Like many of you today, we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy by turning to his own voice and words. In that spirit we’d like to share a clip of a speech Dr. King made to a group of organizers and activists at a Mass Meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, April 1963, digitized from open reel tape recording FT-20008/9832 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008). He addresses the audience with seriousness and humor, inspiring them to continue to fight for the cause and lifting them up in solidarity before they all join together to sing “We Shall Overcome”. Listen to those clips here or read the transcription below:
[Martin Luther King, Jr.]: Now what I’m saying to you we are in this together and they are scared to death they don’t know what to do but this demonstrates the power of numbers. Mr. Connor has hollered, I know he’s gonna be a hoarse tonight, he has hollered so loud and when we were leaving I said, “How you doing Mr Connor?”
[MLK mimicking Mr. Conner] “Arrrerrrarrrarr, How the hell you….!”
And so as we were driving out he looked at Billups and we were in the car, he said “You better get on back over that church and I hope you get there safe”
Yes but God bless you that’s all we want to say, “Don’t worry..” We’re gonna take care of everything and see that everybody’s treated alright. And I said this to Mr. Marshall, I said “Now, I want you to know this Mr. Marshall, they are not criminals.” And I said “It’s not our problem.”
And Mr. Marshall said, “Well you know the city’s had a real problem today with so many…”
And I said “Well that’s that your problem, not ours. When you arrest somebody it is the job of the city to see that they are housed, that they are fed this is the job of the city. These young people have been unjustly arrested for standing up for that right. Don’t you know it’s a sacred right to picket and to protest. People can march around the White House, 500 went to the White House yesterday nobody was arrested. And down here in Alabama we are put in jail because we will stand up for our rights.”
And we are going to let them know if they put us in jail they’re going to treat us right after we get there
[Speaking: Rev. Charles Billups]:
Now let us join hands and let us sing together, “We Shall Overcome”
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome someday,
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome someday.
You can hear the entire tape, as well as interviews and comments from participating student actives, streaming through the Southern Folklife Collections digital collections here: FT-20008/9832. Digitized recordings in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection have been made accessible through streaming thanks to SFC’s ongoing audiovisual preservation grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The photo above is a closeup of Guy Carawan’s banjo head (pictured in full below), signed by Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as other leaders like Rosa Parks, Mahalia Jackson, Septima Clark, Fred Shuttlesworth and more. If you are interested in other archival materials related to Martin Luther King, Jr. you may want to read an article from today’s News and Observer, April 4, 2018, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and Chapel Hill’s Jim Crow Past,” by journalist Mike Ongle. The article based on research across the collections at Wilson Special Collections Library and details Martin Luther King’s visit to Chapel Hill and UNC Chapel Hill in May of 1960, including photos from the John Kenyon Chapman Papers (05441) .
In the spring of 1963 Guy and Candie Carawan traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to participate in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign to desegregate businesses and public facilities in that city. Fortunately they were able to record several mass meetings attended there, including speeches by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the clip below, from tape FT-3648 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection, Dr. King addresses the gathered crowd on “the power of unarmed truth”: King