Back to The Future: Black history goes digital

Out of more than 200,000 original documents belonging to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the students who archived them for the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change Imaging Project say the most important document was King’s report card from Morehouse College. The man who is known for his  “I Have a Dream” speech and his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ received a ‘C’ in speech and a ‘C’ in English, and so explains the irony of what may seem  like a trivial document in the academic career of one great man. To the students responsible for digitizing and archiving documents like King’s less than stellar report card, it was the civil rights leader’s humanly flawed side they believe has the power to inspire future generations.

Khalfami Lawson, a senior studying political science at Kennesaw State, says he was more than willing to be involved with such a huge undertaking. A native of Atlanta, Lawson wanted to explore the layers of Dr. King’s character.

“To be honest I grew up in the city of Atlanta so I had the usual trip to the King Center for his birthday and Black History Month. My problem is that when you go to the King Center you get a linear explanation of history. You go there and it’s the ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ and Coretta Scott King sat down and that’s Black History. I thought there’s a bit more to it than that,” Lawson explains. “Upon hearing there were documents at The King Center archives that hadn’t been seen and there was opportunity to digitize them and make them accessible via computer I wanted to be a part of that.”

Each student submitted a resume to J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. who established the program and even hired veterans to help archive the documents. Lawson says the experience opened his eyes about Dr. King and gave him a new perspective on excellence; especially to see the great orator’s transcripts.

“My absolute favorite is Dr. King’s transcripts because it was a complete shock to me that Dr. King had a 2.5 as an undergrad,” Lawson chuckles. “It is important to see that Dr. King was not absolutely perfect. You can see he’s not perfect, but look what he’s done. “

Attendees of the Martin Luther King Jr., Salute to Greatness Dinner, walked around  panels displaying everything from letters written by King to Congress explaining the importance of civil rights to personal correspondence to King’s daughter apologizing for missing her birthday. Observers used touch screen monitors to view most of the documents and there were overhead machines set up to view transparencies.

The project began in June 2011, with students and workers digitizing images from day one. They began working about 30 hours a week, but the hours quickly increased with the students taking about 6,000 photos a day- sometimes twice a day. Rico Hall, a graduate student at Clayton State University receiving a master’s degree in archival studies, put in long hours as the website transcriber learning Dr. Kings writing style and transcribing his documents. Hall says the project allowed him to get to know Dr. King on a personal level.

“My overall respect for Dr. King made me want to get involved, but he was still a mystery to me. I knew the major things like The March on Washington, but he was still a mystery,” Hall explains. “This project allowed me to get to know him in a much more personal way and the world to get to know him in a much more personal way.  It’s extremely important because it will change lives and have a greater impact than we understand today in the next 10-15 years.”

Hall says many of the issues King faces are still relevant today and that is why the project is important because it is making information readily available to anyone, unlike before when the papers were only seen by a privileged few. The young archivist says the most interesting documents offered insight into King’s correspondences and interactions with others.

“I couldn’t believe the books he would read and he would write in the margins, to see his actual thoughts and what he thought about religion, science and issues of the day,” Hall recalls. “I saw a telegram he sent to Malcolm X’s wife when he was assassinated it was very personable. Like his transcripts from Morehouse shows he was an average student, not an ‘A’ student like everyone thinks. He was a real person; a real human being. A lot of people look at him like this myth, but he was a man.”

The MLK Center Imaging Project gave Hall the opportunity to work on his craft and become closer to the man responsible for the publicity The Civil Rights Movement received. Dr. King lived a very public life, but the students learned that what happened off the history book pages had the most profound effect. Marquis Brown, a recent graduate of Morehouse  and indexer/digitizer says, it was Dr. King’s ability to go through adversity and continue to display great character inspired him the most.

“My favorite document was a letter from a young kid who was like five years old and he donated $3 dollars and wanted to be a part of SCLC, but even more inspiring was that Dr. King wrote back to him,” Brown explains. “He took time to write back out of his busy day and things he was going through on a regular day, he took time to write to this young kid and possibly change his life forever.”

Brown says it was King’s ultimate triumph and perseverance that should serve as the main focus of his life, especially for young people today.

“I think it motivated me because I saw him go against the wind so strong at that time. To know you are going to go through adversity and things of that nature, but if you keep your mind set and know who you are and what you stand for and your goals -you will be alright,” Brown says. “I really appreciate Dr. King for that.”

For more information on the  Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change go to

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