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Atlanta Library Prepares to House King Papers

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

As we've discussed previously on our show, Martin Luther King's personal papers are going home to Atlanta. The city's mayor gathered donors to pay $32 million to save this historic treasure from public auction.

The papers will be housed at Atlanta's Woodruff Library, where NPR's Kathy Lohr paid a visit.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

The Woodruff Library, where the King papers will be kept, is the library for all the historically black and colleges and universities in the area. Where the special collections are, there's a reading room with tables to review materials. Beyond that is a secure space.

Ms. KAREN JEFFERSON (Head of Archives and Special Collections): Our staff will go into this back area…

(Soundbite of beeping, door opening)

Ms. JEFFERSON: …and we will then get the material that they want. So researchers cannot come into this area.

(Soundbite of door closing)

LOHR: Karen Jefferson is the head of archives and special collections. The shelves here hold more than 35,000 volumes in the book collection alone. Many are first editions. Some are autographed.

Ms. JEFFERSON: Most of the books are documenting the African Diasporan experience. But, of course, we have a large focus on the African-American experience. So we do have books that document African history and culture. We have books on the Caribbean. But we also have a lot of materials, of course, on the African-American and the Southern experience because we are in the South as well. So there's a lot of material here. Of course, the books are so broad.

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

Ms. JEFFERSON: This is when Malcolm X went to Mecca, and you can watch the transition for a Black Muslim to a traditional Muslim just in these six postcards, just by his signature. So you can see here Brother Malcolm X, Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik, El-Hajj Malik Shabazz. So just in that time period, and he's writing, and these brief postcards just what his experience is.

LOHR: Among some of Jefferson's other favorite treasures: two rare almanacs written by Benjamin Banneker, dating back to 1792 - the paper is brittle and very fragile - three different editions of Phyllis Wheatley's memoirs and poems, published in the 1800s, and a slave document that was donated to the library.

Ms. JEFFERSON: I like to use this one when I talk to some of the students, because this is a document where a 16-year-old slave who has been sold into slavery for life on January 1, 1853. And so the document says here that received of Elijah W. Traver(ph), $900 in full payment of a negro slave named Dillard. Said boy is about 16 years old of age, of a copper color and rather straight hair.

LOHR: When the King collection gets here, the staff will take inventory and check the condition of the papers to see whether they need to be stabilized. Then archivists will begin the process of putting the papers in order so that students and researchers can access them. They will be kept in a separate vault for security.

Some outside Atlanta where surprised to learn that the papers - including a hand-marked copy of King's I Have a Dream speech - would be housed at this library rather than in New York or at the Smithsonian. But most in Atlanta say it's the right thing to do.

Outside the student center at Clark Atlanta University, Greg Ballard from Minneapolis is signing up for the fall term.

Mr. GREG BALLARD (Student, Clark Atlanta University): He put down a lot of work here. So, I mean, I think it's pretty good that it's coming to his old stomping grounds, and where he accomplished a lot of things. It's kind of the home of civil rights, so I think it's pretty important that it should be here.

LOHR: Others who are older and remember the civil rights era seem to feel even more strongly about the King papers ending up in this city. Michael François works in financial aid at Clark Atlanta.

Mr. MICHAEL FRANCOIS (Financial Aid Worker, Clark Atlanta University): This is where all of it began. So I don't think it could be a better place to house the papers than house them where, of course, Martin King himself actually attended school and the legacy begun.

Ms. JEFFERSON: Other collections probably wouldn't touch people in the same way.

LOHR: Again, Karen Jefferson at the Woodruff Library.

Ms. JEFFERSON: But people really relate to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement because it had an impact on everybody's life - on how we live, how we think about ourselves, what kind of rights we think we have. So I think that's why people are so interested and so concerned about it, because they feel like this is my history.

LOHR: An archives like this doesn't normally display its collections for the public. But chief archivist for the King Papers Project, Brenda Banks, says in this case it may be important.

Ms. BRENDA BANKS (Chief Archivist, King Papers Project): We know that it is a collection that people want to see, so there will have to be some effort to make these things available for the researcher as well for the average public to come in and just look. I mean, a lot of people don't want to do research, they just have a curiosity. They just want to see the papers from Martin Luther King.

LOHR: Acquiring the King papers may be the foundation of another project in Atlanta, a human and civil rights museum. A few city leaders have spoken out in favor of such a museum, including former mayor and Ambassador Andrew Young.

Mr. ANDREW YOUNG (Former Mayor of Atlanta, Ambassador): I say it's got to be more than a civil rights museum, though. I think we 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.

LOHR: Young says other communities have not been successful in building such a place. But he says Atlanta - with a strong black community and economic power -could come forward to teach others about slavery, and about the civil rights struggle every since.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.