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The MLK Collection Resurfaces

Christine King Farris gives first King Leadership Lecture tonight

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Click on the slide show above to see the progression of the Martin Luther King, Jr., exhibition, leading up to its opening.

Curator Anthony Cromwell Hill is rushing around a display area in Mugar Memorial Library, meticulously arranging a collection of documents. The letters, telegrams, and manuscripts are creased, yellow with age, worn at the edges — and invaluable, for they tell the story of Boston University’s illustrious alum the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59).

Every once in a while, Hill pauses to survey the room. “Yes, I think this will work,” he says, bringing his fingers to his lips. Three silkscreen shades, with illustrations of King in the Birmingham jail, at the Montgomery bus boycott, and at the Lincoln Memorial, cast quiet shadows across the display cases, like stained glass windows. “When I started this project, I said, ‘This room must be sanctified,’” says Hill, whose mother, Adelaide Cromwell (Hon.’95), a College of Arts & Sciences professor emerita, established BU’s African Studies Program. “The works of Martin Luther King are worthy of a holy place.”

King donated his 83,000-item collection to the University in 1964, the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Thousands of scholars from around the world have come to explore the material, but not recently: the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center temporarily closed the King collection in 2007, after receiving two grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to produce an online catalog that allows the collection to be searchable by subject and name.

“The Martin Luther King, Jr., project marks the flagship effort to utilize this promising innovation and will honor Dr. King’s legacy,” says Vita Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93), director of the Gotlieb Center. “Having a searchable, electronic inventory will aid in the preservation of our collection and save researchers valuable time and resources.”

In honor of the reopening of the archive and of Mugar’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Reading Room, the Gotlieb Center is sponsoring the inaugural Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Lecture, to be given tonight by author, activist, and educator Christine King Farris, King’s only surviving sibling. Farris, an associate professor of education at Spelman College and author of Through It All: Reflections on My Life, My Family, and My Faith, will speak about her brother and the transformation of a political movement. She has been designated the center’s first Martin Luther King, Jr., Fellow. The lecture series was established to bring speakers to the BU community who are leaders in the quest for social justice and human rights.

An exhibition of items from the MLK archive titled Pin His Ear to the Wisdom Post: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the School of Prophets opens tonight as well. Its title is inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s epic poem God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Included are thousands of letters, photographs, and telegrams, as well as King’s briefcase, his Boston University transcripts, and a handwritten draft from his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. “The display is not all sweetness and light,” says Hill. “There is humor and drama. We will treat our most distinguished graduate with honor and humanity.”

Some of the most notable pieces include correspondence between King and Harold DeWolf, a School of Theology professor. When the University established the Boston University Civil Rights Scholarship Fund in 1960, King expressed his gratitude to DeWolf. “I think it is safe to say that Boston University has gone above and beyond any other institution at this point,” King wrote on May 10, 1960. “Naturally, this makes me very proud to be an alumnus of an institution with such concern and dedication.”

In a letter dated June 16, he wrote, “The setting up of [the Boston University Civil Rights Scholarship Fund] is unprecedented, and I know that it will serve a great purpose. I will be happy to pass the word along to college students and their advisors throughout the South that any Negro or white student who has been expelled from college because of their participation in the nonviolent protest against discrimination is invited to apply for assistance in carrying on his studies at Boston University.”

“King left BU believing that integration was possible because he experienced it in Boston,” Paladino says. “And look at what he did.”

Pin His Ear to the Wisdom Post: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the School of Prophets opens this evening, April 3, at 5:30 p.m., in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Reading Room on the third floor of Mugar Memorial Library, 771 Commonwealth Ave. The inaugural Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Lecture, being given by Christine King Farris, takes place at 7 p.m. in the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Hall, 775 Commonwealth Ave. A reception immediately follows. The event is free. For more information, call 617-353-3697 or e-mail archives@bu.edu.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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