History
2:42 pm
Mon January 20, 2014

A Promise Unfulfilled: 1962 MLK Speech Recording Is Discovered

Originally published on Mon January 20, 2014 7:44 pm

Last fall, curators and interns at the New York State Museum were digging through their audio archives in an effort to digitize their collection. It was tedious work; the museum houses over 15 million objects. But on this particular day in November, they unearthed a treasure.

As they sifted through box after box, museum director Mark Schaming remembers: "They pull up a little reel-to-reel tape and a piece of masking tape on it is labeled 'Martin Luther King, Jr., Emancipation Proclamation Speech 1962.' "

It's audio no one knew existed.

That year — 1962 — fell in the midst of the Civil War centennial. At one commemorative event, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation and invited King to speak. No one had heard his speech since. When Schaming listened to the audio, he found it still relevant. "It's 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation is released, and this promise is still unfulfilled, very much as it is still today in many ways," the museum director says.

At the end of the speech, King quotes a slave preacher who he says "didn't quite have his grammar right but uttered words of great symbolic profundity."

"Lord, we ain't what we oughta be. We ain't what we want to be. We ain't what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain't what we was."

The passage, Schaming says, is so powerful it must be heard to be appreciated. You can hear the full speech and explore King's typewritten speech at the New York State Museum's online exhibit.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Last fall, at the New York State Museum in Albany, curators and interns were digging through their audio archives. It was all part of the process of organizing and digitizing their collection. Tedious work, as you can imagine. But on this particular day last November, they unearthed a treasure. As they sifted through box after box of material, the director of the museum Mark Schaming recalls...

MARK SCHAMING: They pull up a little reel-to-reel tape and a piece of masking tape on it is labeled: Martin Luther King, Jr., Emancipation Proclamation Speech, 1962.

BLOCK: Audio no one knew existed. That year, 1962, fell in the midst of the Civil War Centennial. At one commemorative event, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller proposed a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation. The speaker at that event in New York City was Dr. King. No one had heard his speech since, until last fall at the New York State Museum.

SCHAMING: So they load it into a reel-to-reel machine and up comes the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. It's clear as a bell.

DR. MARTIN LUTHER, JR: There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation, and that is to make its declarations of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of the quality electrified and free world, and reaffirmed democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

BLOCK: For museum director Mark Schaming, King's message still resonates today.

SCHAMING: You know, remembering in 1962 it's 100 years after the, you know, the Emancipation Proclamation is released and this promise is still unfulfilled, in very much as it is still today and in many ways. So when I hear those kinds of moments, I relate them to things in the world and the country going on now. It's just an enlightening moment.

JR: 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 symbolic profundity. They were uttered in the form of a prayer: Lord, we ain't what we ought to be, we ain't what we want to be, we ain't what we going to be, but thank God we ain't what we were.

(APPLAUSE)

BLOCK: We've been listening to newly found audio of Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking about the Emancipation Proclamation in 1962. You can hear his full speech at our website, NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.