Monday, January 20, 2014

Newly discovered audio recording of MLK speech from 1962 found in New York State archives

Sr. historian Jennifer Lemak holds a reel-to-reel audio tape of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in 1962 at a New York City hotel on the 100th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation, with other artifacts of the event at the NYS Museum Wednesday Jan. 15, 2014, in Albany, NY. (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union)

A reel-to-reel audio tape of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in 1962 at a New York City hotel on the 100th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation is among artifacts at the NYS Museum Wednesday Jan. 15, 2014, in Albany, NY. (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union)

Photo courtesy of the NYS Museum: Dignitaries, including Martin Luther King Jr. , third from left, during the Emancipation Proclamation Dinner on Sept. 12, 1962 at a New York City hotel. (JOHN CARL D'ANNIBALE)

Photo courtesy of the NYS Museum: Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on Sept. 12, 1962 at a New York City hotel on the 100th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation. (JOHN CARL D'ANNIBALE)

Photo courtesy of the NYS Museum: Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on Sept. 12, 1962 at a New York City hotel on the 100th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation. (JOHN CARL D'ANNIBALE)


An unknown 1962 audio recording of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 26-minute speech in New York City to celebrate the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation — a tape that was undetected for 35 years in a box at the State Museum following a 1979 donation — thrilled historians and reinforced the vital role played by an unpaid college intern.

A typed transcript of the speech and copy of the program for the event were widely known and stored in the State Archives, but nobody knew that a recording existed.

The dramatically sonorous voice and measured cadence on the tape caused a jolt of recognition for intern Daniel Barker, who had spent hundreds of hours digitizing dozens of mundane recordings of agricultural activities and weather news from the same collection.

"His voice is so unmistakable," Barker said of the Eureka moment on Nov. 12, 2013. "There was no way it wasn't Dr. Martin Luther King on the tape. I said, 'Craig, you better listen to this.' "

Craig Williams, curator of history at the State Museum, heard King's voice and a ripple of excitement ran through the room. After Williams and others researched King's speech on Sept. 12, 1962 at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan and learned that this was the only known recording of the event, they knew they had captured lightning in a bottle.

"It's incredible to be able to put King's voice to the speech," said Mark Schaming, State Museum director. "His delivery is very moving and builds to a powerful conclusion."

King's speech, which covers 14 typewritten pages, equates Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation — which promised to free all the slaves within the Confederate states on Jan. 1, 1863 if those states remained in rebellion against the United States for more than 100 days — with the Declaration of Independence in its importance to the history of the republic.

In the speech, King was critical of racial inequality and he cited an average annual family income for African-Americans in 1962 of $3,300, compared with $5,800 for white families. He said the country would remain "weakened in its integrity, confused and confounded in its direction, by the unresolved race question."

As he built to a soaring peroration, King said, "I know that dark days still lie ahead. Gigantic mountains of opposition will still stand before us." King concluded by quoting "an old Negro slave preacher," and added a disclaimer for the poor grammar: "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."

With a preacher's passion and a singsong delivery that turned up slightly at the end of each sentence, King's 1962 speech in New York City was given at the invitation of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. It foreshadowed some of the images and phrasing of King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech delivered at a historic civil rights march and rally on Aug. 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The 1962 dinner was sponsored by the New York State Civil War Centennial Commission and the audience included Rockefeller, Cardinal Francis Spellman and other dignitaries.

The sound quality of the recording is quite good, except for a one-minute gap in the middle of King's address, when Enoch Squires flipped over a Scotch recording tape after one side was filled up and he rethreaded the other side into an empty takeup reel on a boxy reel-to-reel tape recorder he held in his lap.

Squires was a longtime radio reporter at WGY in Schenectady. He logged 3,000 miles a month to tape his "Schenectady Traveler" show, a folksy interview program that focused on farming and rural life. He left WGY in 1961 for a job as a research associate with the state Civil War Commission. Following his death in 1979, his widow that year turned over dozens of boxes of material, including 400 reel-to-reel tapes from Squires' WGY shows, both raw footage and edited programs.
Most of Squires' interviews were recorded on an earlier iteration of Scotch recording tape, which could only record on one side. Double-sided recording tape came in around 1962, when Squires made the King recording.
"If he didn't use the new kind of tape, we might have only had the start of King's speech," Barker said. "Some of the earlier reels are in horrible shape and some are covered in mold. We're just lucky this one was in great shape."
As it was, in order to conserve tape, Squires hit the stop button just as baseball great Jackie Robinson walked to the podium to deliver remarks that Squires did not record. Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball and was a first ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame two months before the dinner.
Barker, of Guilderland, who graduated in December with a master's degree in information studies from the University at Albany, has digitized 207 of Squires' tapes, slightly more than half of those donated. It's a labor-intensive process that involved transferring each from reel-to-reel to audiocassette to CD, and then burning a digital file.
He finished digitizing about 15 reels each week during his 12-hour internship that ended in December. He continues to work one day a week on the Squires project as a volunteer.
The King speech almost didn't take place, according to Jennifer Lemak, a curator of history who wrote about the speech in a 2012 State Archives magazine article.
King was ready to cancel after his advisers worried the dinner was "too Republican" and they feared that Rockefeller's presidential ambitions were anathema to President John F. Kennedy, with whom King was trying to curry favor as he pressed for civil rights legislation.
When King tried to beg off, Rockefeller opened his checkbook and promised to make a substantial donation to rebuild torched African-American churches in Georgia. It was a deal sweetener King couldn't refuse.
A black-and-white photograph showed King delivering the speech from behind a lectern perched on the head table, in front of which the draft preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, written in Lincoln's hand, were arrayed in simple plastic sleeves. Today, the document is considered priceless and is encased in a heavy, metal-edged glass display case filled with inert gas to preserve it. It is put on public display occasionally, but only under the watch of security guards.
Rockefeller used to carry the priceless, one-of-a-kind document around the state in 1962 in his briefcase, Lemak said.
Rockefeller was disappointed after his overtures to black leaders were rebuffed and they declined to support the work of the governor's Civil War Commission. He was further dismayed when his proposal and architect's rendering of an Emancipation Proclamation shrine to display the historic document in the state Capitol did not gain traction and was never built.
Meanwhile, Barker, the former intern, is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. "Strangers have come up to me in the State Museum and said, 'Hey, you're the guy who found the tape,' " he said. "Everybody's made me feel really good about the whole thing."
There is one more item that would make him feel even better.
Barker, 32, a rock drummer who plays in the bands Male Patterns and Serriday, is engaged to be married in June to an elementary school teacher. He's currently unemployed.
"I'm looking for a job in my field," he said, hopeful that the State Museum might eventually have an opening. • 518-454-5623 • @PaulGrondahl
Listen up
To listen to King's 1962 speech and to learn about how the audio recording was discovered, go to: