Debra Satz‘s  Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale, and is a regular commentor on the Book Haven.)

So we were pleased to see praise for her work in College & Research Libraries, in a review by W. Bede Mitchell:

“The reader cannot help but come away … impressed with how deeply entangled is the archival profession in ethical dilemmas. …

She [Elena, that is – ED] is invariably thorough, sensible, and sensitive when analyzing ethical challenges that can arise when acquiring or deaccessioning materials, providing equitable access, protecting the privacy of patrons and donors, authenticating materials, and determining the circumstances in which displaced archives should be relocated. In addition, her writing is clear, engaging, and imbued with a devotion to her professional values. No doubt her many years of experience have tempered idealism with realism, but not to the point of cynicism. When she convincingly demonstrates at many junctures that establishing ‘a standard of integrity that inspires confidence in the documentary record’ is neither easy nor safe, Danielson goes on to argue eloquently why ensuring such integrity is what the archivist profession should be about. …

It is difficult to imagine a better written or more thorough and thoughtful work on such thorny issues. ‘Masterpiece’ is an appropriate description.”

Fine words … but it’s all so stuffy compared to the real-life Elena, her eyes sparkling, confessing the secrets she’s collected over decades with barely contained excitement.  Or, more recently, telling me that nine months after the book launch, only 73 copies of the book are left.  Is there a second printing in the works?

Brava, Elena!

Martin Luther King quote goes viral: Fake? Not really…

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

His quote ... kind of

This quote went viral on the internet, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden:

‎”I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Penn Jillette:  Not him

Penn Jillette: Not him

The citation was attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., but a number of people came forward to debunk it.  A Salon article attributed the quote to famous magician Penn Jillette. Megan McArdle of The Atlantic wrote, “Out of Osama’s Death, a Fake Quotation is Born.” But when I (silly me) posted the quotation on my Facebook page and heard about kerfuffle, I found someone who indeed attributed the quote to MLK’s 1963  Strength to Love.

Who better to ask than Clay Carson and the folks at Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, home of the King Papers Project?  The crackerjack editorial team responded within minutes.

Here’s the real quote, from “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love:

The mysterious Ms. Dovey

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

“Mangled to a meme in less than two days,” concludes McArdle in a follow up piece.  Ground Zero for the brouhaha is Jessica Dovey, a 24-year old Penn State graduate who now teaches English to kids in Kobe, Japan.  Her Facebook page had the King citation, introduced with her own musings.  The quotation marks got lost in a tweet.

But thanks, Jessica, we like the thought.

Big on quotes himself

Postscript:  Just got an email of clarification from Tenisha Armstrong of the King Institute:

Just to follow up: I have not been able to substantiate the first part of the quote, but that doesn’t mean King did not say it. I did find a King quote that expresses a similar sentiment:

“This story symbolizes something basic about the universe. It’s meaning is not found in the drowning of a few men, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being.” King, draft of Chapter VIII in Strength to Love, “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” in Papers 6:507.

The published version of the quote was a little different: “The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being.” King, “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” in Strength to Love.


Postscript on 3/5:  The previously unknown Jessica Dovey, with a photo taken from her Facebook page,  gets a Q&A in The Atlantic here.  Of all things.

Postscript on 3/5:  Stan Szczesny commented on John Donne‘s famous “No Man Is an Island” passage from his sermons in the comments section below.  Tenisha Armstrong of the MLK Institute’s editorial team replied with the following:

Quotable John

Thanks, Stan. Your rememberance of this apt quote by John Donne reminds me of how frequently King quoted from Donne’s work. The Donne quote you posted is from “Meditations XVII” (1624). In King’s 1960 sermon, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” a version of which King had preached as early as 1954, he discusses how everybody is “tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, where what affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Of Donne, King says:

“Strangely enough I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way the world is made; I didn’t make it that way, but it’s like that. And John Donne recorded it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ And then he goes on toward the end to say: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ Only by discovering this are we able to master the breadth of life.”

Quote from Volume 5 of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Threshold of a New Decade,” January 1959-December 1960, p. 577.

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

Monday, January 17th, 2011

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.