The annual commemoration of Martin Luther King’s birthday (which is actually on January 15th) gives me cause to consider King’s legacy from an archival perspective.

First of all, with my training as an historian as well as an archivist, I am fascinated by what items and ideas get written onto the fabric of our national consciousness and which are overlooked.  On an annual basis, the media provide a shower of clips of King as orator and usually focus on his “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington.  But rare is the context given of the developing rift within the civil rights movement leading up to this event.  For a glimpse, you can read the speech that John Lewis intended to give in Washington — one that he tempered only out of deference to A. Philip Randolph.

In my opinion, King’s 1967 speech at Riverside Church in which he condemned U.S. actions in Vietnam is his best reasoned piece of oratory.  It also demonstrates much about the character of King, for this speech was not without controversy.  While he was generally arguing that the war in Vietnam was diverting attention and resources from the war against poverty and discrimination within the U.S., some of his fellow civil rights leaders worried that King’s taking a strong stand against the war would only serve to weaken the movement, and in fact, it did greatly sour King’s relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, who had been very instrumental in getting civil rights legislation passed up to that point.  Using nonviolence as a prism for viewing the conflict in Vietnam, King said, “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.  For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”  Unfortunately, this does not seem to be an attitude that was embraced at the time or since.

The last speech that King delivered, in Memphis on the night before his assassination, is another that deserves more attention.  The end is eerie for its foreshadowing of his pending death: “And then I got into Memphis.  And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out.  What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?  Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!  And so I’m happy, tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man!  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”  But the gist of the message is about his being in Memphis to support the strike of sanitation workers — an economic cause that elements within the civil rights movement, such as John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had earlier criticized King for ignoring in the name of the panacea of integration.  This speech helps to layer the complexities of King and demonstrate that he was not the same man in 1968 that he had been five years earlier.

One other aspect of King’s life is interesting from an archival perspective especially.  In 1964, King named Boston University as “the Repository of my correspondence, manuscripts and other papers, along with a few of my awards and other materials which may come to be of interest in historical or other research.”  The last sentence of his letter of donation said,  “In the event of my death, all such materials deposited with the University shall become from that date the absolute property of Boston University.”  But King only made two transfers of materials to BU, and he never executed a formal deed of gift.  After the King family established the Center for the Study of Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta in the 1980s, they wished to unite all of his papers — the ones from BU that were predominantly from before 1961 and those in Atlanta from the last years of his life and work.  Coretta Scott King ultimately brought a suit against Boston University on behalf of her husband’s estate, arguing in part that they were in breach of contract for not properly attending to her husband’s papers; for instance, the papers became jumbled during their shipment from Georgia to Massachusetts in 1964, but no attempt was made to restore the original order.  James M. O’Toole was brought in as a witness on the case by the firm representing Coretta Scott King, and he concluded that “some of the most basic work of physical and intellectual arrangement had not been done during the period in which BU had held the King Papers” (“Archives on Trial: The Strange Case of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers,” in Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society, eds. Richard J. Cox and David A. Wallace [Westport, Connecticut: Quorum, 2002], 27).  But ultimately the jury decided that the letter was an enforceable charitable pledge and, therefore, BU was the rightful owner of King’s papers.  Coretta Scott King’s appeal was denied in 1995.


screen shot from BU Archives

(Note: at the time of the writing of this post, I cannot access the finding aid for King’s papers at BU.  Although the collections list includes King’s name, the hyperlink is not currently functional, so I cannot assess the quality of the finding aid.)