Standing before a packed house at the Auditorium at 66 West 12th Street on February 6, 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke against the injustices plaguing American society: economic hardship in black communities, resistance to civil rights legislation among the political elite, and inequality in the country’s public school system. It was a sobering assessment. However, King, always the uplifting orator, concluded with a hopeful message.
Calling on the world to reject the status quo thinking holding back the Civil Rights Movement, King said, “With such maladjustment, we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice”
“With this kind of work and with this faith, 1964 can be a great year of achievement,” he continued. “With this faith, we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
King was prescient in his optimism: just months later, Congress would pass the Civil Rights Act, groundbreaking legislation for which the civil rights leader had fought so hard.
The greatness of the speech, coupled with the context in which it was delivered, made it an important moment in King’s campaign for civil rights, as well as a momentous occasion for The New School. And it is for those reasons that when a lost tape of King’s post-lecture Q&A was discovered at The New School 50 years later, the university community erupted in celebration. Still, a crucial piece of the puzzle remained missing: the recording of the speech itself.
Now, at long last, the speech has been recovered. Recently the missing tape of King’s hour-long lecture at The New School was found in a box of reel-to-reel tapes at WAMH, Amherst College’s student radio station, and made available to the public on the university’s website. The recovery of the recording marks the end of a search for a treasured artifact once believed to be lost to the rifts of history.
“In 2011, before the New School Archives was formed, a student found a recording in Fogelman Library that turned out to be the Q&A following King’s opening lecture of the American Race Crisis lecture series,” says New School archivist Wendy Scheir. “The Q&A is exciting to listen to because we get to hear King speak off-the-cuff—you get a feel for his mood at that key moment in the civil rights struggle, and his sense of humor really comes through. Now that our Amherst colleagues have recovered the speech itself, we’re so pleased to be able to present speech and Q&A together for the first time.”
When King came to The New School in February of 1964, several hundred people from the university community came to hear him speak. And thanks to WAMH, which aired King’s speech in its entirety, minus the Q&A, even more people had the chance to listen in. Airing the speech preserved a crucial piece of New School history: as was its protocol, WAMH saved a broadcast of the recording—a reel-to-reel audio tape nestled anonymously among dozens of other audio tapes in the radio station’s archives.
And that’s where it remained for 50 years, a hidden treasure waiting to be unearthed by a discerning eye who would notice a distinguishing feature: a label reading “Martin Luther King, Pres. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaking at the New School for Social Research on ‘The Summer of Our Discontent.’” That individual turned out to be Amherst College archivist Mariah Leavitt. Last year, in an effort to pull together all of the school’s material on WAMH, Leavitt began sifting through the box of old recordings from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It wasn’t long after she began her search that the tape made itself known.
“I found three boxes of reel-to-reel audio tapes of shows that had been broadcast from the 1950s through the 1970s and given to us in 1989,” Leavitt recalls. “Most interesting was one reel reading ‘Martin Luther King, Pres. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.’”
Intrigued by the discovery, Leavitt performed a quick Google search to determine whether there existed any other recording of King’s speech at The New School. Nothing came up. Instead, she learned of a recording of the Q&A session that took place after the speech. Found in 2011 by then New School student Chris Crews, the recording was included in an exhibition at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Voices of Crisis, produced by the New School Archives and curated by former New School student Miles Kohrman.
Scheir confirmed that the tape is indeed the only known recording of King’s speech at The New School. Now, for the first time, both the speech and the Q&A session can be heard together on the New School Archives’ digital collections site.
“We’re proud to be able to share this important moment in New School history,” Scheir says. “It’s astonishing how so many of the issues King raises are still issues in 2016. So the recording is not only a lifeless artifact from the past, it becomes part of conversations we’re still having as a society.”
Adds Leavitt, “The years 2014 and 2015 have also been ones of turmoil, protest, and nonviolent action against racism. While the terrain has shifted, many of King’s analyses and calls to action are still relevant.”
That call to action was imbued with hope—hope born of the “work and faith,” in King’s words, of the millions of people helping to fuel the Civil Rights Movement. As we have observed during recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Staten Island, the struggle King led continues to this day. Which is why his speech, though 50 years old and gathering dust in a box of reel-to-reel tapes, still resonates.
“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,” King 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.”