King papers show the making of a leader

In 1948 the teenage Martin Luther King Jr. was a first-year student at Crozer Theological Seminary, just outside Philadelphia.

He worked hard, studied challenging material and received good grades in some subjects, scoring B-pluses in Christian Mysticism and Greek Religion, an A-minus in Great Theologians and a solid A in Preparation of Sermon.

In one course, he struggled, earning only a C-plus.

That course was public speaking.

History tells us that the aspiring preacher went on to do well at the lectern. Yet this report card, on display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, tells us something important about King — his considerable achievements didn’t come without work.

King’s Crozer report card is among the letters, rough drafts, notes, sermons and other writings that are part of a collection of his personal papers owned by Morehouse College, and exhibited at the rights center.

The King estate put the archive on the auction block in 2006, and a coalition of Atlantans, using public and private funds, bought it and gave it to Morehouse.

That acquisition helped bring the National Center for Civil and Human Rights into existence. While city leaders, including then-Mayor Shirley Franklin, already had planned such a center, the King papers provided unbeatable content, a centerpiece for a facility that would tell Atlanta’s part of the civil rights story.

In particular, the collection helps tell what one exhibit designer calls the “human” side of the story: It shows the fallible student who would later become a world leader.

Among the 13,000 documents in the collection is a typed version of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” with King’s strike-throughs and editing marks, and a handwritten copy of a speech originally called “Normalcy Never Again,” but much better known as “I Have a Dream.”

The “Dream” speech isn’t among the documents exhibited at NCCHR this quarter, though it undoubtedly will rotate through the very limited number of items that can be held in the gallery’s nine cabinets. (The exhibit will change every three or four months.)

But another sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” is on display, evidence of a stubborn conscience that brought King much resistance, even from his own lieutenants.

The Morehouse collection, which shares vault space with Tupac Shakur’s papers, is not the only cache of King’s papers. In 1964 King donated his office files to Boston University, where he had earned his doctorate in 1955. The 83,000 items in the archive include letters, collegiate papers and financial documents.

Stanford University professor Clayborne Carson has edited seven volumes of King’s papers, and said the challenge for scholars is that there are “hundreds” of King archives, in basements all over the country. Thousands of documents are still at the King Center, he said.

The documents at the King Center, at Morehouse and in Boston, are available to researchers willing to make the trip. But what Carson would like to see are all these papers digitized and universally available online.

“Realistically, not many people have the resources to go to Morehouse or Boston or the King Center,” Carson said. “That’s a solvable problem with modern technology.”

In the meantime, visitors to the Atlanta center will have the unusual opportunity to see King’s tall slanting handwriting close-up. The demand is there. When Morehouse first brought the papers back from Sotheby’s auction house, a select few were displayed for four months at the Atlanta History Center, drawing 75,000 visitors. It was one of the center’s most popular exhibits.

“It is a surprise to younger people, because it’s all in cursive handwriting,” said Loretta Parham, director of the Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library.

At the NCCHR, the papers are displayed in a dimly lit gallery on the facility’s first floor. While the rest of the facility is enlivened with multi-media installations, the King gallery is quiet and contemplative.

Vicki Crawford, Morehouse’s director of the collection, helped select the papers that are on display. She said the writings should serve as a way to motivate 21st century activists, and she stressed the importance of linking King’s work with the contemporary human rights movement.

“I believe in that strongly — that’s going to be an offshoot from the museum,” Crawford said. “It’s going to inspire thinking about some of the unresolved business of the movement and of his vision. … It is not a memorial, it is a kind of work in progress.”