In the years since the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., scholars of his life and of the civil rights era have been frustrated by the limited access his family has permitted to his papers. In recent weeks, with the family planning an auction of his papers, those concerns have grown among some historians, who feared the sale could permanently hinder access and might violate the terms of various federal grants that have supported the papers over the years.
On Friday, Atlanta officials announced a last-minute deal -- a week ahead of the planned auction -- under which a group of businesses and philanthropists would pay $32 million to the King children to buy the papers, with ownership shifting to Morehouse College, King's alma mater.
Morehouse officials are moving to assure scholars that the collection will henceforth be open to all. "Public access is at the core of why the coalition started this effort to keep the papers here," Phillip Howard, vice president for institutional advancement at the college, said in an interview Saturday. "We are going to create a scholarly environment to provide scholars with access to study Dr. King."
Rumors have been flying in the last month about conditions that might be attached by the King family to the auction sale. Howard of Morehouse said that there were absolutely no limitations placed by the King family on how Morehouse could make the papers available and that the college was committed to encouraging more research than has been possible to date.
Howard said that Morehouse was assembling a team of library and archive experts to develop a plan for making the documents available and that he wasn't sure how long that would take. Other institutions -- Emory University and the University of Georgia -- may play a role, but Howard said that he expected an archives building to eventually be built on the Morehouse campus for the papers.
Most of the public attention this weekend has focused on the push by Atlanta to keep the collection, beating out interest from New York City and other localities. But many scholars have been intrigued -- and top universities were getting ready to make substantial bids -- because of the research value of the papers.
Sotheby's, which was to have auctioned the collection, called it (perhaps without much hyperbole) "the most important archive of the 20th century in private hands." Among the 7,000 items are King's oldest surviving theological writing, early drafts of his "I have a dream" and Nobel Prize addresses, and many items from his private library. King wrote extensively in some of his books, and Sotheby's officials said, for example, that his copy of Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society was jammed with comments and questions, on page after page.
As with any auction, potential bidders were cagey about their intentions, but among those who had been expected to seek the collection were Boston University (which has some King papers and is King's graduate alma mater), the University of Texas at Austin, several New York City research institutions, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.
Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Education Institute at Stanford University, which is publishing the papers, said he was consulted by many of those planning to bid, including several big scholarly players whose interest has not become public. Carson, one of the few scholars to have had full access to the King papers, said he was pleased that they would end up at Morehouse. But he also published a statement on his Web site -- before the announcement that the auction was being called off -- suggesting that it didn't matter where the archives ended up because the important ones were being published by his project.
The planned auction upset many scholars. Most of the collection to date has either been in a vault or in the home of Coretta Scott King, who died in January and who was not receptive to the requests of most scholars for access. In the last week, several scholars have charged -- in articles in The New York Sun -- that the auction might have violated agreements Coretta Scott King made with federal agencies. According to scholars, a condition of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Records and Publications Commission was that the papers would be made permanently available to scholars. Purchasers at the auction might not have fulfilled that pledge, these scholars said.
Ralph E. Luker, who was a co-editor of the first two volumes of the King papers, is one of the scholars who was concerned about the auction and he is only partly reassured by the sale to Morehouse. Luker noted that the King papers project, by necessity, publishes only a fraction of the documents produced by King, so the availability of this collection does matter. Luker said he's pleased to see the documents in Atlanta, but wonders if Morehouse has the financial resources to create and staff an archive appropriate to the collection. Luker is also bothered by the way so many details about the collection have been kept secret. And he noted that the King family at various times pledged to make the collection widely available to scholars -- only to then put it up for sale.
"This is a case where the devil is truly in the details," he said. He said he was pleased to hear the statements from Morehouse's Howard, but wanted to see how things play out.
Several scholars who asked not to be identified noted with concern news reports that Emory University -- which has extensive archival operations on its campus -- had been frustrated by negotiations over the King papers.
James W. Wagner, president of Emory, cautioned in an interview Sunday not to read too much into those reports. He said that Emory had in fact been seeking more assurances that scholars would have full "fair use" rights to the documents and did not receive them. He said he was aware of scholars' concerns about the way the King family has restricted access in the past. But Wagner attributed the fact that Emory didn't receive assurances to the speed with which negotiations moved last week -- negotiations that he said represented a "heroic effort" by Atlanta institutions to hold on to the papers -- rather than to any rejection of the idea of open access.
Wagner also said that he had been approached by Morehouse officials about helping with the archives and that Emory was prepared to offer any assistance possible, consistent with principles of maintaining open access for scholars. Morehouse has been "actively inviting a strong partnership with Emory," Wagner said. "My sense is that Morehouse is aware of what it brings to the table and where it may need to seek partnerships."