Behind the scenes of King's speech at ASU

MLK reel-to-reel tape

Earlier this year ASU University Libraries and the King Center in Atlanta made available for the first time a previously unknown recording of a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Arizona State University approximately a half-century ago.

Titled “Religious Witness for Human Dignity,” King delivered the speech to an audience of 8,000 people at ASU’s Goodwin Stadium on June 3, 1964 – less than one month before the landmark Civil Rights Act was signed.

The recording was among a box of reel-to-reel tapes donated by deceased Phoenix businessman and civil rights leader Lincoln Ragsdale and discovered by Phoenix resident Mary Scanlon while shopping at a Valley Goodwill store.

After the discovery, a committee of ASU archivists, historians and scholars worked over the next few months to verify the recording’s authenticity. Kristen LaRue, outreach program coordinator in ASU’s Department of English, transcribed the speech for the university and immersed herself in the sounds of King’s voice for several hours over two days.

LaRue spoke to ASU News about her experience, which she recalled as a “geeky thrill” as well as an intimate brush with history.

Q: Before you transcribed the MLK tape in Tempe, were you familiar with the teachings of Dr. King?

KL: Growing up in rural 1970s Montana, most of what I watched on television – including footage from the civil rights movement – seemed exotic and foreign. The only familiar thing in Dr. King’s appearances was what I heard – and that was the English language. Even that was inflected with an unfamiliar southern accent (my own speech had something of a Fargo, North Dakota, sound). I knew by listening to news anchors and commentators that King was important, that he had done and said something special and good. But those events seemed very, very far away.

I moved to Arizona in 2002. I first saw the ASU photograph of Dr. King sitting next to G. Homer Durham on the library archives website when I was doing research for something else. I couldn’t believe he had been here. Here! Where I live! It made me feel not-so-removed from that incredible moment in history. Then when I heard a recording had been found – utter nerd joy. To imagine him speaking in my environs – in the early summer desert air, in the presence of Palo Verde trees and saguaros – was a new intimacy.

Q: Did you do a straight listen before you transcribed the tape, and if so, what was running through your mind as you were listening to Dr. King's words?

KL: Because the tape wasn’t yet available to the public, I knew I needed to work quickly on the transcription. I didn’t do a straight listen before starting work on it. The listening I did could be described as “deep,” as I played and re-played the 45-minute tape for nearly two days straight in order to type his words exactly as spoken. I remember thinking that I was writing down history – for the first time. Others had, of course, listened to this speech before I did, but no one in the world had yet put all of these particular words to paper. It was very, very exciting for me.

Q: The U.S. Senate filibuster, which tried to block passage of the civil rights bill, was the new wrinkle in this speech. What can you tell me about the filibuster and why it ultimately failed?

KL: Since I’m not a King or civil rights expert, I don’t know much about the filibuster itself. However, through the work of ASU English professor Keith Miller, I am a bit familiar with King’s recycling of his and others’ words. Through research I found that he gave portions of this speech – verbatim – at other appearances across the country. Apparently King had a mental catalogue from which he could pull speech material as needed, or as “the spirit moved him.” But I found it meaningful that since the filibuster was tied to a very specific moment in time, this part of the speech had a limited shelf life, so to speak. It wouldn’t have made sense to repeat it in other addresses.

Q: There's been mention of King's exhaustion in his voice due to his relentless speaking schedule and a “nagging virus bug." Did you pick up on that right away?

KL: I’m a music historian and have [a master's] in music history and literature from ASU. I did my early training in vocal pedagogy and performance, and have some later training in music therapy. So, for better or worse, I am always listening to voices for clues about a person. I was anticipating a certain timbre when I first heard King’s voice on the tape, so I was surprised to hear it sound tight, gravelly and tired – not the fired-up, energetic presence with which I was familiar. But it was unmistakably his, which was authenticated by our team of scholars. It was thrilling to hear him get started on one of his famed, cascading orations that sounds like he’s preaching at church. From what I could hear on the recording, the Arizona crowd was slightly less boisterous than a southern Baptist congregation, but there was quite often enthusiastic applause and, at several points, laughter.

Keith Miller told me about the incredible number of public appearances and speeches King was making in those days. I also knew he had two others earlier that day in Phoenix, which put the fatigue I heard into context.

Q: What did you personally get from this experience?

My personal takeaway: to have had a very small part in helping this recording, and therefore this speech, find its way into civil rights history is very satisfying. I do often enjoy working “behind the scenes” on various projects, but none of these projects had gone on to have national impact. Until now.

The Department of English is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences