Martin Luther King Audio Tapes

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A purchase at a Phoenix thrift store led to the discovery of an audio recording of Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to Phoenix and Arizona State University in 1964. Rob Spindler, an ASU archivist and curator, and Keith Miller, an ASU English professor who has written two books on King, talk about King’s visit and what’s on those audio tapes.

Ted Simons: Martin Luther King visited Phoenix and Arizona state university back in 1964, and recently, a recording of his appearances was found among a collection of tapes at a Phoenix thrift store. Here's how Dr. King began his local speech at Tanner AME Church in Phoenix.

Video: I can assure you that it is a privilege to be in the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona. I have longed to come here for a long, long time and I have received numerous invitations and always some scheduling problem made it impossible. And I'm so happy that we could arrange our schedules to be here on this occasion and at this time. I regret that because of a nagging virus bug, I will have to be brief in what I have to say but maybe that's good because briefness is always a magnificent accomplishment for a Baptist preacher. [ Laughter ]

Ted Simons: We'll hear more of Dr. King's appearances in Phoenix and Tempe, but first, here to talk about finding this lost recording is Rob Spindler, an ASU archivist and curator, and also joining us is Keith Miller, an ASU English professor who has written two books on Martin Luther King. Good to have you both here, thanks for joining us.

Keith Miller: Thank you.

Ted Simons: I mentioned this was found at a thrift store? What's going on here?

Rob Spindler: That's right. April, 2013, I received a call from Mary Scanlon of Phoenix and she had found a photograph we had online of Dr. King with the ASU president and several other religious leaders from the valley. We had that online for over a decade and she found that photo and called me and said well gee do you have a transcript? And I said no we've always wanted one but we don't know what Dr. King said.

Ted Simons: And she said -- what did she say?

Rob Spindler: Well, she said I think I have something for you and I said well why don't you bring it in and we'll have a look and see what you have.

Ted Simons: And these tapes were labeled MLK on them so obviously, for $3 at a thrift store you take a chance on that don't you?

Keith Miller: Yes, sir, absolutely. It's a wonderful discovery that she made.

Ted Simons: How important is this discovery?

Keith Miller: I think it's very important, I think it's important to know that ASU welcomed King and that G. homer Durham to me, he went out on a limb politically because King was very controversial and because in the speech, King advocated the passage of what became the landmark 1964 civil rights act which was controversial in Arizona. And I think he deserves some credit for that. He was a racial progressive. He also apparently was the first ASU president to hire an African-American professor.

Ted Simons: Interesting and you mentioned that Martin Luther King was speaking about civil rights legislation in Tempe. We have a snippet of that speech. Again, this involves civil rights legislation that he was supporting back in 1964.

Video: It may be true that you can't legislate integration but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality can't be legislated but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true -- [ Applause ] It may be true that the law can't make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important, also. [ Applause ] And so while it may be true that the law cannot change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men and when you change the habits of men, pretty soon the hearts will be changed and the attitudes will be changed. [ Applause ]

Ted Simons: Dr. Martin Luther King inning 1964 speaking at Tempe at the old Goodwin stadium there at Apache and college, Dr. King speaking of civil rights legislation. He also spoke about civil disobedience in support of civil rights legislation. Here's what he had to say.

Video: It has a way of disarming the opponent. It exposes his moral defenses. It weakens his morale and at the same time, it works on his conscience. He doesn't know how to handle it. I've seen that so often as we struggle across the south. If he doesn't put you in jail, wonderful. Nobody with any sense loves to go to jail. If he puts you in jail, you go in that jail and turn it from a dungeon of shame to a haven of freedom and dignity. Even if he tries to kill you, you develop the inner conviction that bears some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true that they're worth dying for and if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live. [ Applause ]

Ted Simons: We heard 1964, a tape found at a thrift store, Martin Luther King speaking in Tempe. We heard some moaning sounds underneath. That's an old tape, isn't it?

Rob Spindler: It sure is and you're hearing the bleed through from the flip side of the tape where there was another speech recorded.

Ted Simons: When you got this tape, was it the kind of thing where you better record this quick because it may be falling apart if you play it more than once?

Keith Miller: Well, not so much about timing but about care and the proper equipment. It was one of 35 tapes we received that we believe were made, and they were moldy, the cases had white out and cross outs so you're never sure what's on those tapes and the process of playing them for the first time in 50 years could result in damage to them.

Ted Simons: Yes. It's digital now, has it all been transformed over there?

Rob Spindler: Of the 25 tapes we've attempted to digitize, 23 survived.

Ted Simons: Oh, my goodness. Okay. Well, that's better than it being at a thrift store for goodness sakes.

Rob Spindler: You bet.

Ted Simons: As far as Dr. King was saying, why did he appear in Phoenix in the first place? Was it to support the civil rights act?

Keith Miller: I think he wanted to support the civil rights act. He traveled a lot, he gave lots and lots of speeches, maybe 200 plus speeches per year, speeches and sermons. But I think he came to Arizona as a way to support the African-American community and the struggles of the African-American community in Arizona, even though he wanted to say you're part of a larger picture, you're part of a larger struggle, you're part of a larger drama and you count, too. You don't have to be in the deep south to count or in New York City or Chicago. You can also be in Phoenix.

Ted Simons: Do we know how many folks were at Goodwin stadium there in Tempe to see the ASU speech?

Keith Miller: I think there were about 8,000.

Rob Spindler: Half capacity.

Ted Simons: Was this relatively well advertised? Do we know what happened back then?

Rob Spindler: There were very few advertisements. The NAACP placed a small box ad and that's where we get the title of his speech but very little coverage before or after the event.

Ted Simons: And as far as what you've learned about his appearance in Arizona and what he was doing about this time. Talk to us about his stature, his profile, who was Martin Luther King in 1964?

Keith Miller: I like the passage you played about civil disobedience. He's saying ordinary people can change history, working-class people, and the whole African-American community in Montgomery who nobody thought were ever going to go on a boycott or change America. One of the interesting things about studying the civil rights movement is that nobody saw it coming. Absolutely nobody in the country. African-Americans in the south surprised everybody. Birmingham is really interesting because in Birmingham it wasn't the middle-class African-American community. It was the working-class community that showed up at the rallies and that sent their children to march in the streets. So the message about nonviolence and civil disobedience is a message that ordinary people can change history.

Ted Simons: And as far as the restoration process, curator, archivist, how big a deal is this?

Rob Spindler: We have them both in compressed form and high-quality form. They are available online, you can hear Martin Luther King's speech at the ASU digital repository. It's pretty easy to find on google. Search "Martin Luther King audio Arizona state" and it will come up at the top of your search results.

Ted Simons: When you first heard from Mary Scanlon, what were your first thoughts?

Rob Spindler: Well, at first I'm skeptical. It takes some effort to authenticate information like this and often people believe they have something that is more valuable than perhaps it is, as a research source. So that first moment when I plugged the thumb drive in and played the recording, I was in tears. We've been trying to find out what King said for so long. And to have it come through so crystal clear and to instantly recognize his voice was just an emotional moment for me.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned the president of ASU taking a chance, inviting Martin Luther King to speak on campus. Talk about in general what we can now hear the words, we know what he said and what his message was. What does that mean as far as the relationship, Martin Luther King and Arizona?

Keith Miller: I think it's interesting because I think it complicates the national image of Arizona, because a lot of people, because of the controversy about the King holiday which you just talked about with reverend Stewart, people think that Arizona is anti-king. But this complicates that narrative to me because ASU welcomed Martin Luther King himself. And G. homer Durham, the president of ASU, praised King and he said King exemplifies the principles of the sermon on the mount. So... Arizona is not just a state that states Martin Luther King. Which is what some people were thinking, especially in the 1990s.

Ted Simons: Is that the message we should take when we listen to these tapes?

Keith Miller: That's an important message to take, yes, sir.

Ted Simons: What do you think we should take from listening to these tapes?

Rob Spindler: I think it's important to think about the role of local churches in advancing the civil rights movement, the struggles that individuals encountered in trying to pass the first public accommodations bill in Arizona which was passed later that fall, after the civil rights act of '64 and that these things don't come easily. King was not feeling well, he just finished a tour in California, and he stayed up all night talking about political strategy, hard work, struggle for many years to achieve the freedoms that we have achieved.

Ted Simons: All right. Well, gentlemen thank you so much for joining us and congratulations on the find. We're going to close the program now with Dr. King's closing remarks at the Tanner A.M.E. church in Phoenix. Again, 1964.

Videdo: And so I can conclude by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher, who didn't quite have his articulation and his grammar and his diction right, but who uttered words of symbolic profundity. They were uttered in the form of a prayer, lord, we ain't what we ought to be, we ain't what we want to be, we ain't what we gonna be, but thank god, we ain't what we was. Thank you.

Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you for joining us on this special Martin Luther King day edition of "Arizona Horizon." You have a great evening.

"Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Rob Spindler:ASU archivist and curator
,Keith Miller:ASU English professor

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