Rediscovering a Martin Luther King Jr. speech

January 20, 2014 at 11:00 AM EDT
In November, the only known recording of a 1962 speech made by Martin Luther King Jr. was uncovered. Not heard for more than 50 years, King delivered this notable speech in the wake of a number of attacks on black churches. The NewsHour's Stephen Fee reports on the rediscovered recording and the document that inspired it.

GWEN IFILL: Martin Luther King Jr. was 39 years old when he died, and during his years on earth, he gave famous and memorable speeches around the world that have been replayed hundreds of times.

There is one, however, that, until recently, had not been heard in more than 50 years.

The NewsHour’s Stephen Fee explains.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., civil rights leader: Ladies and gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here this evening.

STEPHEN FEE: It was September 12, 1962, a year before the March on Washington, two years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was grappling with the movement’s next steps.

He had just spent weeks in Albany, Ga., unsuccessfully trying to integrate that city. King had been jailed twice, and three black churches in the state had been set ablaze in the past three weeks. Now King found himself at a New York City hotel delivering a speech to politicians and political donors.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: If a government building were bombed in Washington, the perpetrators would be apprehended immediately. But if violence affects a Negro church, all of the agencies of government cannot find or convict the arsonists.

STEPHEN FEE: King’s speech came during a commemoration marking the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s so-called Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a little known document that preceded by three months the proclamation itself.

It warned the South that Lincoln intended to free slaves in all states that continued to remain in the confederacy.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: If our nation had done nothing more in its whole history than to create just two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable.

The first of these documents is the Declaration of Independence, and the other is that which we are here to honor tonight, the Emancipation Proclamation.

STEPHEN FEE: Until late last year, the only known record of King’s speech was a copy of his remarks annotated by an audio technician that had been stored at the New York State Museum in Albany.

But, in November, as the museum digitized its audio collections, an intern discovered a recording.

Listening to the tape had a profound effect on New York state’s education commissioner, John King. He oversees the museum.

JOHN KING JR., New York education commissioner: Having read it, it’s very different to hear it.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: All tyrants, past, present and future.

JOHN KING JR.: And you get to here the powerful way in which King approached the speech as a speaker. You also could see where he, in his choice of words, departed from the written text. And you also get much more of a sense of Dr. King as a speaker and author.

STEPHEN FEE: The discovery of the recording here at the State Museum in Albany, New York, not only sheds new light on the civil rights era; it also emphasizes the impact that the life of Abraham Lincoln had on Martin Luther King Jr.

JOHN KING JR.: Both of them clearly wrestled with their positions in life, the individual sacrifices that they ultimately would make.

STEPHEN FEE: Khalil Gibran Muhammad directs the New York Public’s Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He draws parallel between King and Lincoln’s strategic thinking.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD, New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: Lincoln uses legal strategy and maneuvering and says, I am going to do something that is going to fundamentally change the balance of power, and who is going to stop me? And we will deal with the consequences, the legal consequences of that when we cross that period.

I think King fundamentally admires that and wants to remind a group of politicians and decision-makers here in New York that they have the influence and potentially the power to make similar decisions in this critical moment of 1962.

STEPHEN FEE: Critical because King worried that President John F. Kennedy wouldn’t push hard enough to pass the Civil Rights Act.

Meanwhile, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who intended to challenge Kennedy in 1964, invited King to speak at the commemoration ceremony, a possible bid to court black voters.

JOHN KING JR.: Dr. King was hesitant to speak at the dinner because, of course, Governor Rockefeller was a Republican. Dr. King was working to get then President Kennedy to take a stronger stand on civil rights issues, and was somewhat reluctant to attend the event.

But Governor Rockefeller helped organize donations to rebuild churches that had been burned in the South. And that was something that helped get Dr. King’s attention.

STEPHEN FEE: At the dinner, King chastised politicians of both major parties for not doing enough to fulfill the promise of Lincoln’s document.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: The proclamation of inferiority has contended with the proclamation of emancipation, negating its liberating force.

Inferiority has justified the low-living standards of the Negro, sanctioned his separation from the majority culture, and enslaved him physically and psychologically. Inferiority as a fetter is more subtle and sophisticated than iron chains; it is invisible and its victim helps to fashion his own bonds.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: He is speaking directly to the Kennedy administration and its allies on both sides of the political aisle, saying, you can’t stand in the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, call yourselves politicians, because no president befitting the office who bows before forces of injustice is befitting the office.

In this speech here, he is saying, look, this is where the country went wrong from the beginning. This is where the country didn’t live up to the promises and possibilities of the emancipation period. This is what a heroic and courageous politician looks like when they — when they act.

STEPHEN FEE: Courageous, perhaps, but despite their anti-slavery zeal, Lincoln and his closest aides had to cope with the politics of their time.

Historian James Oakes says Lincoln wanted to free all the country’s slaves outright.

JAMES OAKES, City University of New York: But the Constitution protects slavery in the states where it already existed. All they could do is free slaves as a military necessity in an effort to suppress the rebellion and restore the Union, constitutionally.

STEPHEN FEE: Even so, the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation marked a major step toward abolition. And in his 1962 speech, King said it’s reach extended all the way to his own time.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: All Americans must enlist in a crusade finally to make the race question an ugly relic of a dark past. When that day dawns, the Emancipation Proclamation will be commemorated in luminous glory.

JOHN KING: You really see him connecting the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War to the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the country.

You hear him telling a story about America as a place that aspires to greater freedom and greater equality. And I hope people will see that. And I also hope people will be inspired to work towards greater equality today.

STEPHEN FEE: As for Lincoln, he donated the handwritten preliminary proclamation to a charity ravel. Abolitionist Garret Smith won the document after buying most of the tickets, 1,000 of them at $1 a piece. It would later be sold to New York State, and the Preliminary Proclamation now sits in a vault at the state library, like that audiotape of Martin Luther King’s speech, a precious piece of history now preserved under the same roof.