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The papers of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., including speeches, letters, sermons, and other manuscripts, are housed at approximately 200 institutions around the world. The largest collections reside at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts; the King Center in Atlanta; and as of 2006, the Atlanta University Center in Atlanta, which houses papers deeded to Morehouse College.
King earned his doctoral degree from Boston University in 1954. Ten years later, King wrote a letter in which he donated to the Boston University Library more than 80,000 pages of his personal papers, dating from the early 1950s to 1961. After King's assassination in 1968, his widow, Coretta Scott King, announced the foundation of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta to honor her husband's legacy. In 1987, five years after the King Center opened to the public, Coretta Scott King sued Boston University for the return of her husband's documents, which she hoped to add to the center's collection. In 1993 a Massachusetts superior court ruled in the university's favor, however, and the papers remained in Boston.
Coretta Scott King did successfully collect many other papers pertaining to King, and today the King Center retains custody of dozens of boxes of material. In 1969, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, the staff began to inventory the documents at the center, but this work was not completed before her death in January 2006 and to date remains unfinished.
In 1985 the King Center launched the King Papers Project to gather and disseminate historical information regarding the civil rights leader's life and work. Under the direction of civil rights historian Clayborne Carson at Stanford University in Stanford, California, the King Papers Project produces educational materials for students and as of 2007 had published the first six volumes—covering King's career up to 1963—of an anticipated fourteen-volume edition. The volumes comprise in chronological order King's most significant speeches, sermons, and correspondence. To complete the project, Carson and his team of researchers selected fewer than 5,000 pieces from an estimated total of nearly 300,000 documents located at various archives throughout the country. The first volume, which documents King's youth and college years, was critically acclaimed when it appeared in 1992, and subsequent volumes were similarly applauded for shedding new light on the evolution of King's philosophy and leadership.
In June 2006 Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin announced that a host of the city's most influential philanthropists and corporate donors had secured an agreement to purchase from the King family a collection of King's papers for $32 million. Many of the papers had been stored for decades in the basement of Coretta Scott King's west Atlanta home, and the King Center in Atlanta had also previously maintained (although it never owned) much of the collection. Morehouse College, King's undergraduate alma mater, was selected as the home institution for the papers; the papers themselves are housed in the Archives and Special Collections Department of the Robert W. Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center.
This sale was the culmination of several years of protracted negotiations regarding these papers. After a deal with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., collapsed in 1999, the King estate turned to the New York branch of Sotheby's, the famed British auction house, to find a buyer for the papers still in the family's possession. Four years later, Sotheby's unsuccessfully pursued a single institutional bidder for the collection, which was appraised at $30 million. After Coretta Scott King's death, the family agreed to put the papers up for sale and scheduled an auction for June 30, 2006.
Only one week before the papers were slated for bidding, Franklin announced an eleventh-hour deal to keep the papers in King's hometown. Atlanta's nonprofit Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta handled the financial arrangements by establishing the ATLCF Collections LLC, a company dedicated to raising the necessary funds to purchase the papers, which one local authority described as the "cornerstone for Atlanta's cultural future." The impressive roster of donors includes the Coca-Cola Company, The Home Depot, former governor Roy Barnes, and builder Herman J. Russell, among many others.
The Morehouse collection contains more than 7,000 pages of King's papers, including drafts of his "I Have a Dream" speech, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and his moving "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." The acquisition of King's papers makes Morehouse one of a small number of national destinations for King researchers. An exhibition of part of the collection, titled "I Have a Dream: The Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection," was displayed in 2007 at the Atlanta History Center.