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BU, Morehouse archives of MLK papers to hit Web

Daniela Caride

Vita Paladino remembers.

She remembers watching on television as the hoses unloaded, the water hammering black bodies to the pavement amid the crowded chaos of Southern streets. She remembers watching the horrors visited upon blacks during the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s.

She remembers being mortified.

“I was just a kid and I can tell you: I knew my country was doing something wrong,” says Paladino. “It was chilling to see people treated this way.”

Four decades have passed, but the memories have not. Now the director of Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Paladino is still stirred by what she saw, and she feels compelled to help keep the memory of the civil rights struggle alive for others.

That compulsion has led Paladino and the Gotlieb center to a massive undertaking, for which BU recently received $600,000 in grants from the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: cataloging the roughly 80,000 items in the center’s extensive Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, which includes a variety of documents and objects such as the civil rights icon’s office files, manuscripts, awards and letters.

“That is probably why I am so committed to this project and to collecting [materials from] other African Americans,” says Paladino.

It’s a commitment shared by several other major repositories of King documents.

Joining BU in the ambitious project are the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, now being cataloged by the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, which is producing a scholarly edition of King’s papers and providing scholarly records and assistance in speeding along the cataloging process.

When the extensive inventories are complete — expected to be by November 2009 — a Web site will make available the entire archives of two of the world’s major King collections, complete with annotated information on the items and research from the editors of King’s papers, in a single place as a scholarly resource that is searchable by both Library of Congress subject headings and name.

“I am very proud that Boston University is at the forefront of such an outstanding project that not only will set a new standard for what is possible in the archival industry, but also facilitate and encourage research of such an important figure in the history of both BU and the nation,” said Boston University President Dr. Robert A. Brown in a statement announcing the Mellon Foundation grants.

To Paladino, the project is about making it easier for more people around the world to get an insight into King’s mind and life. She thinks he would want that.

“He expected these papers to be used,” she says.

Prior to its November 2007 closing in preparation for the two-year archiving process, BU’s King collection had been available to the public since he donated it in 1964. Nine years earlier, he had earned his Ph.D. in systematic theology at the university.

According to Paladino, King donated the collection to BU because “he had a great experience here.”

“He met his wife in Boston and he was encouraged by [his] professors that gave him strength to do the harder work down South,” she says.

Today, Paladino says, the King papers are the most heavily used among the Gotlieb center’s 2,000 collections.

“Forty-three years later, it tells you something,” she says. In her view, “it tells you that this man is the most important 20th-century figure.”

Leading her to that view, she says, is the observation that people use King’s collection differently from all other collections the center keeps.

“I see people come looking for something very deep … looking for an answer, looking for a recipe, looking for inspiration,” she says. “A hundred years from now, this collection will still be heavily used.”

The potential for inspiration is one of the things that fascinates Paladino most about King’s collection. The connections needn’t always be complicated — a simple way for people to connect with King is through the realization that while he was a remarkable leader, King was not the best student in class.

For example, “he got a C in Logic,” says Paladino.

When Paladino brings groups touring the Gotlieb center past King’s college transcript, she never misses the opportunity to drive that point home.

“You see, it doesn’t matter what your grades are,” she says. “You can still make a difference in the world.”