Cleveland, Ohio: Stephens' Recording Service (also known as Memo Records), 1956. 33 1/3 rpm vinyl record in cardboard sleeve measuring 12¼” x 12 1/8. Approximately 43 minutes of audio. Record fine, sleeve very good with moderate edge wear and scattered instances of light dust soiling.
This is a vinyl recording of a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech. Until now, as we explain below, the voices embedded in its grooves have been lost to history. King gave this speech to the National Negro Funeral Directors Association (“NNFDA”) on August 7, 1956. He was just 27 years old at the time. 1955 saw him complete his first year as pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, welcome his first child and the Montgomery bus boycott began that December. By the time of this speech King was still in the midst of the boycott despite the United States Supreme Court making segregation on public transportation illegal in April. He was becoming a national figure by this point but was still unknown to many.
The recording exists because one of the attendees of the NNFDA banquet, Carlton Stephens, a metallurgical engineer, recorded the speech and wanted to share it with friends. He wrote King in September, 1956 asking permission to produce and sell a record of the speech, offering to donate profits to the Montgomery Improvement Association (“MIA”). In December he reported to King that he ordered one thousand copies and asked for suggestions on distribution. While King's staff responded within a week to acknowledge Stephens' letter, there is no correspondence reflecting whether the MIA helped with distribution. Outside of an advertisement placed in the March 6, 1957 issue of The Memphis World, we are unable to locate any other efforts at distribution or sale. The last extant letter from Stephens to King, February 1957, contained a check for $100, representing the sale of the first hundred records with a promise of another check for $100 after the next 100 were sold. The correspondence between King and Stephens also reveals that the jacket design was done by African American artist Sterling Hykes. The liner notes were written by Stephens' wife, Carriebell J. Cook who went on to co-chair Cleveland's United Freedom Movement. These notes provide an extensive background on King's educational and professional accomplishments as he was just stepping in to the national limelight. It touched on the efforts of the MIA and presciently declared, “the name of the distinguished Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will long be remembered as a leader of the battle against tradition in the southland.”
King gave a speech with the same title four days later at an Alpha Phi Alpha (“APA”) banquet in Buffalo, New York celebrating the fraternity's 50th anniversary. The fraternity printed the text of that speech in a booklet in 1956 as well as in its Fall 1968 issue of its journal, “The Sphinx,” and the passages from which we'll quote below come from the 1956 publication. The overall theme of each speech is the same but there are dozens of differences between the recording offered here and the speech as printed by APA. There are a number of significant differences including sections in this speech that do not appear at all in the APA speech, and other areas are reworded nearly in their entirety.
The recording begins with a six minute introduction by C.W. Lee, who was chairman of the board of the NNFDA. He called King “a pioneer” who had “the humility of a lowly Nazarene and the courage of a gallant warrior.” King then took the podium, shared how Lee secured him as a speaker and gave a brief update on the bus boycott. He then explained the meaning of “Birth of a New Age”: all over the world, colonialism and imperialism was giving way to self-government as oppressed people arose in protest. He explained that segregation in the United States was on its last breath:
“what is happening in the world today is an expression of the tiredness of people who have been oppressed and trampled over for many years. And so these people in a state of tiredness decided to rise up in protest and as a result, more than one billion, three hundred million of the colored peoples of the world are free now. They have their own governments, their own economic systems, their own educational systems. They have broken aloose of the aegis of colonialism, now they are moving through the wilderness of adjustment to the promised land of cultural integration.”
He then admonished the crowd that they must be prepared to live in the new world that was emerging and that they faced three challenges. The first was that they had to rise above individualistic concern and work for the good of all. The next was “to achieve excellency” in whatever they pursued in life so they would be prepared to meet and accept the new opportunities that would arise: “we are not to go out to be good Negro doctors, good Negro lawyers, good Negro morticians, or good Negro ministers. We must go out to be good whatever we are and not do it on the basis of race.” The last was to enter the new age with an attitude of understanding and goodwill as opposed bitterness. He then warned of complacency and that just because segregation was almost gone, the struggle wasn't finished: “the old age is still around. It's not completely dead. Now it is true that old man segregation is on his deathbed but history has proven that social systems have a great last minute breathing power. The guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.”
Comparing the NNFDA Speech to the APA Speech
King's introduction to the NNFDA differed significantly from the introduction to the APA, especially as it related to the boycott. In the APA speech, he thanked the audience for contributions to the Montgomery Improvement Association, but made no mention of how the money was used, why it was needed and how it felt to receive it. At the NNFDA he said,
“You give us courage to carry on in this struggle, for it takes money to do it. I remember the time that our transportation system could run on about $2,000 a week, but the assistant treasurer can tell you that now we are spending approximately $5,000 a week for our transportation system and the running of the office so that it takes a lot of money to do what we are doing in Montgomery. But we intend to stick it out to the end and to make every sacrifice. We feel that in this struggle we are struggling not only for Montgomery but we are struggling for the 16 million Negroes of America and for all of the people of goodwill over the world and as we walk we realize we do not walk alone.” We've documented several other significant differences that we would be happy to supply on request.
This is one of King's earliest recorded speeches. King's first known recorded speech was a sermon delivered in February 1954. We've located four others that precede the address offered here: December 5, 1955 (MIA mass meeting); April 26, 1956 (MIA mass meeting); June 27, 1956 (NAACP convention) and July 23, 1956 (American Baptist Assembly).
Despite Stephens' report on his order of one thousand copies, and sale of one hundred, the record does not appear to be held by any institution. It's not possible to know if Stephens made and sold the numbers he disclosed or if he was simply hoping to stay involved with the MIA. The recording is unknown to Stanford's Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, nor is it among Dr. King's papers held by Boston University. It's not in the finding aid of the King collection at Morehouse. The King Center reports that they are aware of the recording but have never located a copy. We find no examples on OCLC, auction records, nor through many hours of search term iterations on Google and our ever growing print reference library. Based on Stephens' statements we would think more than one survived, but at this time it is the only known copy of King's voice as he laid down the principles of the movement that ultimately gave birth to a new age.
A newly discovered recording of Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching words of hope, courage, unity and non-violence which resonate as strongly today as when he first spoke them. Fine. Item #1830