A rediscovered Martin Luther King, Jr. speech

January 16, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Greg Mayer spotted this talk on my colleague Brian Leiter’s website, and I’m stealing it. Listening to it is a good way to remember King on this day, and to see the clarity and focus of his mission. It’s also  chance to appreciate his powerful rhetoric.

The 26-minute speech, rediscovered about eight years ago, was given in 1962, and is about two documents, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence—and how they failed to bring clarity or resolution to America’s “race question.” King recounts how the Founding Fathers were well aware of their failure to bring equality to all Americans.

Here’s the story from NPR:

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 speech at the New York State Museum‘s online exhibit.

The ending is eerily similar to that of the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech—his final oration before he was murdered.

As you listen to King’s words, you can see the original typed speech go by—complete with King’s emendations, which markedly improve the text. Remember, this is two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

It’s natural to wonder what King would say, were he still with us, about the racial divisions in America today, the hegemony of identity politics, and the rejection of his dream to have people judged not by their race, but by the content of their character.  Of course, it’s clear that King was expounding identity politics here and throughout his life, but in a way far more salubrious and less divisive than they’re used today.

There’s a loss of sound about 15 minutes in, but the talk quickly resumes.

8 thoughts on “A rediscovered Martin Luther King, Jr. speech

  1. Thanks for that. It was great. And inspiring. The emendations demonstrate that Martin had the master speechwriter’s knack for slaying his darlings and trimming surplusage.

  2. A very moving speech. I really liked seeing the text along with the edits. A very simple speech, plain-spoken, and powerful. Strong ending.

  3. If King were alive today, he would be widely denounced for his friendliness to Critical Race Theory, his unrelenting criticism of capitalism, and from a significant part of the current left, his extramarital affairs (not a fiction, the FBI tried to use this against him). He’s only been made a saint because he’s dead, and right-wingers have tried to frame him as One Of The Good Ones.

    In fact, if you read him extensively, it’s amazing how much is relevant today, and could pass as current with some minor wording updates (not all, but an astonishing amount, on broad themes).

    Just a taste:

    “PLAYBOY: Do you feel it’s fair to request a multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro, or for any other minority group?
    MARTIN LUTHER KING: I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages—potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest. In any case, I do not intend that this program of economic aid should apply only to the Negro; it should benefit the disadvantaged of all races. …”

    He was NOT a conservative. He repeatedly, strongly, denounced the so-called “color-blindness” which is blind to history.

    1. I agree with you – King was a communist and a fierce critic of mid-20th-century racism. But I think it’s too easy to claim what he would favour or criticize now. What if Kind had lived through the last 50 years of Great Society reforms, affirmative action, and the transformation (not to say domination) of whole domains of American culture like sport and entertainment by the contributions of black Americans. What would King make of the Kenosha riots & Darrell Brooks? Barack Obama & Kamala Harris? Dave Chappelle & Juicy Smoolyay? Barry Bonds & LeBron James? In cases like those, which would he favour and which would he criticize? I’m not sure and it seems hard to predict.

      1. Martin was not a Red, although he had some Reds (or at least Red-adjacents) among his closest advisors, such as A. Philip Randolph and Stanley Levinson.

    2. There is a contradiction in there. He wanted this multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro to apply not only to the Negro but to the disadvantaged of all races. So where would affluent Negroes like Dr. King have found themselves in the queue for handouts? Behind disabled white Kentucky coal miners or ahead of them? Was he realizing, just a little late in his 1965 peroration to Alex Haley, that Playboy’s audience was not the same as the congregations that would gather to hear his sermons in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church?

      You see the empty oratory in, “It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest.” HIs proposed program was not costed, other than $50 billion over 10 years (and after then…?) pulled out of the air, nor was the value of two centuries of unpaid field labour done by people long dead even then. So no matter how pretty the words, a fact it is not. What follows in the interview is an “us-too” justification of entitlement based on appeal to emotion; “preferential hiring” featured large. Well, you got that last bit.

      He envisioned a grand alliance between Negroes and poor whites to force the government to “get” jobs for all. (This was his solution to assuage the white resentment raised by Mr. Haley as Negroes competed with low-income whites under desegregation.)

      What does this answer mean to Haley’s question about why Negroes donated so little to their own philanthropic organizations? “Negroes, who amount to about 11 percent of the American population, are reported to consume over 40 percent of the Scotch whisky imported into the U.S., and to spend over $72,000,000 a year in jewelry stores. So when we come asking for civil rights donations, or help for the United Negro College Fund, most Negroes are trying to make ends meet.”

      Even then, there was an attempt to downplay and deflect anti-Semitism among Negroes who looted Jewish-owned businesses during riots in 1964, albeit with citation of Jewish civil-rights allies (specifically Goodman, Schwerner, and Rabbi Lelyveld.)

      And this, from the interview and oft repeated ever since, is touching:

      “I am positive, moreover, that the money spent would be more than amply justified by the benefits that would accrue to the nation through a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils.

      Much nostalgia for Martin Luther King from people who were just children back then.

  4. The situation today is radically different to 1964 – because King and the civil rights movement were successful. So I see no reason to believe that King would still be using similar arguments as he did then for the situation today. You have to consider him in the context of his time. He was after all given the Nobel Peace Prize, and richly deserved it I would say.

  5. Very moving speech, but that’s exactly what you would have expected from him. Of course you cannot help but think what he might say today, had he not been assassinated. You cannot help but to wonder if he could have been a guiding light during the 1992 LA riots or 2020 summer riots, urging calm, leading peaceful, nonviolent protests rather than stoking the fires of race hatred or swooping down like vultures like certain so-called community leaders of today. His murder was a loss to the nation, not just one part of it, and there has been a moral, ethical, and intellectual void in leadership ever since.

Leave a Reply