Tuesday, June 27, 2006
From The New York Times…
The Deal That Let Atlanta Retain Dr. King’s Papers
By SHAILA DEWAN
ATLANTA— It was in a short conversation over dinner, devoid of bargaining, that Mayor Shirley Franklin took the first step toward ensuring that a significant chunk of this city’s patrimony would be returned here for good.
“She said, ‘How much?’ I told her the price, and she said, ‘O.K.,’” recalled Phillip Jones, a King family representative who met with the mayor that day, June 18, to discuss the impending auction of the bulk of the papers belonging to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Late last Friday, a week before the auction was to be held at Sotheby’s in New York, where the papers are on exhibit, officials announced a deal. With no collateral, Ms. Franklin had secured a privately financed loan of $32 million allowing a nonprofit organization created by the city to stop the auction and buy the collection from the King family. The papers are to go to Morehouse College here, Dr. King’s alma mater.
Dexter King, the younger of Dr. King’s two sons, said he thought his father and mother, Coretta Scott King, who died this year, would have been happy with the arrangement.
“I actually felt that if Atlanta really could step up and do this, it would be so wonderful, and I’m personally grateful to the mayor as well as to Ambassador Young,” Mr. King said of Andrew Young, who had been encouraging Ms. Franklin’s efforts. “It really was a community effort, and that’s what I appreciated most about it.”
As with many of the King family’s decisions, the prospect of the auction had brought grumbling among Dr. King’s former associates, persistent critics of the family and city boosters who said Atlanta, his hometown, was the collection’s rightful home.
Some had said the millions that the collection would fetch at auction was nothing but ransom that would go to the four King children, who have frequently provoked scorn for their handling of their father’s legacy and the nonprofit center here that bears his name. Others had fretted that the collection — 10,000 items, most of which bear Dr. King’s handwriting — would be sold to a private owner and lost to scholars, or to Atlanta, forever.
But none of Atlanta’s institutions was prepared to muster the asking price for the papers, and it was rumored that New York City, among other parties, was prepared to compete for them. It was left to Ms. Franklin to take action. To ensure an advantage, she agreed to pay $2 million more than the $30 million for which the papers were appraised in the late 1990’s.
“I didn’t want to risk losing the papers over a million dollars,” the mayor said in a telephone interview Monday. “To Atlanta they are priceless.”
Mr. Jones, the King family representative, defended the price, saying, “Those in the know said to us over and over again: this auction, these papers are going to go way above the appraised value.”
Still, some people whom Ms. Franklin approached for help thought the family should simply donate the papers. Dr. King’s two sons had already been criticized for taking six-figure salaries from the King Center while it fell into disrepair and for aggressively defending their right to control their father’s intellectual property. And in insisting on retaining the copyright, some scholars had complained, the family had made it hard for the papers to find an institutional home.
But archivists say such an arrangement is not unusual.
“It’s a double standard,” Dexter King said from his home in Malibu, Calif. If the family makes a point of retaining copyright, he said, “then all of a sudden we see in the media, ‘The King family is greedy’; no, we’re just following the historical standard.”
Ms. Franklin said she had three points in response to people who thought the family should have given the papers away. “Dr. King copyrighted his own work,” she said, “so he expected that it would have value and expected it would be part of the legacy. Mrs. King very much supported the sale of the papers to the appropriate institution. And the third thing that I say is that Dr. King left the rest of us a tremendous legacy, but he was not a wealthy man,” and the bulk of his family’s inheritance lies in his intellectual property.
In coming up with the necessary money, Ms. Franklin began to call in favors from a long list of Atlanta’s major corporations and prominent citizens, including Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola and Tyler Perry, author and star of “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Ultimately, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, the developer Herman Russell, Turner Broadcasting and Cox Enterprises, the owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also agreed to help.
Meanwhile, Mr. Jones told Sotheby’s that he thought the family had a buyer.
The deal still requires some work, though: Ms. Franklin has secured only $8.8 million in pledges; the rest of the money is in loan guarantees. Last Wednesday, David Redden, a vice president of Sotheby’s, spoke to the mayor for the first time and asked whether, before the auction was canceled, she would be able to come up with the money. In reply, she cited one of her major accomplishments: raising $3 billion to bail out the city’s water system, which had been ailing for years.
During a week of intense negotiations, Ms. Franklin decided that the papers would go to historically black Morehouse College, which was attended not only by Dr. King but also by his father, grandfather and two sons. Morehouse, where Dr. King’s funeral was held after his assassination in 1968, does not have its own archives, however, and so the collection will initially be housed at a library serving that college and several others.
The deal was hailed as a victory for Ms. Franklin. It was, The Journal-Constitution reported, a “classic Atlanta story — like winning the 1996 Olympics — of taking a near impossible challenge and galvanizing city support to make it happen.”