Monday, June 12, 2006


History, or property?

Sotheby's will be auctioning off thousands of papers from the work of Martin Luther King, Jr, on behalf of Dr King's family. The New York Times opposes the sale, owing to the historical value of the papers, but I have mixed thoughts about it. The academic in me agrees with the Times, but the civil libertarian in me says that the papers belong to the family, and, while they might better choose to give them to a university library, they have the right to do with them as they please.

The Times editorial says

Americans would be rightly outraged to learn that the newly discovered papers of, say, Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln were being sold at auction to someone who might bar the general public from using them for research purposes [...].
This isn't the same thing. These aren't long-lost papers, discovered a century or two after Dr King's death; they are papers that have legitimately been in the hands of the family all along. I'd very much like them to be available to researchers, historians, and admirers of the values that Dr King held. But if I disagree, as I do, with last year's Supreme Court decision on the use of eminent domain to take private property, then why shouldn't that apply here as well?

I suppose the point really is that I agree with how the Times closes their editorial:

The King children owe it to their father's legacy to change their minds. Failing that, we can only hope that whoever buys the collection recognizes its immense historical value and preserves unfettered public access in perpetuity. If not, an important window into Dr. King's life during his most active years could well be closed forever.
But I'll add also, "If not, that is their choice to make."

Update, 24 June: Yesterday, a week before the auction, an Atlanta group has bought the documents outright and has turned them over to Morehouse College.

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