Hopes faded this week that the Martin Luther King Jr. papers would be on display at the Library of Congress during its bicentennial blowout celebration April 24, 2000. The House of Representatives appears poised to recess for the year without authorizing their purchase.
"I'm disappointed," said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) yesterday from his home in Columbia. "I had hoped we could get this acted on in time for . . . the 200th anniversary of the Library of Congress."
Under the leadership of Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), the House administration committee that watches over the library has apparently chosen to wait until next year before making a final decision on the purchase of the King documents. Thomas might hold hearings on the subject when Congress returns in January, said his press secretary, Jason Poblete.
Thousands upon thousands of letters, sermons and speeches from King's final years are included in the collection. The papers were appraised at roughly $30 million. The King family, at the urging of Clyburn, has agreed to sell them to the library for $20 million. The Senate approved legislation last month authorizing the purchase, but some members of the House raised questions about the price tag, the precedents and control of the intellectual property rights.
The library is celebrating its bicentennial all next year with concerts, readings, exhibitions and other activities. The festivities will peak on April 24, with a mammoth block party, commemorative coins and a stamp and the sealing of a time capsule to be opened 100 years hence.
Proponents of the King purchase hoped that some of the key documents could also be exhibited that day. "Part of the celebration of the nation's library will suffer" because of the delay in congressional approval, Clyburn said. He added that there is still an unlikely possibility the House could approve the measure next week before the holiday recess.
But Thomas has indicated that hearings might be necessary "to take a look at some of the issues that clearly exist," said Dave Schnittger, press secretary for Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who also has some reservations about the King papers.
Boehner "has never ruled out a modified proposal that could be adopted this year," Schnittger said. "It's disappointing that it may not happen this year. It's a little bit puzzling that we haven't seen more of an energetic attempt to iron out the wrinkles in this deal. There are clearly some problems, but they seem surmountable."
From the library's perspective, "The theme of our bicentennial celebration, which is really a year-long thing, is `Gifts to the Nation.' This would be a singularly important one," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.