BOSTON — A TRIAL date has been set to determine the owner of more than 83,000 documents which the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once left to Boston University.
The trial, scheduled for March 2 in Boston, is the latest event in a continuing legal battle initiated in 1987 by Coretta Scott King, the slain civil rights leader's widow. Mrs. King sued the university that year seeking ownership of the papers so they could be kept with other King archives at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.
Boston University officials have long maintained that Dr. King meant for the university to keep the documents. They point to a letter written in 1964, in which King requested that the school keep the papers. He also made statements at a news conference later that year of his wish for the university to hold the documents, says Kevin Carleton, director of public affairs at Boston University. King earned a doctorate in theology at the university in 1955.
"We feel we have an obligation to Dr. King because he placed these papers here and made his intentions very clear that he wanted his papers here for use by researchers and that he wanted these papers to remain here," Mr. Carleton says. "At no time did he ever indicate a change of heart."
Mrs. King filed the lawsuit against Boston University after the school refused her requests to transfer the papers to Atlanta. In a complaint, she also alleged that the documents had been poorly maintained by the university. Her attorney, Archer Smith of Atlanta, has refused to comment on the case. But other attorneys for Mrs. King have argued in the past that the civil rights leader had meant for the school to hold on to the papers only temporarily and not to keep them as a permanent part of the univers ity's archives.
The documents consist of a wide range of correspondence, articles, and notes used by Dr. King. The collection also includes hate mail received by King as well material used to write his "I Have a Dream" speech.
"The bulk of the material would be from that time period when he was most actively engaged in the civil rights movement," Carleton says.
Earlier this week, Judge Herbert Abrams of the Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston denied requests for summary a judgement settling the matter out of court, and he set the March trial date.
The dispute over the King papers is not the only controversy involving Boston University and the late civil rights leader. Last fall, a committee of scholars appointed by the school concluded that King had plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation. But the committee found no reason to revoke the Dr. King's degree.
The first volume of a 14-volume collection of King's life through his own writings, titled "The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.," will be published next month by the University of California Press. The first volume, titled "Called to Serve," covers the period from January 1929 to June 1951. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis.
"It will be invaluable for scholars to have in one place - in every library throughout the world - the collective works of Martin Luther King," says John Cartwright, Martin Luther King professor of social ethics at Boston University.