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KEEPER OF THE DREAM : Collecting King Memorabilia Is One Man's Labor of Love

January 19, 1986|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

What Joseph Young remembers most about the day in 1968 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain by an assassin's bullet was the silence that fell over the slum where he lived.

"I can remember everything being really quiet," said Young, who was 11 at the time and lived next to a pawn shop in South-Central Los Angeles with his parents and eight brothers and sisters.

"You know how it is quiet on Sunday? It was quieter than that," said Young, a janitor who now lives in Inglewood. "There were no cars on the streets, just the sounds of televisions and radios being on."

Beat Up Best Friend

Young doesn't remember much else about the day that King was shot. He does remember, however, that the following day he beat up his best friend, who was a Guatemalan, on the playground at the 36th Street Elementary School. Young knew that a white person was responsible for King's death, and the Guatemalan friend was "the closest person (I knew) to being white," he said.

"I think I had decided that that was what I was going to do to get revenge," Young said.

Young, 29, has since found a more positive way to express his feelings for King, whose birthday will be celebrated on Monday as a national holiday for the first time. For the past eight years he has spent a good deal of time amassing piles of King memorabilia. He has visited bookstores, antique shops, libraries and, occasionally, garage sales searching for books, pamphlets, sermons, posters, buttons and newspaper clippings that chronicle the black leader's life.

Part of Young's collection, which he estimates at more than 500 pieces, went on display Saturday at the California Afro-American Museum at Exposition Park in Los Angeles as part of an exhibit entitled "Fighting the Good Fight: Martin Luther King Jr." The exhibit, which will run through next month, is part of the museum's tribute to King, born 57 years ago last Wednesday.

"I guess it has kind of turned into an obsession," Young said as he sat in his small home recently. Nearby on the floor was a tall stack of old magazines, each protected by a plastic cover, containing articles by or about King.

Museum curator Lonnie Bunch II, who put together the exhibit, labeled Young's collection of King memorabilia as "one of the finest on the West Coast."

"He is so dedicated to collecting the material," he added. "It is something he does out of love."

Bunch said the exhibit is an attempt to provide a survey of King's life as a civil rights leader who was initially concerned with segregation issues, but who later broadened his emphasis to include discrimination and other aspects of racism. About 100 of Young's pieces are included in the exhibit, he said.

Black Writers

The soft-spoken Young said his intense interest in King dates back to about 1978 when he began reading and studying black writers for the first time.

"I was window-cleaning for a bookstore in West Los Angeles and they would pay me $15 and I would take the money and buy books, usually black studies books," he said. At first, he said, he wasn't particular. "I just bought books with nice-sounding titles."

The first two books Young remembers "reading completely" were King's "Stride Toward Freedom" and Richard Wright's "Native Son," a story about a young black man's coming to grips politically and emotionally with racism in the turbulent Chicago of the 1930s. He said he read each of the books four times over--which led to his decision to go to college and strive to become a writer himself. Young said he has attended both Southwest Community College and Los Angeles City College and won essay contests at both schools.

Young said that after he collected all of King's books he began searching for magazines, newspaper clippings, posters and other items. "I just wanted to get my hands on everything he wrote and the stuff people said about him," Young said. "I felt that in these writings there was something there that could help me as an individual, and that there were answers that could help black people in general."

His favorite piece of memorabilia is a reprint of "Letter From Birmingham City Jail," which King wrote to eight Southern white religious leaders after he was imprisoned for participating in a nonviolent demonstration.

As one might expect, Young has collected duplicates of some of his memorabilia. Some of the extras he sells at Takabari's, the closet-sized bookstore he opened last November with his girlfriend, Rita Williamson, in South-Central Los Angeles. The store's name, he said, is Swahili for "To Be Proud."

"We are operating by the seat of our pants, but this is something we want to do and it is something to transform the black community," Young said. "We feel it is one way to get literature out to black people. A lot of times people say black people don't read, but I found out that if you take the literature to them, they will buy it."

Young said he plans to celebrate King's birthday all week long. King's life, he said, was a continuation of the struggle begun by black leaders Frederick Douglas and W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey and others.

"He is a lot of things to me," Young said. "I look at his particular emphasis on non-violence and his articulation of it. I look at him as sort of a philosopher and a thinker. . . . He is a hero, but he is much more than that to me because I think he had something to offer to the whole world and not just to black people."

As for the friend he beat up at the 36th Street Elementary School, Young said: "I would apologize if I could find him."

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