When a coalition of Atlanta business leaders and philanthropists pledged to purchase 7,000 pages of the private papers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in June for $32 million, its efforts were hailed by many as a step toward preserving an important chapter of American - and Atlanta - history.
The collection, which was headed for the auction block at Sotheby's, serves as a virtual timeline - for the civil rights movement, the turbulent 1960s and King's personal life. The agreement, which lets Morehouse College house the documents in a library it shares with three other schools, spared the papers from possible purchase by a private collector.
Rights to the documents, however, remain under the control of the King family, and because the terms of the sale have not been disclosed, many historians and researchers question whether they will really be able to plumb the records with the freedom they need to do their work.
Among the documents are a typed draft with manuscript notes of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, under its original title - "Normalcy -- Never Again" - and King's blue-inked revisions of his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.
The concern arises from the way the King family has exercised its control over documents since Martin Luther King's death in 1968. For one, the family has often asked for payment, especially for reproducing famous quotations from King's speeches.
But most of the concern comes from historians such as Ralph E. Luker, who co-edited two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., who say that the family has made viewing the archives at the King Center in Atlanta difficult, if not impossible, for those trying to research King's legacy.
"You can't just go to the front door of the King Center, go in and expect to see what you want to see," said Luker. "The building is ordinarily locked. You have to call in advance. You may or may not get an appointment to see the archives, or you may have to wait months to get an answer.
"The word on the street is that the King Center archive can't be gotten to, so there's no point in even considering a [research] project."
Researchers fear similar limitations will be placed on the recently purchased collection, which contains all documents with King's handwriting, taken both from the King Center and from the basement of the house of King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who died this year. Nothing is known about specific restrictions on access contained in the sale documents, beyond the fact that the King family will still have its hands on the reins.
"This is far too important and [the King family's] record is far too spotty, if not far too poor," said biographer Taylor Branch, who recently completed a much-praised trilogy on King and the civil rights movement.
"What I would hope is that the donors and the city of Atlanta would wake up to the responsibility of securing them."
Neither King's children nor Phillip Jones, an adviser to the King estate, responded to requests for comment. Officials at Morehouse and the King Center were similarly unresponsive.
However, Morehouse has tried to assure researchers that their concerns are unfounded. In an interview with the online journal Inside Higher Ed, Phillip Howard, vice president for institutional advancement at the historically black college, said that making the papers available to the public was why the officials worked to keep the papers in Atlanta. He said that the King family has placed no restrictions on how Morehouse can handle the documents.
And Jones, the family adviser, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that concerns about access to the documents have been addressed - though he did say that the King family and estate would retain the "intellectual property rights" to the papers.
"Scholars need not worry," Jones told the newspaper. "Scholars will be able to follow his thinking up to the 'I Have a Dream' speech. His thinking is what's critical to a scholar."
Morehouse announced last month that it had hired Brenda S. Banks, deputy director of the Georgia Department of Archives and History, as the chief archivist for the King documents.
Nevertheless, concerns remain.
Asked about Howard's comments, Branch said that though he did not know Howard, "I know he has an interest in believing that everything is going to be all right."
Branch remains concerned that scholars will be given limited access, primarily because of more than two decades of setbacks in researching the documents.
"They say they'll be available," said Branch of his work while the documents were at the King Center, "but what they mean is that you can only look at them, or you can occasionally look at them, or to quote them you must fill out an application first.
"That's the track record, and the burden of proof is on someone saying that the track record has changed and what the conditions are," he said. "And have they done that? No."
Branch said that he spoke with officials from "several libraries" before the auction who expressed reticence in bidding for the papers because of stipulations placed on the documents requiring that the King family retain some level of control. The Library of Congress, he said, backed out of a potential sale in 1999, while the University of Texas backed out of a sale in 2003.
Branch is one of several historians who say the Smithsonian had serious interest in purchasing the documents when they appeared to be heading for an auction this year - perhaps to place in its forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture - but ultimately balked because of the stipulations.
Lonnie G. Bunch, that museum's director, declined to discuss the museum's interest.
"Our goal was to make sure that those papers remained in public hands," said Bunch. "Now, the story is how does Smithsonian help Morehouse and the city of Atlanta get the materials out where scholars would have access?"
Much of the skepticism over what will become of the papers stems from the way they were handled at the King Center.
Branch said he first began using the archives at the King Center in 1982. Early on, King's widow, Coretta, had some reticence about the papers being researched lest someone find something in the archives "that would be embarassing," he said. In later years, it was King's children asserting more control.
Branch said researching the papers was "a roller-coaster ride."
"You never knew what the conditions [for researching] were going to be, and they could change at any moment," he said. "Some days there were no restrictions. ... Some days I had no access."
Branch said other researchers complained to him that the center sometimes failed to respond for months, if at all, to their applications to review documents.
Boston University's Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center - which houses an 83,000-page collection of King's papers, dwarfing the collection headed for Morehouse, including his correspondence with Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers - also requires that researchers file applications and puts some limits on access and photocopying. And the King family still retains "intellectual rights" over those papers.
But Branch said it was much easier in Boston.
"Relatively speaking, the library at Boston University was professional compared to the King Center," he said. "It was the difference between professional and strapped. That is not to say that BU is perfect. But the attitude was, 'Come in here, do the research, make of them what you will and be responsible for the argument.' That's what libraries are supposed to do."
Boston University, where King earned his doctorate in theology, was sent the 83,000 pages by King before his death. Coretta King sued to get them back, but courts upheld the university's rights to the papers, based on a 1964 letter King wrote naming the university "the repository of my correspondence" and stating that any papers the school held would become its property in the event of his death. Many scholars say that, based on that letter, all of King's papers should be in Boston.
Luker, the historian, said that there has never been enough incentive for anyone who holds the documents to meet the needs of scholars. He noted that the documents in the collection headed for Morehouse include private papers Coretta King kept outside the King Center and thus out of the hands of scholars - even though the center received federal grants as early as 25 years ago for those papers to be deposited and archived.
Some also have questioned whether the documents should be going to Morehouse, asking if the Woodruff Library that it shares with Clark Atlanta University, the Interdenominational Theological Center and Spelman College in the Atlanta University system is up the task. Morehouse President Walter Massey has suggested that a separate facility may be needed for the papers.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported some Morehouse students complaining that in the past documents donated to Morehouse have not been made readily available.
And Luker, who once taught at Morehouse, said that for decades the college has had the collections of its former president, the late Benjamin E. Mays, but has yet to make them available to the public.
As for the King family, the $32 million windfall could go a long way in aiding the renovation of such facilities as the King Center.
Controversies about family controls over the works of important figures are nothing new. Stephen Joyce, the grandson of writer and poet James Joyce and heir to the family estate, keeps tight control over the author's papers. He is being sued by Stanford professor Carol Schloss for refusing her permission to use material about Joyce.
In some cases, documents are being turned over to management companies. For example, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which houses digitized images of Albert Einstein's scientific writings, non-scientific writings and travel diaries, turned to the Corbis Corp. to handle all business ventures related to Einstein.
Indianapolis-based CMG Worldwide is the exclusive business representative for the estate of Malcolm X.
Jonathan Faber, president of CMG Worldwide, said CMG also handles trademark and publicity interests of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Robinson, Amelia Earhart and James Dean.
David Garrow, who wrote Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King, said that while compiling material for the book he paid the King estate "between $250-$500" for about nine paragraphs of quotes. When told that some management companies now handle the affairs of prominent people's estates, he said he fears that charging for quotations might become common.
"Even though Supreme Court justices are public employees, the justice's papers, including case files, are treated as personal property," said Garrow.
"So, if the children of [the late] William Rehnquist wanted to do an auction they could. Tradition has always been to donate them to the Library of Congress or a university for which they have affiliation.
"But Sotheby's could call up Antonin Scalia and say, 'We know you have about 19 grandchildren. Whenever you think about retiring, give us a call.' " firstname.lastname@example.org