Archivist Discovers Recording of MLK Speech
Issue   |   Tue, 02/09/2016 - 23:44
Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
College archivist Mariah Leavitt discovered the first known full recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “The Summer of Discontent.”

Amherst College archivists discovered a tape with the only known recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “The Summer of Discontent.” College archivist Mariah Leavitt recently found the recording in a box donated by the WAMH radio station in 1989.

King’s speech took place at the New School, a university in New York City, on Feb. 6, 1964. The speech was a part of The American Race Crisis Lecture series hosted by the New School that featured speakers from the civil rights movement.

The speech was pre-recorded and later aired on WAMH in December 1964 to the Amherst community on a program called “The Lecture Hall.” This program broadcasted twice a week and consisted of pre-recorded lectures hosted at Amherst and around the country. Other recordings dating from the 1950s to 1970s that were found with King’s speech include protests and lectures on the Vietnam War and lectures by Robert Frost and physicist Neils Bohr.

Mike Kelly, the head archivist of the college, emphasized the historic significance of the recording. “It wasn’t until we started talking to more people about this tape that we realized, where in the world would you have heard a complete Martin Luther King speech in 1963 or 1964?” Kelly said. “Yes, he is going to show up in the news, but you’ve got three national broadcast networks plus PBS, and they may cover a Martin Luther King event, but they aren’t going to play an hour-long speech.”

In August 2013, the New School discovered a recording of the question-and-answer session that followed King’s speech, but did not find the speech itself. After Leavitt discovered the tape at Amherst, the college’s Archives and Special Collections began the project of verifying its authenticity and digitalizing the tape.

“When I first found the tape, I assumed that other institutions must have copies of it as well. It wasn’t until I started researching it that I realized it was probably unique,” Leavitt said in an email interview. “Even then, we were trying to guard our excitement because we knew that there was a good chance that the recording wouldn’t be recoverable or the speech might have been recorded over.”

Because the tape is too fragile to play without digitalization, its contents were unconfirmed until recently. The entire process happened quickly, Kelly said, allowing the archivists to achieve their goal of making the tape available by the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“There is no point in having amazing stuff if only a handful of people are ever going to see it,” Kelly said.

The full recording of King’s speech is now online and accessible to the public on Amherst’s website.

“In the speech, King is addressing the reasons for the intense period of civil rights protests and activities in 1963. He takes as his topic ‘Why 1963?’ One could ask ‘Why 2015?’ and the many of the answers wouldn’t be that different,” Leavitt said. “Things have changed a great deal since 1963, of course, but the fundamental drivers of racial inequality are largely the same.”