Pacifica Radio Archives unearths missing 1964 London speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

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The 1964 speech by the civil rights leader was sitting in a dusty box in Pacifica's archives.

The 1964 speech by the civil rights leader was sitting in a dusty box in Pacifica’s archives.

Fifty years ago, Pacifica Radio correspondent Saul Bernstein recorded a 62-minute speech delivered in London by Martin Luther King Jr., in which the civil rights leader spoke about apartheid and the then-recent sentencing of Nelson Mandela.

The recording, believed to be the only full record of King’s speech, was thought to be lost to time. But a half-century later, Pacifica Archives Director Brian DeShazor uncovered Bernstein’s recording in a dusty box while working on a Saturday, researching another project, “American Women Making History & Culture, 1963-1982,” a two-year effort funded by the National Archives to preserve hundreds of recordings.

Now listeners to Democracy Now!, which airs on Pacifica’s five stations around the country, will hear the speech on the show’s Martin Luther King Day edition, and donors to the financially struggling network can receive a copy as a premium.

DeShazor said he found the tape due to a lucky break. As he gathered material for the women’s history project, DeShazor started a pile of interesting boxes to revisit. One contained Bernstein’s recording.

“This was a box that was ready for the dustbin,” DeShazor said. “It would have been thrown out and lost forever if I hadn’t been working on a grant-funded project.”

The box containing the tape, labeled “Martin Luther King, London 1965,” turned out to be mislabeled, since the speech was actually recorded Dec. 7, 1964. Inside was the quarter-track reel-to-reel tape of the speech, which DeShazor said looked like it hadn’t been touched in decades.

“It was pretty extraordinary,” he said. “My first thought was the recognition of his voice, his timbre. The sound quality is not muted, or old-sounding — it still sounds fresh.”

According to the King Center Archives, Christian Action Chairman Rev. L. John Collins invited King in April 1964 to visit London and give a speech about apartheid in South Africa. Collins, an activist and a Canon in the Anglican Church, started not only Christian Action but the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti Apartheid Movement.

King ended up making the trip Dec. 7, 1964, stopping in London on his way to Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. According to DeShazor, King also addressed other news of the day — Mandela’s sentence of life in prison.

After converting the old tape to a usable format, DeShazor tried to find other records of the speech. He came up empty-handed, except for brief news footage that can still be found online.

“After doing five days of research through the King Center archives and everywhere else we could find, we couldn’t find a recording of it anywhere,” DeShazor said. “It looks like we uncovered a missing speech.”

The archives decided to highlight the discovery on Democracy Now! to maximize its reach. And the new recording is a key feature in a gift the archive is offering for listeners who donate $100, which will benefit both the archive and Pacifica’s stations. The 8 1/2-hour CD set of King and King-related recordings includes the London speech and other archive material dating from 1957 until after King’s death.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “When you think about it, this was just a blip in the atmosphere at one point, and now it’s here in a tangible presence. And if it weren’t for public media, it probably would never have been heard outside of those [who were] in London in 1964.”