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Martin Luther King Archives on Sotheby’s Auction Block

Three years, ago, the archives of Martin Luther King were exhibited at Sotheby's Auction House in New York. This week, they appear on the auction block again. The NewsHour presents an encore of Roger Rosenblatt's essay of King's words and papers from the first exhibition.

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  • ROGER ROSENBLATT, NewsHour Essayist:

    The effect of all this was strange and moving. For sale at Sotheby's: The collected original papers and books of Martin Luther King, Jr., from 1946-1968.

    On display until September and now offered for potential buyers are more than 7,000 documents, many written in King's hand: a diary kept while he was in jail; marginalia in books; sermons; notes for sermons; a eulogy for the four little girls killed in the Birmingham Church bombing; college blue books; letters from Steinbeck, from Nixon; the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 1964; a typescript of an early draft of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

    Though that particular sentence was extemporized, the exhibit shows how that idea began and developed. A sermon found in his briefcase the night he was murdered called "Interruptions."

    The ghosts of the events behind these documents have their presence, too: The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 marked King's arrival as a civil rights leader; Birmingham in 1963; and the image of Bull Connor and his hoses and dogs, the pictures that did a lot for civil rights by showing the unashamed bestiality of race hatred; the 1963 march on Washington; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Bloody Sunday in Selma in 1965.

    And the assassinations still heard like rapid artillery fire: the Kennedy Brothers; Malcolm X; and King himself in 1968.

  • For sale:

    the history of a mind that shaped most of our lives.

    Thus, our histories, too, for sale at the auction house with which one associates high bidders and high rollers, the well-dressed and mannerly apogee of the free market where tens of millions change hands with a nod.

    These documents will bring in millions, as well. There is an issue here, as you knew there would be. The King family has been criticized for seeking profit over public good. Other civil rights leaders have donated papers to the Library of Congress. If a private buyer acquires this material, will ordinary citizens and scholars have access?

    The estate has insisted on this. But one did not think of such matters while wandering among the papers.

    For one thing, Sotheby's curated the exhibit with the personal and scholarly care of a great museum.

    Whoever buys this collection would do well to replicate the Sotheby's model. The exhibit combined the odd orderliness and peacefulness of the papers, with the turbulence of the times they recalled.

    What was really on display is paper and thus the quiet assertion of the power of the word. All these scrawls and jottings see a mind at work to change a nation. That's all it ever takes, one person with a word.

    Walk slowly through the papers and watch an inkling become a thought and then a conviction. Love of self connects with love of neighbor connects with love of God, so King defined what he called a "complete life" when he was young.

    It turned out to be the life he led, and he led it on the run. Airplane tickets and travel itineraries are here, as well. One sees King rushing from incident to incident, protest to protest, jail to jail.

    The picture is that of an obsessed orchestra leader, darting from musician to musician to make sure that the whole tune is played right, his tune, the one he wrote for this bus, for that water fountain, that restaurant, that hotel, this country.

    Above all this mute paper, one hears the voice, the most memorable voice of our age in every sense.


    I have a dream…


    The voice prevailed, rising from the paper toward a country that had to be taught to realize its own principles. In the beginning was the word, and in the end was us.


    … one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.


    I'm Roger Rosenblatt.


    The auction of Martin Luther King's archives will take place on June 30th.