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How a Man Became an Icon

Martin Luther King, Jr., collection spotlights how BU shaped its most famous alum

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One person recalls that he first pulled up to campus in a spanking green Chevy, a gift from his father. Another remembers him as physically unprepossessing (“short and a little squat”). But his intellect and charisma nevertheless made him a magnet to the ladies.

Classmates and friends of Martin Luther King, Jr., share these memories on a video that plays at Mugar Memorial Library. The tape documents how BU turned the 22-year-old King into Dr. King, giving him both a title and a philosophy of nonviolence that would steer his civil rights work. More than four decades after he was gunned down on a Memphis motel balcony, King (GRS’55, Hon.’59) lives on in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center’s King collection, whose portal is Mugar’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Reading Room, where the video plays. The collection reopened in November after archivists spent three years cataloguing it electronically, along with collections at Atlanta’s Robert W. Woodruff Library, which serves a consortium of historically black colleges, and at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. (Stanford has King memorabilia through arrangements with his late widow, Coretta Scott King, who created the King Center in Atlanta, which oversees yet another repository.)

Anyone with a laptop now can probe the contents of all three collections by subject or name. And what will they find in BU’s? The majority of the 83,000 items are office files—letters, financial and legal papers, news clippings, travel schedules—that the civil rights leader gave the University in 1964, the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize. “It was this University that meant so much to me, in terms of the formulation of my thinking and the ideas that have guided my life,” King explained at the time.

The memorabilia spans historic events—such as the Montgomery bus boycott, which propelled King to national attention six months after he graduated—as well as his years as just another BU student (1951 to 1955), struggling with exams, writing papers, attending parties. Most of the material resides in a vault at Mugar, available by appointment for public inspection under tight security procedures: ID required, white gloves provided for handling documents, no pens-just-pencils, among others.

“People complain about the TSA now, but we’re worse than that,” Ryan Hendrickson, HGARC assistant director for manuscripts, says with a smile. More than 2,000 people have viewed that material over the decades, according to center director Vita Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93), and thousands more have examined pieces of the collection on exhibition elsewhere in the library, notably the King Reading Room. Anyone can walk into the third floor room weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (The room will be open until 5:30 on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.) Emphasizing King’s BU years, its glass cases display materials from the years leading up to King’s fame, such as course papers with arcane titles like “The Transition from Sense-Perception to Understanding.”

King himself deemed as most historically significant those documents in the collection charting the evolution of his philosophy of nonviolence. For example, BU owns the handwritten draft of a chapter from his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. “Chapter VIII: Pilgrimage to Non-violence” recalls how he’d grown up “abhorring” segregation in his native Georgia. “I had come perilously close to resenting all white people,” King wrote in red ink.

But as an undergraduate at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, he read Henry David Thoreau’s famous 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience,” in which the philosopher exhorted readers to follow their own conscience. “Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system,” King’s handwriting continues, “I was so deeply moved that I re-read the essay several times. This was my first intellectual contact with the theory of non-violent resistance.”

Such material has made BU’s collection “a crucially important resource” for scholars hunting information on King’s family background and development as a leader, says Clayborne Carson, director of Stanford’s MLK institute.

“BU’s collection has been essential for me in my role as editor of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he says. “By a large margin, BU has provided more of the documents that have been selected for inclusion in published volumes of The Papers than has any other archive.”

When he donated the papers, King credited his BU teachers for “the philosophical position that guides my theology.” The School of Theology was known at the time as a hothouse of the philosophy of Boston Personalism, which stressed “personality and character,” says Paladino. King’s focus on good character shaped the Montgomery bus boycott, she says, when he had protesters sign cards affirming that they would observe what he considered the virtues of nonviolence and faith in God.

Paladino says she remembered this moral code years later in a conversation with King’s sister Christine King Farris, who had remarked on her late brother’s mediocre “C” in his BU logic course. “I said it wasn’t very logical what he was saying, to tell black people to march peacefully in front of all these people who were going to lynch them,” says Paladino. “Those who would walk peacefully are the ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do’ mentality. To me, it’s a discerning moment in our history.”

There’s one item in the collection to haunt a careful observer. It’s the document certifying King’s graduation, a typed blue sheet, faded and stained, that runs down the standard list of academic accomplishments: French and German requirements passed, course grades, the title of King’s dissertation, A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.

The document concludes with a brief notation, appended by some forgotten functionary, its stark, typed detachment echoing a gunshot almost 43 years ago that sundered a Memphis spring night:

4/4/68. DECEASED.

The online catalogue of King collections can be found here. Hendrickson and Walter Fluker, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership at the School of Theology, will use documents from the collection in a Student Discovery Series seminar, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement, on January 26 at 6 p.m. More information is available here. King’s life will be celebrated at 1 p.m. Monday, January 17, in the Metcalf Ballroom in the George Sherman Union during the University’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on How a Man Became an Icon

  • Anonymous on 01.22.2011 at 3:44 pm

    I had no idea Dr. King had this relationship to Boston University. Thanks for the article and video.

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