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Sotheby's Prepares to Auction Draft of  'I Have A Dream' Speech - 2003-08-28

As the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have A Dream" speech is commemorated, the international auction house, Sotheby's, is preparing to sell part of his archive. Included among the items to be sold is an early draft of that address.

The price tag is estimated at $30 million for the 7,000-piece collection of Dr. King's personal writings, notations, journals and letters now on display at the New York auction house.

The exhibit includes some material that has never been seen by the public, such as drafts of speeches written on loose sheets of paper in Dr. King's own hand. There is also a college examination, a journal he kept while in prison, books from Dr. King's personal library, and a collection of letters and telegrams he received from famous people.

But the showpiece of the collection is an early version of what became the "I Have A Dream" speech, which Dr. King delivered during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. When Dr. King wrote the draft, he titled it, "Normalcy Never Again."

Sotheby's representatives say the public can learn a great deal about the civil rights leader's thought process by seeing his works in progress. Elizabeth Muller heads Sotheby's Books and Manuscripts Division. She points to an early incarnation of the "I Have A Dream" speech in one of the books included in the sale. Dr. King made notes in the book of sermons by J. Wallace Hamilton, published in 1954.

"The handwriting appears to be rather early because Dr. King is still working in pencil," said Ms. Muller. "And Hamilton has written a sermon called 'Shattered Dreams.' And Dr. King has written above it a new title, 'A Dream That Did Not Come True,' and he's done an outline for his own sermon on dreams. So we can see as early as the mid 1950s that the whole idea of the motif of the dream was coming to the fore."

A deal to sell the collection to the Library of Congress for $20 million in 1999 fell through, in part because of the large amount of money involved. In the past, most civil rights collections have been donated.

But David Redden, vice president of Sotheby's, believes there is a market for the collection, which he calls, "the most important non-presidential archive in America in the 20th century."

"I don't think you put a dollar price on scholarly value," he said. "I think that's something that's inestimable. You can put a value on a collection like this, in the sense that there is a huge commercial marketplace that is vitally interested in papers, manuscripts connected with the great figures of our civilization and certainly Dr. King is way up there in the pantheon."

Mr. Redden says he recently sold a three-page letter from Thomas Jefferson for more than one million dollars. And he cites other historical collections, like the Watergate Papers, which have sold for five million dollars.

But some scholars are questioning the high price associated with the collection, because much of the civil rights era contents have been known to historians for decades. The King family retains control over the sale, and also places significant restrictions on reproduction and use of all speeches and materials relating to Dr. King.

David Garrow is author of the 1986 Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Dr. King, called Bearing the Cross. He says the money factor presents a danger to the future of intellectual enterprise.

"The fundamental problem remains that scholarly use of any of this material would be very, very heavily encumbered by anyone having to reach a financial arrangement with the Kings in order to reproduce or quote extensively from it even if some institution does spend the money to acquire it," he commented. "That strikes me as a potentially fatal obstacle here."

The collection has been for sale for more than a year, but Sotheby's has only opened it to the public in time for the 40th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

Re-reading the speeches in Dr. King's handwriting, and reliving the moments of that tumultuous time, some visitors have been moved to tears. Cecile Meltzer says she thinks more people should have access to Dr. King's collection.

"I certainly think this should be just the beginning of having this available to the widest possible audience," she said. "Because it is at least as relevant as it was 40 years ago. Even more so."

Scholars agree, and hope the collection will end up at a major university or library. Sotheby's says it is currently having talks with an undisclosed potential buyer.