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King papers part of movement's past, future

By Steve Almasy
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- After years at the Sotheby's auction house in New York, a collection of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers has come home to Atlanta.

The papers had been scheduled for sale last year when an anonymous group ponied up a reported $32 million to buy the roughly 10,000 documents and books.

The documents have been entrusted to the library at King's alma mater, Morehouse College, and CNN has been given rare access to King's writings, which illuminate his thoughts along the difficult road that ended with his assassination. (Watch Andrew Young describe King's final moments Video)

The collection features 7,000 papers written by King, including drafts of his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance address. They also include a 1946 college examination on the Bible, his earliest surviving theological writing, and papers he was working on just before he was killed in 1968. (Take a look at parts of the documents: Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5)

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who helped put together the group that bought the collection, said the papers trace the evolution of one of the world's great leaders.

"It kind of means everything to me," Franklin said last week after a public meeting on the papers at Atlanta's City Hall. "I never thought I'd have a chance to contribute to preserving Dr. King's legacy."

The city plans to build a center where the King papers and other exhibits remembering the civil and human rights fight will be housed.

The debate at the public meeting focused on where the museum should be built -- on donated land near the center of town and several popular tourist attractions or just east of downtown in the Sweet Auburn Historic District where King was born and later preached.

For now, the papers will be housed in the Robert W. Woodruff Library, which is run by Atlanta's historically black colleges, including Morehouse. Some of the documents will go on display at the Atlanta History Center from King's birthday on January 15 through May 13.

Franklin told the City Hall audience that Atlanta would break ground in 2008 on the civil rights museum.

Civil rights activist Evelyn Lowery said the papers will be a "focal point" of the proposed center.

"We're very lucky to have them as part of the center. We're looking forward to having them very much," said Lowery.

The rest of the world considers Atlanta one of the centers of the modern civil rights movement, and the papers will give tourists a chance to see what King's message was all about, Lowery and Franklin said.

Work on the center predated the discussions to acquire the papers, but the effort to purchase them has "a lot of synergy" with the ongoing quest to fund and build the museum, Franklin said.

Sheffield Hale, the chairman of the Atlanta Historical Society, has called the papers "key artifacts of our collective national history."

"These papers have an unsurpassed ability to evoke an age and its pride, sadness, frustration, anger and hope on both intellectual and emotional levels," Hale wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in October.

"Because of the civil rights era's proximity in time, the King papers have a remarkably visceral emotional effect on those who see them."

Smuggling paper into Birmingham jail

King's most famous printed work, which is part of the collection, has come to be called "Letter from Birmingham Jail." (Watch going to Birmingham believing he might get killed Video)

In April 1963, King was arrested in the Alabama city and while jailed read in a newspaper an open letter from white clergy members that criticized him as an outside agitator. He felt compelled to respond, writing: "When you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son who is asking 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?' ... then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

But it wasn't easy to get material to write on, said King's attorney, Clarence B. Jones. Jones said he smuggled in legal paper under his shirt for King's response.

"He had to have a paper to write on. But the only paper he had until I got there was the edges of a newspaper," Jones said. "And he said when I came in the next day, would I please bring him some yellow pads -- which I did."

Wyatt Tee Walker, who was King's chief of staff, said he was the only person in the area who could read King's "chicken scratch." Walker said it was obvious that King had put a lot of thought into the document.

"I could see that by the way it was written," he told CNN.

Andrew Young, one of King's closest friends and later a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once told PBS that the letter, published in June 1963, helped to define the civil rights movement for white people.

"Nobody black had learned anything from the 'Letter from the Birmingham Jail' or from the 'I Have a Dream' speech. That was a revelation of white people," Young said.

King's family welcomed the purchase of the papers in June.

"This is a wonderful outcome for this collection," said Dexter King, one of King's four children and the chief executive officer of his estate.

"I know my mother [the late Coretta Scott King] would have been happy to see the collection housed permanently in Atlanta, which always meant so much to her and to our family."


A collection of Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers features drafts of famous speeches as well as documents from his college days.


• Gallery: Documents: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5


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