Ryan Hendrickson, assistant director for manuscripts at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, spoke with WGBH News about the collection of Dr. King's personal papers that are preserved at the center, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Joe Mathieu: As we've been telling you, it was 50 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. As many reflect on his activism and his famous speeches, we're going back to the beginning this morning, to his time here in Boston, where he decided to dedicate his life to fighting for civil rights. This is Dr. King speaking at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston back in 1963.
“No area of our country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood and the estrangement of the races in the North can be as devastating as the segregation of the races in the South.”
Sounds like it was recorded yesterday. And joining us now to give us a better sense of Dr. King's time here in Boston, archivist Ryan Hendrickson of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research center at BU, where a big collection of the doctor's personal papers and documents are preserved. Good morning and welcome to WGBH’s Morning Edition.
Ryan Hendrickson: Thank you very much.
JM: I'm curious, as we start at the beginning, why Boston? What drew Dr. King here?
RH: Well, he was continuing his studies from Crozer Theological Seminary. He was somebody who was interested in studying systematic theology. And BU was one of the premier schools of theology in the United States. It also had this very long and interesting history of being open to educating everyone who wanted an education.
It was founded by a guy who was a staunch abolitionist, believed women and men of all races and creeds should have access to higher education, and that had continued all the way up through the 50s and really continued almost into the 70s. But what was interesting about BU at that time was you had professors who had been in the earlier phases of the civil rights movement going back to the 20s and 30s. And, King, when he comes to campus, you know, he connects with those professors and with those people very quickly.
JM: Do we know what Dr. King thought of Boston as a city? This is pre-busing. This is before a lot of the racial strife that Boston is associated with.
RH: Well, I think he had mixed feelings about it. I think he had a lot of great experiences in Boston. He had a lot of friends. He met people here who he had great relationships with for the rest of his life. He met his wife in Boston — you know, Coretta Scott King. She was enrolled in New England Conservatory. And so I think it was it was a mix for him, but I think overall he had so many positive experiences. He did write, later on in his life, you know, fondly about his memories here.
JM: We're talking on WGBH Radio with archivist Ryan Hendrickson on this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. Now, you know all of this and can tell these stories, because you're pulling from many different sources: recordings, letters, from other people writing about him. Is that the work of an archivist?
RH: That's right. Yeah, well so, a lot of the work that I do is trying to help people connect with the documents in his collection. The way it came to us was actually through a man named Harold DeWolf.
RH: And when they were first building the new library and BU back in 1964, they were going to create a special collections department — they hadn't had one before. So Professor DeWolf basically called up King, who he was very good friends with at that point, and said “‘would you be interested in giving your papers to Boston University?” And King said “yeah, that's a great idea.”
So DeWolf basically jumped in a van, drove all the way down to Atlanta straight through, and they loaded up, I think it was about four filing cabinets worth of his papers on the spot, drove them all the way back up to Boston and that became really the first collection of papers that we had at Boston University that became the beginning of the whole archive.
The most personal material really is from his time as a student, where he's writing these papers and he's taking notes and you can see him formulating his thoughts about various issues about nonviolence, and about working out all kinds of philosophical concepts. And then one of the things we have in the collection that people always respond to is his old briefcase that's on display in the library, and it's a remarkable piece, because it's just an old beaten up leather briefcase. And it looks like one that anyone would carry, but you see it and you get a physical, visceral sense of the amount of traveling he did and sort of the work he did just by showing up in all of these places and carrying the message with him. And just this kind of relentless effort to keep that momentum going, you know, and keep this this mass movement alive.
JM: Appreciate you joining us very much, Ryan Hendrickson of the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Thanks for being with us on WGBH’s Morning Edition.
RH: Thank you very much.