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Hosting the King papers

Let's not get carried away. Georgia and Atlanta are probably not ready for an international civil rights museum. Heck, we couldn't even land a NASCAR museum - though our state government was ready to give away the taxpayers' store to bring a collection of old racecars to the Peach State.

Nevertheless, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and her allies are freshly enthused about the prospect of a great showcase of civil rights artifacts in Atlanta. Whether the museum is feasible is debatable, but Mayor Franklin's exuberance is understandable.

She has pulled off a whale of a deal. She rescued the papers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from a New York auction block. She forked over $32 million to King's heirs to keep the papers in Atlanta and Georgia where they belong.

The mayor came up with the bundle from a variety of sources, mostly rich professionals and corporate giants. No matter.

Without the mayor, the King collection might have landed in avaricious hands. The papers could have been sold piecemeal and scattered around the globe.

Now, they will be stored and exhibited by Morehouse College, King's alma mater. The documents will be kept in the Woodruff Library in the Atlanta University complex.

What's the big deal? Simply this: King was the point man in the most significant social upheaval in American and Southern culture since the Civil War. He is among the great personalities who shaped our republic.

Would the civil rights movement have occurred without King? Yes, indeed. In fact, the struggle for black equality and justice had already begun in earnest when King arrived on the scene.

Still, remembering the 1950s and 1960s, I wonder what would have happened if King had not emerged. We should thank our lucky stars that he did. Without him, unbridled violence might have become the era's enduring legacy. The American South could have become another South Africa or Kenya, raked by destruction and bloodshed.

Instead, we survived and thrived in the last half of the 20th century because of King's direction of the nonviolent movement. We put government-sanctioned segregation behind us.

In his day, King was openly lambasted as a philanderer and a tool of communism. Even now, we forget his real offstage identity. He was a member in good standing of the Atlanta Negro establishment. His father and his father's wealthy friends played an important though often behind-the-scenes role in promoting the region's prosperity. The King family was a vital part of the system. Sure, King wanted to reform the white-dominated culture, but he did not want to destroy it - yet many of his rivals did.

Few American historical collections are more important than the King papers. Georgia and Atlanta should honor Franklin for helping bring them home.

However, saving the papers and paying off King's offspring are just the beginning. Preserving and archiving the papers in a proper manner are as important as obtaining them.

Until now, the stewardship of the King legacy has been badly handled. The King Center, established in Atlanta to honor MLK Jr., fell into disrepair. Its roof leaked, and the premises were kept less than spotless. Poorly conceived exhibits diminished the Center's importance as a historical venue. The King family rebuffed efforts of the U.S. Park Service to take charge. To be sure, the Kings needed money more than they needed plaques and medals. Well, they have their wealth at last, and King's most valuable assets have found a new home.

Now comes the sequel to "The Landing of the King Papers." To be frank, Morehouse and Atlanta University probably lack adequate infrastructure and expertise to handle the unanticipated treasure. Whether the school and the black community reach out for help will be instructive to see.

The University of Georgia and Emory University possess the talent and imagination to help preserve and show off this wonderful archive. Calling on UGA and Emory for aid may not sit well with some of Atlanta's black leaders. The Athens school is still regarded as a white-bubba bastion. In some quarters, Emory is seen as a center of condescending liberal paternalism. An Emory scholar has disparaged the papers' value. Oh, yes, one other thing: Additional millions of dollars will be required to care and maintain the documents.

We should keep our fingers crossed that Atlanta learned its lesson a decade ago. The city and state celebrated when they won the right to host the 1996 Olympic Games. They failed to recognize that winning the opportunity to host the competition was not the endgame. Because of greed and racial turf battles, the Atlanta Olympics did not live up to expectations. Surely, the current generation of city leaders won't let the King papers travel down the same road. Buying the papers is only the beginning.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.