As the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday approached this year, the National Press Club recently went public last week with excerpts from remarks delivered 53 years ago by the slain Civil Rights leader to the organization. The club is a longstanding professional institution for journalists and has played host to a number of world newsmakers, but in July 1962, King was the first African American invited to speak there.
On the record conversations were often preserved on audio tape, but seldom were the events televised or recorded on video. Initially, the audio tape of King was kept at the club’s headquarters in Washington, DC, but were eventually turned over to the Library of Congress. A historical committee for the Press Club was recently alerted to its existence.
In those days it was a segregated group dominated by Southern reporters who questioned King and the importance and sustainability of the Civil Rights movement. One of the constant questions from government officials and reporters was: “What do you Negroes want?” This was early in the Civil Rights movement and it was an evolving answer. This conversation however, was a predictor of what was to come and the challenges the Civil Rights community would face.
It was probably the first time many White journalists got the opportunity to see and listen to the King first hand. As a student of Mahatma Ghandi, he urged his supporters to adhere to non-violence. Not an easy request to make in the wake of lynchings, fire bombings and the freedom rides where Whites and Blacks tried to end the practice of segregation. Unbeknownst to them, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had King and others in the Civil Rights Movement under surveillance during this time, indicating the U.S. government’s clear interest in his increasing power.
Interestingly enough, the event almost didn’t happen. The conversation was recorded just days after Dr. King’s release from an Albany, Ga., jail. He had been convicted of leading a peaceful march about the segregated conditions in the city. His fine was $178.00, but instead of paying it off, he chose to spend 45 days in jail. Just as he and Rev. Ralph Abernathy were about to commence their sentence, an anonymous donor paid the fine, allowing Dr. King to freely travel to Washington, DC.
The event, which occurred on July 19, 1962, was unprecedented. No “Negro” had ever come before the group. The event came on the heels of two Black journalists being allowed to join the club. The club’s current President, John Hughes, reminded the audience the first journalist color, Louie Battier, did not participate heavily. However, Simeon Booker, the second journalist of color to be admitted to the club was JET Magazine’s Washington Bureau Chief. He was urged to be an active member and was appointed to the Speakers Committee.
Booker was very familiar with the 33-year-old King, and had placed the southern preacher on the cover of the magazine several times, which was unusual. Dr. King had gained some notoriety because of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Civil Rights leader had never addressed the national media or a large audience. It was at Booker’s urging they made the invite. There were some journalists who questioned the selection, and the Chair of the Speakers Committee resigned in protest. Booker, 97, was there 53 years ago and he was present for this presentation.
Dr. King peppered the audience with emerging changes in the south at the hands of the federal government. He noted some in south resistant to change often used the phrase, “over my dead body will any change come.”
King talked about the past but, he focused on the future and the struggle to move beyond the current moment to a more “egalitarian society.” He did not leave the North out of this struggle, noting the many ways they also practiced segregation.
Though the initial speech was written by King it was tweaked by Dr. Clarence B. Jones of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Stanley Levinson. The pair had urged Dr. King to address the broader issue of race in America. Dr. Jones wanted the civil rights leader to ask, “Why did it take so long for a Negro to address the National Press?” Dr. King said, “No, that would be off the issue.”
Instead King would take a scholarly approach to the race in the speech. It likely shocked many in the audience. The Southern Baptist Preacher didn’t deliver a “fire and brimstone” rhetoric but a reasoned response to the issue of the day.
Later, Jones who was not in attendance, asked King how the speech went. King’s assessment was peculiar. Dr. Jones said King told him: “Sometimes, some of our friends have difficulty when you talk about matters publicly, and they are embarrassed to hear.”
Charles F. Robinson, III, is an award-winning journalist who works in television, radio, and print. He is the associate producer for Maryland Public Television Hard Working Families series.