Recording of MLK speech discovered at Amherst College
Among long-forgotten boxes of recordings from Amherst College’s student radio station was a tape labeled “Martin Luther King, Pres. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaking at the New School for Social Research on ‘The Summer of our Discontent.’ ”
But could it be?
If it was, it would be the only known recording of the 1964 speech, something even the New School, in New York, couldn’t locate.
The boxes of old reel-to-reel audio tapes from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s had been given to Amherst archivists in 1989, but it wasn’t until October that archivist Mariah Leavitt came across the recording as part of an effort to pull together all of the school’s material on the station, now known as WAMH.
The fact that King delivered a speech at the New School in 1964 was discovered by researchers at the New School only a few years ago. But they could only find a recording of a 15-minute question-and-answer session after the speech, not the speech itself.
The New School announced its discovery in 2012, so when researchers at Amherst College looked online for information about the speech after they found the tape in October, they learned that a recording of the speech had not yet been found.
Archivists at Amherst mostly kept their finding quiet until it could be digitized. Fearing that the original recording itself could be damaged if it was played, they were not able to hear it until the newly digitized recording was returned to the school in late December.
It was then that Amherst archivists knew they had the real thing.
The result is a clear recording of King’s deliberate delivery of “The Summer of Our Discontent,” in which he offers reasons for civil rights activism during the summer of 1963.
The speech was delivered at the New School in New York City on Feb. 6, 1964, and was broadcast by the student radio station at Amherst College on Dec. 8, 1964.
During the hour-long recording, King talks about low incomes in black communities, inequities in public schools, and the failure of political leaders to act on civil rights.
The similarities between King’s themes and modern events are not lost on Leavitt and her colleagues.
“While it is very exciting to be able to add this small piece to the documentation of the rich and important life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this recording can be heard not just as an historical artifact, but as a call to reflect on current events,” Leavitt wrote in an announcement of the finding.
In his remarks, King points to slow adoption of school desegregation, which the US Supreme Court ordered in 1954.
“The progress that was supposed to have been achieved with deliberate speed had created change for less than 2 percent of Negro children in most areas of the South, and not even one-tenth of 1 percent in some parts of the deepest South,” he said.
He calls on northern whites sympathetic to black civil rights to recognize injustice in their own communities and not only to express righteous indignation at bus burnings or church bombings in the South.
“In short, if this problem is to be solved, there must be a sort of divine discontent and a determination on the part of people of good will to work passionately and unrelentingly to see that the dignity and worth of the human personality will be respected,” he said. “I have often mentioned the fact that if this problem is to be solved, somebody will have to get upset enough to work with determination to see that it is solved.”
He closes by calling for Congress to act on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The contents of the speech are largely contained in King’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” also released in 1964, and variations of the speech were probably delivered as King was formulating the message that would be contained in his book, said Mike Kelly, head of archives and special collections at Amherst College.
The recording is relevant to discussions about civil rights today and is a look at how people learned about the world in 1964, Kelly said.
There was no Internet, no way of quickly sharing audio files, and limited broadcast opportunities. But mailing reel-to-reel audio tapes of speeches from one college to another was easy and was a way for students to learn about the world around them, Kelly said.
King’s speech was the first in a 15-part series at the New School called “The American Race Crisis Lecture Series,” delivered by civil rights leaders.