Atlanta group set to pay off loan for Martin Luther King papers

1964 photograph of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., taken by Dick DeMarsico, New York World Telegram staff photographer. Library of Congress photo from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

1964 photograph of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., taken by Dick DeMarsico, New York World Telegram staff photographer. Library of Congress photo from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

ATLANTA (AP) – Organizers of a civil and human rights museum planned for Atlanta said Wednesday they are poised to pay $11.5 million left on a loan so they can acquire the rights to 10,000 documents belonging to Martin Luther King Jr.

In June 2006, Atlanta’s mayor led an 11th-hour coup to buy the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection for $32 million only days before its planned public auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Organizers had pledged to pay off the loan in two years but had struggled in the economic downturn to raise donations.

A four-member finance and executive committee of the Atlanta City Council on Wednesday unanimously recommended repaying the remaining debt with the help of city-issued bonds later this month. The plan requires the approval of the full council, which is expected to meet on the issue Monday.

Doug Shipman, executive director of the museum project, said paying off the loan will finalize acquiring the exhibition rights to the papers. The collection – which includes King’s personal papers, sermons and books – is intended to be the cornerstone of The Center for Civil and Human Rights, which is planned to be built downtown and open in 2012.

“We feel like the final payoff will actually boost the effort of the center,” Shipman said. “We can go out and say they’re secure and this is how we’re going to use them.”

The King collection includes items ranging from canceled checks, to a term paper King wrote as a student in college and a draft of his most famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream,’ delivered at the 1963 March on Washington.

Atlanta – the birthplace of King and where he and his wife Coretta are buried – had been seen as the sentimental favorite in the planned bidding for the documents in 2006 despite speculation it could have faced stiff competition.

Morehouse College, where King earned a degree in sociology in 1948, is the steward of the papers and is responsible for archiving and preserving the collection for academic use.

Because the King Collection is considered a key economic development project for Atlanta, the city and Atlanta Development Authority agreed to issue $40 million in bonds to the center. The money was to be used for construction costs, but the center will use $11.5 million to secure the exhibition rights for the papers, said Cheryl Strickland, the authority’s managing director for the tax allocation district.

The remainder is still set aside for construction costs and cannot be spent before the center raises the $85 million it needs to break ground. The center is required to reach certain milestones as a condition for spending its bond money – approved last year by the council.

The council administers the funds and also must approve the proposed amendment to the agreement. City Councilman Kwanza Hall, whose district includes the proposed museum, said securing the King Collection is an important step.

“I think the papers are critical to the city and to continuing the buildout of the civil and human rights corridor,” Hall said. “There’s a lot of history within those papers that we don’t want to get away, so this is worth looking at seriously.”

The Center for Civil and Human Rights has been raising funds separately to pay its projected $125 million development and construction costs. In 2006, Coca-Cola Co. donated a $10 million, 2.5-acre parcel in the downtown tourist corridor, near the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola.

The center has raised about $60 million in cash and commitments so far. Organizers expect the center would generate $1.3 billion in income for the city, create thousands of jobs and attract 800,000 visitors in its first year.

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