The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is forever enhanced by discovery of a 24-minute recording of his first meeting with the national media, which occurred during a 1962 speech that was the first ever by an African American at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
To help celebrate King’s birthday on the Jan. 18 national holiday, the club unveiled the long lost recording last week along with riveting commentary by other civil rights pioneers.
They included Simeon Booker, 97, an African-American reporter who arranged the speech as a member of the club in the still-segregated nation’s capital.
King’s speech and the panel’s context provide an inspiring perspective about the unjust and otherwise dire conditions they helped change.
In 1952, Booker became the first black reporter at the Washington Post. Later, and sometimes at great risk to his safety, he went on to report iconic stories about the civil rights movement during his five-decade career writing for the JET and Ebony magazines.
Booker, whose stories for JET about the 1955 torture and lynching in Mississippi of 15-year-old Emmet Till outraged black communities nationally, took the lead in urging the press club’s speakers committee to invite King. The club had never previously invited even such black luminaries as Thurgood Marshall, Ralph Bunche, Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson. Booker himself was just the second press club member who was of African-American descent. Another man joined briefly in the mid-1950s but never became active in the club’s activities.
Civil rights leaders Simeon Booker, Carol McCabe Booker and Judy Richardson at the National Press Club Jan. 12, 2016 (Justice Integrity Project photo)
The club’s program focused heavily on racial conditions at the time of King’s speech and less so on the progress that King helped inspire. Neither did it dwell on King’s horrid and still-suspicious assassination in 1968. The murder and its investigation have been the subject of lingering questions by his family, others in the civil rights community and many other researchers who still question whether the late convicted assassin James Earl Ray acted alone in shooting at King while he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The murder prompted riots in cities across the nation and many setbacks in the civil rights-antiwar-labor alliance that King was helping lead then.
Those chapters of American history were just a few years removed from 1962 when, as described by the press club’s panel, even the nation’s capital was so segregated that blacks (called “Negroes”) faced great difficulty in finding a place to eat downtown, much less in renting a hotel room or obtaining a lecture audience before a racially mixed audience. Legal, medical, dentistry and other national professional bodies were still segregated at that time for the most part.
Gilbert Klein, a journalism professor at American University and former club president, helped arrange the Jan. 12 program about the 1962 King lecture. To open last week’s program, Klein took the stage in the same club ballroom where King had spoken. Klein described how the 1962 invitation was so controversial that the club’s speaker committee chairman resigned in protest.
An audio recording was made of the speech and filed away in the Club’s Archives and later transferred to the Library of Congress. No television footage of the speech in its entirety exists. The Club’s History and Heritage Committee recently retrieved the recording and found it is of significant historical value. Coming just days after Dr. King was released from jail in Albany, Ga., the civil rights leader outlined his vision for non-violent protest as the best way to achieve racial equality. The 1962 audiotape of 24 minutes was played below as part of the panel discussion.
Club president John Hughes of Bloomberg News described the discovery of King’s long-long audio recording and the creation of last week’s program as the highlight of his year-long term that ended last week as the press club’s volunteer president. “Martin Luther King’s 1962 speech was one of the most important events to ever happen at the National Press Club,” Hughes said. “I am honored this event at long last is getting proper recognition with such distinguished guests.”