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King's I Have a Dream collection offers the personal touch

How different would our impression of American history be if Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 had begun, "Normalcy — never again"?

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Instead, King diverged from his prepared words that day and in the process crafted one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century.

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A moment in history that in retrospect seems so concrete was once, as an early draft of King's "I Have a Dream" speech on view at the Atlanta History Center illustrates, a work in progress. It can be easily altered by a single individual's stroke of inspiration.

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It's an idea that emerges repeatedly in the splendid exhibition I Have a Dream: The Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection at the Atlanta History Center. The exhibition opened Jan. 15, on the anniversary of the famed civil-rights leader's birth.

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The 600 documents and books in the exhibition have been culled from a larger collection of 10,000 items now housed at King's alma mater, Morehouse College. I Have a Dream marks a triumphant homecoming of sorts for a collection that once hung in an uncertain limbo, slated to be sold to the highest bidder at the New York auction house Sotheby's. At the last minute, a group of business and civic leaders purchased King's papers (under the prodding of Mayor Shirley Franklin) for $32 million. The effect of seeing these documents firsthand, so many of them directly tied to King's time in Atlanta, makes the thought of them ending up anywhere else unimaginable.

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The thrill of viewing original documents, the connection through paperwork to a subject's life, the feeling of leaving your own time and entering a new one — all of those sensations that surely mark a historian's relationship to material culture give a frisson of excitement and anticipation to what might at first appear to be a bare-bones accumulation of books and papers.

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But what should be static instead feels astoundingly alive and protean.

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Concerned with King's intellectual, spiritual and emotional maturation, the exhibition features in large part documents touched by King's hand. There are copious sermons written on notebook paper, each page carefully numbered. There are examples of King's fastidious schoolwork from his years at Morehouse College. There are books by Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg from his personal collection displayed open-face to reveal underlined passages.

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Some of the documents are fascinating, such as the list of instructions, endorsed by King, for black commuters after the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955, suggesting how to deal with the potentially volatile situation of blacks suddenly demanding equal treatment on city buses. The list of suggestions is amazingly polite and acquiescent ("Do not boast! Do not brag!"), and offers a window into not only the breadth and depth of King's commitment to nonviolent tactics but also the good manners of an age when grace could hope to disarm cruelty.

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King wrote on anything within reach, from envelopes to used letterhead. He wrote in red, blue and even pink ink so that you sense the urgency of his words over the implement he chose. It is one of the shocks of the exhibit to see words that would one day become part of our historical firmament written on ordinary loose-leaf paper. The exhibition shows how even the most hallowed speeches begin as ordinary outlines, with mistakes and imprints of human uncertainty. In our culture of shortcuts, cronyism and anti-intellectualism, this evidence of King's avid devotion to learning is an affirmation that knowledge is not extemporaneous, but hard-won.

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But I Have a Dream is as much a portrait of King's emotional impact as it is a testament to his impressive intellect. It shows that King was more than a historical figure; he was a man so beloved that to think of him only as a civil-rights icon diminishes the intimacy and the depth of love that people feel for him.

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The exhibition also reveals King's human, self-doubting side — such as his questions about the intellectual legitimacy of religion — as well as his remarkable achievements. This vulnerability only increases a sense of personal connection. I Have a Dream feels like sifting through the belongings of a loved one recently passed away. King's spirit is reanimated somehow in looking at this material evidence of his life.

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Part of that connection undoubtedly is fostered by such random items as the distinctive cant of King's handwriting, the rusty imprint of a paper clip on a page and the intimacy that pen put to paper allows. This sense of personalization may be forever lost in our own age beholden to word processors and the delete button. As moving in its form and shape as music, King's handwriting invites a view of this man that is immediate and unconscious.

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It is hard to deny the power even in these inanimate things, as invested as they are with the aura of the man himself. From the boxes filled with quotes King compiled at Morehouse College to the underlined passages in the books from his personal library, I Have a Dream is evidence of an avid, omnivorous intellect: the education of a public figure who remained a student throughout his life.

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Where some might carry a rabbit's foot or photograph of a child, King kept a folded bit of paper with him that illustrated this lifelong desire to be a pupil of goodness and righteousness. His importance as both a public intellectual and a moral icon guided by the voices of the past is nowhere more evident than in this quote from his spiritual mentor, Mahatma Ghandi: "In the midst of death, life persists."



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