What I Talk About When I Talk About Dr. King
by Courtney Chartier, Head of Research Services, Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library, Emory University
In 2007 I was hired as an Archivist working on the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection at the Atlanta University Center (AUC) Robert W. Woodruff Library. I moved to Atlanta having never been here except for the day of my interview, but there was nothing that could stop me from accepting the opportunity to work with the papers of an international icon like Dr. King.
As an archivist, my job was to organize the papers, both physically and intellectually, to preserve the papers and provide access for researchers by writing an online finding aid. It took two years and a team of four to complete this task.
After the project ended, I continued to work at AUC as a staff member in the Archives, and found that my duties to Dr. King had not ended, but changed. While I was no longer handling and studying documents from the King papers on a daily basis, I had the responsibility of teaching from the collection, either in the classroom, or through other kinds of public programming like exhibits or group tours.
It was at this point that I truly began to learn about Dr. King and his legacy. I had read the biographies and histories and knew the documents well, but what I had not done was think about interpreting those documents for others into a story for others. I had not yet learned what to talk about when I talked about Dr. King.
I found out quite quickly that while most Americans know the bus boycott and the March on Washington, not all know what was happening in between those events, or the true scale of the work of the Civil Rights Movement, the mundane and the monumental.
While Dr. King’s “greatest hits” are truly great, his life and work tell an even broader story. I learned to teach about the Dr. King who, while speaking before the nation on the Lincoln Memorial steps, was also a working minister, delivering a sermon at his home church on those precious Sundays between his travels. I talk about the Dr. King who, after traveling to Washington to attend a Presidential Inauguration, was also administering an active organization, going to staff meetings and approving pay raises. I talk about the Dr. King who, while winning the Nobel Peace Prize, was a lifelong scholar and always carried a novel, a book of history and a Bible.
And maybe most importantly, I have learned to talk about the Dr. King who, with his legacy of a dream that resonates with millions around the world, could not have done it alone. The work of the movement was hard work in human costs, but also hard working in planning and organizing meaningful and nonviolent protest activities. The legacy of dozens of secretaries, scores of strategists and students, and thousands of marchers is told through Dr. King’s papers and his accomplishments.