Unknown recording of Martin Luther King speech discovered
Civil-rights leader urges all Americans ‘to make the race question an ugly relic of a dark past’
News Review Correspondent
On Monday, Martin Luther King Day, Americans had a new opportunity to listen to a thought-provoking speech by King himself.
The speech had been thought to exist only in King’s draft, but in November staff members at the New York State Museum, working to digitize the museum’s extensive audio archives, discovered a reel-to-reel tape marked “Martin Luther King, Jr. Emancipation Procla-mation Speech 1962.” Released on the Internet just in time for the annual celebration of King’s contributions, the discovery marks the first time the speech has been heard since 1962.
Given Sept. 12, 1962, during New York’s Civil War Centennial celebration, King’s speech re-viewed the history of human rights in America up to that point. Other dignitaries also spoke, including New York’s Gov. Nelson Rocke-feller.
The event also marked the 100th anniversary of the release of President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The actual proclamation, which freed more than four million slaves, was signed in January 1863.
Rich in promise, the proclamation nevertheless had fallen short of achieving equality for all U.S. citizens because it freed only the slaves of the states still in rebellion.
Today, half a century after King’s speech, the content still applies.
During the planning stages for the centennial, Rockefeller was able to borrow the actual draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, in Lincoln’s handwriting. This document is owned by the state of New York.
Determined to show New York as a leader in civil rights progress, Rockefeller invited a glittering array of dignitaries and politicians. However, he overlooked involving members of the local African-American community in the event. King was invited, but had to resolve both scheduling and potential political conflicts in order to appear.
At the time of the speech, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and tensions ran high in some parts of the country. The Washington, D.C., plans for that city’s Emancipation celebration were a political mess. The D.C. celebration was set to be held at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, but President John F. Kennedy did not attend because of political pressures.
African Americans, saying they had been snubbed by the federal Centennial Commission, called for a boycott.
In Charleston, S.C., a hotel denied accommodations to an African American member of the New Jersey Civil War Centennial Commission during one of the commission’s events. The event had to be moved to the Sixth Naval Base at Charleston, on federal land, where local segregation laws did not apply.
Despite boycotts, politics and upheaval, King made his speech at a dinner at the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City.
If you go to www.nysm.nysed.gov/mlk/, you can both hear the audio tape of King’s speech and see the text of the only remaining printed copy, King’s marked-up draft.
King spoke about how Thomas Jefferson believed that the slavery issue would one day destroy the new Union and how it troubled him personally as an unjust practice. With the new nation supposedly built on equality and freedom, to deny that freedom to part of the population was wrong.
Lincoln also felt strongly that slavery was intolerable and braved political censure to get the Emancipation Proclamation signed into law.
Two passages stand out in this intense speech. “There is too much greatness in our heritage to tolerate the pettiness of race hate,” said King. “The Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation deserve to live in sacred honor; many generations of Americans suffered, bled and died, confident that those who followed them would preserve the purity of our ideals. Negroes have declared they will die if need be for these freedoms.
“All Americas 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 truly be commemorated in luminous glory.”
King ended his speech with,” And so I close by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher who didn’t quite have his grammar right but uttered words of great solemn profundity, in the form of a prayer: ‘Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we goin’ to be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we wuz.’”Story First Published: 2014-01-22