A newly uncovered speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in 1967 sounds curiously like the civil rights icon is speaking about current-day conditions as he preaches about underfunded schools, the wage gap, white backlash against black progress and the country’s need to address poverty.
On July 30, 1967, less than a year before a bullet from a white supremacist assassin’s rifle would end his life, Dr. King came to County Hall in Charleston, S.C., for a speaking engagement. The visit occurred during the “Long Hot Summer of 1967,” as race-related riots broke out in cities across America, including Plainfield, N.J., Minneapolis, Minn. Detroit, and Milwaukee, just to name a few. King was in Charleston to talk about his Poor People’s Campaign, specifically about the “Freedom Budget,” an economic agenda he thought could solve poverty in America. The “practical, step-by-step plan for wiping out poverty” called for a basic universal income, housing, education reform and a jobs plan. King insisted the revolutionary idea could wipe out widespread poverty in 10 years and many people still believe this radical plan is the final straw which resulted in his death.
For years, the University of South Carolina’s African American history collection featured a short excerpt of the speech, but other than that, there was no transcript or recording of the entire event. Historians and archivists assumed that it was one of the few speeches given by King that was lost to history until one day, the daughters of Eugene B. Sloane, a civil rights journalist from The State newspaper, stumbled across a box in their deceased father’s closet.
Because he was also a photographer, Sloane was known for taping the events he covered on a Sony reel-to-reel recorder while he snapped pictures. After he died, the daughters thought they had distributed all of Sloane’s historically significant photos and memorabilia to the University of South Carolina, but the new box from the closet contained photos, Sloan’s original Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder and two reel-to-reel audio tapes.
The first recording was from a Ku Klux Klan meeting the night before King arrived in South Carolina. Sloane reportedly found out about the meeting because it was public knowledge. (This was S.C. in 1967, remember?) The journalist reportedly strapped his trusty tape recorder to his waist under a Klan robe, donned a hood, and recorded the entire meeting. In the transcript and recording obtained by The Root, the KKK leaders speak of blacks raping little white girls, Confederate monuments, crowd sizes, and the liberal news media causing the “nigger riots.”
Does any of this sound familiar?
A Klan leader even calls for King’s death, saying:
You see what happening over here tonight and tomorrow. This great man Christian, Martin Luther Coon. He’s ... I’ll betcha they’ll say tomorrow that he has 8,000 niggers, 8,000 niggers. Now them niggers know all about the devil. Now this might be the last time that Martin Luther Coon ever comes to Charleston. He’s to go to Charleston, He’s banished to going to Kingstree He can’t go to Albany, GA. He come for one purpose, for the money. He come for the money. That’s what he come for and to sew his poisonous seeds. For God help that nigger. He ought to be shot. (Applause & horn honking) Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to honor the members of this order here know the difference. The members of the United Klans of America Knights of the ‘Klu’ Klux Klan.
The following evening, Sloan attended the King event and recorded the majority of Dr. King’s 45-minute speech. In the recording and transcript obtained by The Root, King talks about a number of subjects that still ring true to this day.
Let me say to you this afternoon that racism is still widespread. In American society, racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame. So wherever we live in America, you have to face the fact honestly that racial discrimination is present. So don’t get complacent; certainly we’ve made some strides, we’ve made some progress here and there but it hasn’t been enough; it hasn’t been fast enough; and although we’ve come a long long way, we still have a long long way to go.
Now we hear a lot of talk about the white backlash and uh you hear people saying that negroes pushing too fast and all of this so that now you get a white backlash - a white reaction. Whatever I hear anybody say this I always remind them the white backlash isn’t nothing new. It’s just a new name for an old phenomenon. (Applause) There has never been a single solid determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans on the question of genuine equality for the black man. It’s never been here. So for those who say there’s something new now in terms of a white backlash go back and tell them that it’s always been here.
In 1863 the negro was freed from the bondage of physical slavery by through the emancipation proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln. But the negro was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. And you know something like having a man in jail for years and years and then you suddenly discover that this man is innocent and go to him and say now you are free. The man been unjustly jailed for thirty-five or forty years and you just put him out of jail saying now you are free. You don’t give him any bus fare to get to town; no money to buy any clothes; no money to get something to eat.
This is what happened to the black man in this country. He was just told you’re free. Been enslaved for 244 years. He didn’t have any family life because it was a crime for the negro during slavery to get married they destroyed the negro family. He didn’t have any money because he didn’t get paid anything; he didn’t have any education because it was a crime for a negro to learn to read and write actually during the days of slavery, some negroes slipped away and tried to write and they would chop their hands off.
Now America must hear about its sins because we will never understand what is happening in this country today without understanding that we are now reaping the harvest of terrible evil planted by seeds centuries ago. Yes we were given emancipation but no land to make it meaningful. And you know what? At that same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the midwest. It was said the nation was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. Yet it would not do it for those who had been in the land, brought here in chains for 244 years so emancipation for the negro was freedom to hunger.
Everybody who’s able ought to have a job in this country. And everybody...who isn’t able to work ought to have an income. That should be a guaranteed annual income. There are plenty of things that can be done to get jobs for the jobless. Jobs can be created very easily… It’s possible to end poverty. The question is whether the will is there. And negroes can learn, we hear all these things when we talk about employment they tell us we’re not qualified. Now I don’t know what you feel about it. But that always uh gets me a little disgusted. Someone kept you in slavery for two-hundred forty-four years, and then segregated and discriminated for another hundred years and every time you go up to get you a job that want you to have a W.E.B. Dubois mind and then beyond that they want you to have a Ralph Bunche sense of international affairs, a Marilyn Monroe figure, a Lena Horne face.
And so I’m not gonna give you a motto or preach a philosophy burn, baby burn. I’m gonna say build, baby build organize, baby, organize. I’ve decided to stick with love. Somebody’s gotta have some sense in this world. And a lot of white folks have demonstrated eloquently that they don’t have no sense and why should we be that way? The reason I’m not gonna preach a doctrine of black supremacy is because I’m sick and tired of white supremacy.
After the sisters discovered the recordings, they approached an auction house that had previously handled artifacts like civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ archives. Wary that the tapes might be damaged in shipping, the sisters decided to board a train and hand-deliver them to Guernsey’s, the New York auction house.
Initially, we didn’t have a scheduled auction to include the tapes,” explains Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey’s. “But then, it dawned on us that we were conducting a small event on Sept. 19 but the items were mostly related to the Holocaust. It didn’t take a stroke of genius to see the similarities between the holocaust and the events in America that led up to the civil rights movement.”
Using world-class digital technology that consisted of holding a cell phone up to the Sony reel-to-reel, the Auction house digitized a few audio clips from the recordings and shared them with The Root. Ettinger explained that he usually doesn’t worry about items of such cultural value ending up in the wrong hands, which is why he shared them with The Root.
The auction of the audio recordings, photos, recorder and other artifacts will take place at Guernsey’s in New York, NY on September 19. Bidders can also bid online and by phone.
“It’s not a pretty piece of artwork or something that you hang on a wall to show off,” said Ettinger. “This is something of historical and cultural significance.”