One of the best parts about working in archives is getting to “discover” things – maybe a first edition in a box of uncataloged books, or fascinating images in a box only labeled “negatives” – things that weren’t lost, exactly, but whose awesomeness went previously unrecognized.
A few months ago, I was gathering together all of our material on the Amherst College student radio station, WAMH (previously WAMF). They had recently donated a couple boxes of records and I wanted to integrate and make a finding aid for all the material they have given us over the years (WAMH/WAMF Records). I found three boxes of reel to reel audio tapes of shows that had been broadcast in the 1950s-70s and given to us in 1989. The tapes included all kinds of intriguing topics from Neils Bohr lecturing on Atomic Theory in 1957 to students protesting the Vietnam War. Most interesting was one reel 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” from February 1964. An internet search quickly revealed that the New School Archives holds a recording of the question and answer session from this lecture, but not a recording of the lecture itself, and that this is most likely a unique recording of the speech. We had the tape digitized and got in touch with our colleagues at The New School Archives, who were pleased to learn that we had found this additional documentation from an important event in their history.
In the Spring of 1964, The New School hosted a 15 lecture series, The American Race Crisis Lecture Series, featuring 15 civil rights leaders in the United States and attended by hundreds of students. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. opened the series on February 6 with a lecture on the tumultuous summer of 1963. King began by asking the question, why 1963? The answers included disillusionment with progress in desegregation, the failure of political parties to live up to their promises, administrative action focused solely on voting rights and the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation highlighting the paucity of progress since 1863. After a review of the history of African American political action since the Emancipation Proclamation, finishing with the events of 1963 in Birmingham, King brought to the fore the value of nonviolent tactics to the movement. In closing, King called for continued action in 1964, including the passage of the Civil Rights Bill (which happened four days after the speech). The bulk of the speech was published, revised and much expanded, in the first two chapters of King’s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait.
The question and answer period following the speech (available in The New School Digital Collections) is just as fascinating as the speech itself. King responds to questions about the Black Muslim movement, a perceived “bog down” in civil rights activity following the March on Washington, and affirmative action (although not by that name). The story of the initial discovery of The New School’s recording and their subsequent exhibition on the American Race Crisis Lecture Series can be found in the following articles:
- Listen: After 48 Years of Silence, a Lost King Speech Finds New Life, by The New School Free Press
- Found After Decades, a Forgotten Tape of King “Thinking on his Feet”, by The New York Times
- MLK Returns to the New School, by The New School News
On December 8th, 1964, at 6pm, Amherst College students could have tuned in to WAMF and heard Dr. King’s speech rebroadcast on the Lecture Hall program. The Lecture Hall was a twice weekly program of pre-recorded lectures, some given at Amherst College and some obtained through agreements with other institutions. Les Black, class of 1966, was the program manager of WAMF in 1964 and hosted the Lecture Hall program. It is his voice that you hear at the beginning and end of the recording linked above. He recalls that at the time, “a lot was going on and there was no Facebook, no YouTube, not much alternative media yet. College radio stations like WAMF played a key role by giving students a way to hear about it.”
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. 2014 and 2015 have also been years of turmoil, protest and nonviolent action against racism. And while the terrain has shifted, many of King’s analyses and calls to action are still relevant today.
Many thanks to Wendy Scheir of The New School Archives for generously sharing her experience and background materials, Les Black for his recollections of WAMF and the Lecture Hall program, SceneSavers in Covington, KY for digitizing the audio reel, and WAMH for starting this whole thing off!