Subject Matter Expert (SME) - Civil Rights Blog #5:
Searching for Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Records of the National Archives
Ray Bottorff Jr
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a pivotal figure in civil rights in America and human rights around the world, it is no wonder his efforts garnered the attention of the federal government. His presence amongst the records within the National Archives is wide and varied. Here I will discuss some sources of records covering Dr. King, his efforts, and his legacy.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Record Group 65
Dr. King’s appearance within the Records of the FBI is historically well known, and his actions were tracked heavily by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, through the Bureau’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Many of these records are available to the public, though often include redacted material due to informant information and privacy concerns, or require a review under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
To understand where else in the FBI records you may find Dr. King, it is important to understand how their records are cataloged. The FBI divides its records into Classifications. The Classifications that a researcher might want to review when looking for records concerning or related to Dr. King and his activities include Classification 100: Domestic Security, Classification 157: Civil Unrest, and Classification 173: Civil Rights Act of 1964. He is also found in the National Archives Catalog when searching under his name. Dr. King’s assassination also became a major focus for years by the FBI, as they investigated not only the murder, but the events that happened thereafter.
“Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd.]” from the series Miscellaneous Subjects, Staff and Stringer Photographs, 1961 - 1974, in Record Group 306:
Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 - 2003. National Archives Identification Number (NAID): 542015
National Park Service, Record Group 79
When thinking about records concerning Dr. King, the National Park Service would not be the first record group one might consider. But the legacy of Dr. King was so profound that he has been honored numerous times in the naming of National Parks and Monuments. Also, the places he lived, where he preached, and where he worked have become a part of the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks. It is the responsibility of the National Park Service to protect and preserve these sites for posterity.
The preservation of buildings that housed organizations and events that were important to the civil rights movement are important teaching tools for future generations. These buildings go through the application process to be added to the National Register and those records are maintained by the National Archives. As an example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was kickstarted in 1955 at the Mt. Zion AME Zion Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed and Dr. King was named President of the Association. The church underwent the process to be added to the Register in 2002.
Other locations associated with Dr. King that applied to the Register include his 1954 to 1960 pastorium home with the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church itself, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he first preached and later served as pastor from 1960 until his death in 1968.
In 1974, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District was established in Atlanta, GA, encompassing many notable buildings and structures relating to Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Among the buildings in the Historical Park include the Prince Hall Masonic Temple Building which housed the first office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), The King Center where Dr. King is buried, his birth home, and Ebenezer Baptist Church. Over time the location has been improved upon and expanded and has become a place of pilgrimage for those looking to discover more about Dr. King’s life and legacy.
“Photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower Receiving a Group of Prominent Civil Rights Leaders, June 23, 1958” from the series White House Albums, 1953 - 1961, in the Record Group 79:
Records of the National Park Service, 1785 - 2006. National Archives Identification Number (NAID): 7865625.
The photograph includes Lester Granger, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., E. Frederic Morrow, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, A. Philip Randolph, William Rogers, Rocco Siciliano, and Roy Wilkins.
During his lifetime, Dr. King met and conferred with Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. His legacy continued on long after his assassination, as his wife, Coretta Scott King, and his children continued to push for civil rights with succeeding Presidents.
Eleanor Roosevelt exchanged many letters with or regarding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and this material is now filed across The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at the FDR Presidential Library, primarily in folders titled for the "Southern Christian Leadership Conference." Roosevelt’s correspondence with a wide variety of civil rights leaders, organizations, and the public – both activists and opponents – can be found throughout her Papers as well. Researchers should begin with the Correspondence 1957-1962 series.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum provides researchers a finding aid of records pertaining to Dr. King that are found within President Eisenhower’s Presidential and Post-Presidential papers. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum maintains a webpage about Dr. King, further identifying him in these records. The LBJ Presidential Library and Museum maintains a unique source of records between President Johnson and Dr. King, recordings of telephone conversations, along with the Library’s textual records.
Subsequent Presidential administrations continued to be involved with civil rights matters and the life and legacy of Dr. King and his family. President Richard M. Nixon met Dr. King when he was Vice President under President Eisenhower and dealt with the events post-assassination, among other matters regarding Dr. King. President Jimmy Carter, being from Georgia, interacted with members of the King family often and paid tribute to Dr. King both in and out of the office.
President Ford filmed a statement commemorating Dr. King’s birthday and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum covers the administration’s activities in the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. 's, birthday as a federal holiday. In May of 1989 George H.W. Bush signed the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday Legislation Extension Act formally reauthorizing the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday Commission. In 1992 he traveled to Atlanta to participate in a wreath laying ceremony with Coretta Scott King on Martin Luther King Day.
The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum contains material related to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission, President Clinton’s participation in Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday events as well as efforts to create the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC.
“Martin Luther King Day” from Ralph Alswang and White House Photograph Office, “Martin Luther King Day,” Clinton Digital Library, accessed December 1, 2021, https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/51955.
Picture shows Dexter King, President William J. Clinton, and Coretta Scott King joining hands during a Martin Luther King, Jr., Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1996.
The George W. Bush Presidential Library makes available records related to the memorializations of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King upon their deaths in 2005 and 2006 respectively. The Library also contains holdings related to the groundbreaking of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in late 2006.
The Barack Obama Presidential Library contains photographs, video, and other records related to the official dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in 2011. President Obama was also gifted a piece of the granite used to construct the Memorial; this item is now part of the artifact collections of the Obama Library.
Additional holdings of the Obama Library relate to the commemoration of the 50th anniversaries of significant Civil Rights events that had been organized by Dr. King: the March on Washington (photos / remarks) and Selma to Montgomery Marches (photos / remarks). The Obama Library also contains a button from the 1963 March on Washington in its artifact collections; the button was originally displayed at the White House to commemorate Black History Month in 2016, when President Obama was in office.
“President Barack Obama Tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C.” Barack Obama Presidential Library, accessed January 7, 2021, National Archives Identification Number (NAID); 118818019.
Picture shows President Barack Obama standing in front of the main sculpture at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall, October 14, 2011 (P101411PS-0743).
Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy spans across these and many other federal agencies as well in the U.S. Federal Courts and the records of Congress. Records for presidential libraries can be accessed both on-site and online and you can begin your research for them here.
Records for the National Park Service (Record Group 79) are primarily located at the National Archives at College Park, MD. The records are divided into two major sections, first being primarily textual records. But a significant portion of records are found within the Cartographic Branch.
Records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Record Group 65) are also located at the National Archives at College Park, MD. Many records within the FBI still have restrictions and have been redacted and/or require a person to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in order to view them.
Please note: Due to COVID-19 facility closures and evolving arrangements pertaining to research, you should call or correspond with staff at each facility before visiting to be briefed on the status of current research and arrangements.