Civil Rights Paperwork

Los Angeles       David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Rev. Martin Luther King, made some important points that are worth worry about the King papers in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times on Friday.  If you’ve missed the backstory on this, King’s family has swirled in controversy for years based on their stewardship of King Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta and the handling of Dr. King’s papers and their access, especially what frequently appears is their efforts and interests in profiting financially from his papers, even some have argued at the expense of their integrity and their care for their father’s legacy. 

Recently all of this came to a head.  The King family engaged the Sotheby auction house to sell the King papers to the highest bidder, especially everything with Dr. King’s signature.  Scholars went through the roof, worried that this could take the King papers out of circulation through a private sale.  Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta ended up stepping in at the last minute and negotiating a sale at the top range of Sotheby’s estimated value — $31,000,000! — that she’s still trying to raise money to cover.  The hometown press has been raving with praise for the Mayor.  Garrow essentially weighed in with the rest of the story and it’s not pretty.

* What will be the story of the rest of the King papers that were not in this “cherry picked” batch?
* Are their issues around the expenditure of federal monies used to scour the papers to prepare them to this point?
* The sale seems not to include “literary rights,” which means that the family could prohibit use and quotations without permissions even after the sale and effectively ask for compensation as they have in the past.  Mayor Franklin now says that there will be “fair use” but this also carries controversy.

Garrow pointed out that once again we are commercializing the public forum.  An auction house’s business is clearly to try to set the price between need and greed.  With the King family cash-out at $31 M, he asks who will be next?  Dr. King is not the only person out there who did not believe in personal enrichment based on his public work, nor will his be the only family that believes they have a personal entitlement.  What might be the value of the papers of other public figures and is there a commons anymore that can accommodate the lure of commercialization?  On the other hand where does one draw the line between celebrities and other famous folks who are freely allowed to sell?  These are troubling questions.

The other issue that he raised almost parenthetically, which I found very troubling is the current condition of the SNCC and SCLC papers that are also getting less than the best care at the King museum currently (along with the rest of the King papers!).  What is the plan for these critical historical documents that go to the issues and history of this formative movement and still teach lessons for organizers?  Garrow worries that they will be separated from the King papers.  I worry that they will be lost completely.

These are hard problems.  We can not handle today well, so it is hardly surprising that we disregard our collective past so quickly, especially if there is no ready cash value, but these are problems that need passionate advocates and resources ready to respond.

Ps. Responsible readers might harrumph and wonder what the plan for ACORN’s archives has been?  For more than 10 years we have worked well on an accession plan with the renowned Wisconsin State Historical Society as a proud part of its Social Change Collection and our papers are available there.  Every year, Carolyn Carr in our DC office reminds people to box up critical documents and the Historical Society pays the shipping charges for them to be delivered by UPS to Madison.  Some people do this religiously and others probably don’t do it at all.  Joel Rogers, my friend and comrade who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, made the original introduction for me years ago when I was on the campus as an “Activist in Residence” for several weeks — a unique experience itself — and my initial reluctance (distance, university setting, access, etc) was finally won over reflecting on a simple argument that because these papers were connected to a state institution, the resources and weight of public stewardship and the permanent tax base provided by the state’s citizens would trump private philanthropy or the lessened capacity of institutions whose missions were directed elsewhere, including universities.  The commons and the common good in the end have to be protected by the collective will and its ways and means.  Here’s to the people of Wisconsin, their generosity, and their understanding of these issues that we are missing so routinely elsewhere in the country!

June 30, 2006

The MLK National Historic Site
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