MLK speech found at Albany museum
In 'eureka moment,' intern finds rare MLK recording
ALBANY Enoch Squires’ faded handwriting is barely readable on the label affixed to the reel of Scotch-brand magnetic tape — one of roughly 400 audio recordings handed over to the New York State Archives after the former WGY radio personality died more than three decades ago.
The blue pen on masking tape yellowed with age succinctly identifies the recording as the “EP DINNER NYC.” The less legible part identifies why the 7-inch reel Squires recorded 51 years ago was such an important find when an intern at the archives plucked it from a box in November: “Rockefeller, Martin Luther King Sept. 12 ’62.”
In November, Daniel Barker, a graduate student intern, was filing through some of the more than 5,000 audio recordings stowed at the archives when he happened upon Squires’ recording. He was in the midst of digitizing some of Squires’ work when he saw the label, played the tape and quickly realized the piece of history that had been tucked away in the archives since Squires’ widow dropped off boxes of recordings in 1979.
“It was really a eureka moment,” said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said of the only known recording of the speech. “He was listening to the clear voice of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking back to us from 50 years ago.”
King made the speech at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in New York City during a commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He was among the speakers invited to a dinner by the state Civil War Centennial Commission, a panel assembled by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s famed proclamation.
A draft of the proclamation was a centerpiece for Rockefeller’s centennial. The only existing handwritten copy of Lincoln’s speech was obtained by the state Legislature in 1865 and continues to be maintained at the State Museum.
The Republican governor worked hard to coax King to the dinner — something the civil rights leader was hesitant to do at first. Dunn said King was initially reluctant to accept the invitation because he feared he might upset President John F. Kennedy — a Democrat leery of Rockefeller’s White House ambitions — and undermine his work nationally.
“He was concerned that if he came to Rockefeller’s dinner, that might get in the way of what he was trying to do on the national level,” Dunn said.
King also had a scheduling conflict that made an appearance in New York City problematic. Rockefeller’s solution was to pay tribute to King by pledging to cover one third of the cost to rebuild three African-American churches burned in southwest Georgia amid the strife of the civil rights movement.
Squires was best known for his work as the Schenectady Traveler, a program he aired weekdays on WGY that included footage he compiled from his extensive travels throughout the region. He left the station in 1961 to take a job as a research associate with the commission and was on hand at the dinner to record King’s nearly 26-minute-long speech.
Squires also kept a 14-page typed transcript of the speech, including notes he apparently took afterward to denote parts King changed or omitted. And in one case, where he lost almost a minute of the speech as he changed reels.
“We’ve exhibited the typewritten text of the speech before, but this audio recording allows us to experience the real power and courage of Dr. King’s speech as he delivered it back in 1962,” said John King, Jr., commissioner of the state Department of Education.
King’s tone in his speech is more measured than others he made during the civil rights movement. The content, however, includes some of the same themes he would later employ standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963.
“The speech he gave there — the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech — has several similarities to the speech we have in our collection,” said Jennifer Lemak, a curator of history at the State Museum.
In the speech, King discusses the nation’s continued racial inequality, despite allusions of equity contained in the context of the proclamation and the Declaration of Independence. He spoke of how racial injustice continued to hold a modernizing nation back among its peers and how the greatest homage to the proclamation would be to make true the message it conveys.
“There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation,” said King, his voice gradually reaching a crescendo. “That is to make its declaration of freedom real — to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Barker’s discovery has since been digitized along with hundreds of other recordings made by Squires, most of which are far more mundane. The recording of King is now featured as part of an online exhibition along with other documents from the dinner, including the original event program and the transcript Squires marked up.
“This is a remarkable treasure,” said Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents. “More than 50 years later, Dr. King’s voice has come back to life.”
• See the online exhibition at www.nysm.nysed.gov/mlk. A special exhibition including the audio recording of the speech, images from the dinner and the manuscript of the speech will be on exhibit at the State Museum next month.