The move to sell a collection of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s personal papers to the Library of Congress for $20 million hit congressional resistance this week. As some members of Congress were preparing to advance an authorization bill, others raised questions about whether it is proper for the library to spend such a vast amount on a private collection and about what exactly the library will be getting for its money.
At issue are many thousands of documents, including notes and letters from King near the end of his life. Most of the material is now stored at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, which is run by Dexter Scott King, one of the civil rights leader's four children. Other papers and artifacts are held by King's widow, Coretta Scott King.
The Senate approved the purchase last week (although no one knows where the money is coming from yet). However, at a Joint Committee on the Library meeting earlier this week, House members such as Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) raised serious questions.
The committee questioned whether there were precedents for such a large purchase. Most of the material at the library comes from donations. This would be the most expensive acquisition in the library's 200-year history.
Congress has appropriated money to the Library of Congress only on seven occasions for the acquisition of specific collections or rare books. "The last time was in the 1930s," said Boehner's press secretary Dave Schnittger, when the library acquired a Gutenberg Bible "and that was preceded by a lengthy process of trying to find a private donor" to underwrite the purchase.
"Boehner's point," Schnittger continued, "wasn't intended to derail the process. It was an effort to get at what appears to be a departure from normal procedure."
He added that his boss believes "these papers deserve to be in the Library of Congress."
The committee members also wondered who would own the intellectual property rights of the collection.
"The issue of intellectual property rights seems to have in some kind of way seeped into these discussions at a level which I don't think it belongs," said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
He said that he imagined the King family would retain some control over the use of the material. "I think the family has to reserve some proprietary interest," he said. "Somebody may want to go out and make some mockery of King."
Clyburn, Librarian of Congress James Billington and others traveled to Atlanta in August to initiate conversations with the King family. Clyburn said that he was only interested in getting the parties to agree that the papers should be at the Library of Congress. He figured that the details--cost, intellectual property rights and other issues--could be ironed out at a later date.
Some members of Congress want to talk about the details now.
"I think $20 million is an outrage," Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. King's material is clearly valuable, he said, but the price is too high. "That is what I call a payoff," he said.
David Garrow, a historian at Emory Law School in Atlanta and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of King, said, "It's going to be a big surprise to people how little there is in Dr. King's handwriting. This is not a man who had the time to sit back and look at the sky and jot down his considered thoughts."
But Willis Van Devanter, a Washington appraiser who went to Atlanta last week at the request of the library, put the value of the material at $28 million. "The material will bring you to tears," he said. "I've seen the government waste money on things that are not nearly so good. There's nothing emotional about my evaluation. It's somewhat surgical. I'm a taxpayer just like you."
Both the Senate and the House are wording their bills to allow the library to seek private funds for the purchase.
In a statement yesterday, Billington said that the library's considerable collection of civil rights papers "would be greatly enhanced" by the acquisition.
"Dr. King's great gift for oratory is reflected in his papers through a wide variety of speeches, unpublished sermons, annotations in books, and notations of selected passages and quotations," Billington said. "The principal research value of this collection is its potential to reveal how his mind worked and what inspired him--as well as how he inspired us."
Staff writer Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this report.