Twenty years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, his widow is fighting a court battle to have his papers returned to Atlanta from Boston University, where Dr. King earned his doctorate in theology. Coretta Scott King claims that her husband only meant for the university to be a ``repository'' for a collection of his early papers. But Boston University officials maintain that the papers were a gift or trust from Dr. King.
In a letter dated July 16, 1964, Dr. King gave 83,000 of his documents dating from 1956 to 1961 to Boston University. A Massachusetts Superior Court is deciding whether this letter, the only written indication of King's intentions, gives Mrs. King or the school ownership of the papers.
``Mrs. King has said that the papers were sent to Boston University for safekeeping,'' says her lawyer, Rudolph Pierce. ``Everyone seems to forget the circumstances in the '60s - there was a real need for safekeeping with the threat of bombing.''
In the complaint filed by Mrs. King, she claims that her husband remained legal owner of the papers even after they went to the university. She claims that her husband never indicated that any portion of his papers were to become the absolute property of the school, though he said in the July 16 letter he would so indicate.
The final line of the letter is a point of contention between Mrs. King and Boston University. She claims that the end of the letter is void because it violates the statute of wills.
Boston University attorney and trustee Melvin Miller says the civil rights leader never indicated that he wanted the papers moved to another site. ``The letter created a gift or a trust in Boston University for the papers,'' Mr. Miller says. ``There never was any statement from Dr. King himself to revoke the terms of that letter.''
Dr. King may have instructed others to get the papers back from the school after 1964. David Garrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for a King biography, says that Dr. King talked about setting up a civil rights archives. ``In references on at least two of the FBI wiretaps [of King's phone] I came away with a clear impression that King's advisers were envisioning getting the papers back in Atlanta,'' Dr. Garrow says.
A Boston University student who worked in the library's Special Collections Department reported in a January 1986 article for the school paper that Dr. King had formed such a group. After talking with Mrs. King and others in Atlanta, the student reported that Dr. King's father, wife, and lawyer had been part of a group whose purpose was to get the papers back. Mrs. King allegedly wrote the president of Boston University and the head of Special Collections at the school about their concern for the papers.
L. Harold DeWolf urged the civil rights leader to leave his earlier papers to the school in 1964. Dr. DeWolf taught King when he studied for his doctorate in theology at Boston University in the 1950s. The professor's entreaties probably were the main reason that the papers were given to the school, says Garrow. ``He had great affection for Harold DeWolf, and DeWolf kept pushing him on it - though not unpleasantly,'' Garrow says.
``DeWolf quite rightfully feared that the papers could be lost or destroyed ... at the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference],'' he says. In the early years of the group's existence, the SCLC ``was a seat-of-the-pants operation,'' says Garrow. ``Seemingly half of Atlanta wandered through there at times. King was much too busy to reflect on these things [where the papers should go]. The path of least resistance was to let DeWolf go ahead and take them.''
The complaint filed by Mrs. King alleges that the university mishandled her husband's papers. And the January 1986 article in the school paper mentioned the poor condition of the collection.
Biographer Garrow says, ``I've been to 40 or 50 different archives in the course of my work on King and the movement, and if Boston University's collection is not the poorest, it is certainly one of the most poorly maintained collections I've ever seen.''
After the article appeared in the school paper, the collection was put into acid-free folders and boxes. A special room was set aside to display parts of the collection, including King's correspondence with US presidents.
Mrs. King is seeking damages for negligence in caring for the papers. The university's careless treatment of the collection resulted in theft and diminished value of the papers, according to the complaint.
Mrs. King wants the Boston University papers to be added to a collection of more than 100,000 civil rights papers kept at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. The center's collection includes papers from the later part of Dr. King's life.
The university's trustees turned down an offer by Mrs. King to let BU keep photocopies of the papers. The originals would have been sent to Boston University for display one year out of every 10. And Mrs. King turned down a BU offer to give the Atlanta center photocopies of the collection.