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Summer interns study Martin Luther King, Jr.
STANFORD -- Martha Jones was 9 years old, watching cartoons on television, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
"I was home with my mother and my grandmother, who is an African American woman, when a news bulletin came on," she recalls. "My grandmother asked me what had happened and I told her that 'some King guy' had died. From the look on her face I knew immediately that something was very wrong."
Twenty-seven years later, Jones has come to Stanford to study the civil rights leader her grandmother so admired. She is one of three summer interns at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project who are doing research on the period 1959-60 for the fifth book in a projected 14-volume series. The other interns are Matthew Gladue, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and Jodie Medeiros, a recent graduate of Clark University.
The King Papers Project -- a cooperative effort between Stanford and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc. in Atlanta -- is studying and publishing King's most significant correspondence, sermons, speeches, published writings and unpublished manuscripts. The project also is documenting his relationships with national and international leaders.
The first volume in the series, published in 1992, was hailed by Ebony magazine as "one of those rare publishing events that generate as much excitement in the cloistered confines of the academy as they do in the general public."
Student researchers have been involved in the project since its inception. Summer interns come for seven or eight weeks each year to search newspaper archives, transcribe tapes of speeches and provide biographical footnotes for documents that are being considered for publication in the King volumes.
In addition to finding out firsthand how historians do critical research, the students gain an understanding of the historical context of significant events and periods.
"When you look at primary sources for accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott, along the way you might be reminded of the price of automobiles in the community or what people thought about [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower," says Clayborne Carson, senior editor of the project and professor of history. "You also might gain an awareness of what race relations were like from reading [newspaper] articles about traffic accidents, where titles like 'Mr.' are used for white people, and black people are referred to by their last names. It's the little things you learn in passing that help you understand history in ways that a textbook might not."
This summer Gladue, Jones and Medeiros have been culling articles and editorials from the Montgomery Advertiser, a white-owned newspaper published in that historic Alabama city, for possible inclusion in the fifth volume.
"I recently pulled an editorial about King's move from Montgomery to Atlanta, which happened in late 1959," says Gladue. "In it, the editors pretty much said that King really did nothing of importance in Montgomery, that the bus boycott would have happened anyway."
Jones, who has been reading through the same newspaper files, agrees. "Often there are allusions to King, but no mention of his name, as if he didn't exist," she says. "I think it's because they'd been defeated on the bus boycott issue and were steeling themselves for school integration, which would be the next confrontation."
As the interns compare notes on what they dig up in the library each day, they're practicing a cooperative research model to which Carson and the staff at the King Papers Project are committed. It differs markedly from the route that academic researchers typically take -- going to archives by themselves, writing up their research on their own and submitting it for publication -- but supports the overall goals of the summer internship program.
"Our concentration and mission really is to get students of color interested in careers in academia," says Karl Knapper, administrator for the King Papers Project. "We're looking for students who are going to pursue careers in history, preferably in U.S. contemporary history or that of the civil rights period, and we want to show them what the possibilities in that field can be."
Medeiros, who graduated from Clark University this June with a degree in history but no clear career focus, is the kind of student the internship often draws.
"I'd worked as a research assistant to a history professor last year, and she was the one who showed me the flier about the King Papers Project," she says. "I didn't really know how to get into research on my own, and this gave me an opportunity to see if I wanted to do it."
In previous years, funding for the internship came from the James Irvine Foundation and was specifically designated for students of color. But now that the foundation is no longer contributing to the project and funding is unrestricted, the applicant pool has broadened and white students are participating as interns for the first time. Informational brochures are sent to career planning and placement centers and history departments at colleges and universities, asking interested students to submit a cover letter that highlights their interests and experience and tells what they can bring to the project and what they hope to get out of the experience. Students also are required to submit a transcript and two letters of recommendation, one from a professor.
To give the interns exposure to a broad range of academic fields, seminars are held every Friday afternoon with noted scholars, some from Stanford and some from the outside community. This summer's interns already have met with Harry Elam, Stanford professor of drama, and will be getting together in the next two weeks with Sharon Holland, assistant professor of English; George Fredrickson, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor of U.S. History; and Shelby Steele, professor of English at San Jose State, who recently joined the Hoover Institution.
For Gladue, whose father was a civil rights organizer in Florida and who has been reading King's works since he was in eighth grade, the success of the internship can be read in the broader success of the King papers that already have been published.
"Too often these days academics seem to weigh in with things that are inaccessible to the public," he says. "But one of the great things about this project is that you can go into a bookstore and pick up one of the volumes and immediately have a better understanding of King and of the African American freedom struggle."
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