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Martin Luther King Papers Find a New Home

Karen Jefferson stands in one of three storage areas that hold the library’s manuscript collections. The papers of C. Eric Lincoln, a noted professor and scholar of black religion, fill 300 boxes.
Kathy Lohr, NPR
Karen Jefferson stands in one of three storage areas that hold the library’s manuscript collections. The papers of C. Eric Lincoln, a noted professor and scholar of black religion, fill 300 boxes.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers are going home to Atlanta.

The city's mayor rounded up donors to pay $32 million to avoid a public auction of the papers. Instead, the collection will end up at the library for all the historically black colleges and universities in the area -- the Woodruff Library.

'Home of Civil Rights'

Karen Jefferson, head of archives and special collections at the library, says the MLK papers have a special impact.

"People really relate to MLK and the civil rights movement because it had an impact on everybody's life, on how we live," Jefferson says. "That's why people are so interested and so concerned about it, because they feel like 'this is my history.'"

Some people outside Atlanta were surprised to learn that the papers, including a hand-marked copy of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, will become part of the library's collection, rather than going to an institution in New York or to the Smithsonian. But making the Woodruff the final home for King's papers makes perfect sense to people in Atlanta.

Greg Ballard, a student at Clark Atlanta University, says the collection belongs in the city.

"He [King] put down a lot of work here, so I mean, I think it's good it's coming back to his old stomping grounds, where he accomplished a lot of things," Ballard says. "It's kind of the home of civil rights, so I think it's pretty important that it should be here."

Those who remember the civil rights era first-hand seem to feel even more strongly about the library receiving the King papers.

Michael Francois, who works in financial aid at Clark Atlanta University, says Atlanta is where it all started.

"I don't think there could be a better place to house the papers, than to house the papers where Martin King attended school and the legacy began," Francois says.

Housing the Papers

Once the King collection arrives at the library, the staff will inventory it and check the condition of the papers. Then archivists will begin the process of organizing the papers to make them more accessible to students and researchers. The collection will be kept in a separate vault for security.

Jefferson says the Woodruff Library's shelves hold more than 35,000 volumes in the book collection alone. Many are first editions; some are autographed.

"Most of the books are documenting the African Diaspora experience," Jefferson says. "We have a lot of materials on the African-American and the Southern experience."

Beyond the books, more than 100 manuscript collections, large and small, are kept in three storage areas. The library houses the papers of C. Eric Lincoln, a noted professor and scholar of black religion. Jefferson says it also has several postcards that Malcolm X sent to Lincoln.

Not Just Another Collection

Acquiring the King papers doesn't just add to the library's collections; it may also provide the foundation for another project in Atlanta: a museum devoted to human rights and civil rights. A few city leaders, including Andrew Young Andrew Young -- former mayor and once U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations -- have spoken out in favor of such a museum.

"I say it's got to be more than a civil-rights museum, though," Young says. "I think we've got to go back to pre-slavery, because America has never dealt with slavery. I think the only people who can deal with slavery in a positive, meaningful way are people from a predominantly black center like Atlanta."

Young says other communities have not been successful in building such a place. But Atlanta, with its strong black community and economic power, could emerge to teach others about slavery and the civil-rights struggle.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.