Last year, a woman shopping at a Goodwill in Phoenix came across a pile of ragged reel-to-reel tape recordings. As a record collector, she was intrigued, and even though she had no method of playing these recordings herself, she picked one of them up at random.
In a pile of 35 tapes, Mary Scanlon happened to pick up the only one containing a speech that was previously thought to be undocumented: Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to ASU in 1964.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’” she said.
Included on the tape’s label was “M L King Tempe 1964,” which prompted Scanlon to research the event. After seeing photos online of the ASU event, she immediately contacted Robert Spindler, head of the Department of Archives and Special Collections.
Scanlon said Spindler was cautious to get too excited until the tapes were played and the speech was confirmed to actually be by Martin Luther King Jr. They were sent to a specialist in Pennsylvania, who would be able to record them the first time they were played in case they disintegrated in the process.
Spindler contacted the specialists soon after their first listen, and they confirmed, with excitement, that the recording was in fact King’s voice, a rare window into this poorly documented speech, titled “Religious Witness for Human Dignity.” Previously, no transcripts or recordings of the speech were thought to exist.
“It was really exciting,” Scanlon said. “There were a few of us that got to hear the tape this past summer. … The first time I heard it, I had tears in my eyes. It’s so moving.”
Scanlon said she didn’t consider anything other than donating the tapes to ASU, because she felt the tapes belonged at their home university.
“Because the speech was at ASU, it seemed right that they go there,” she said. “I have a great loyalty to Arizona. I came to visit Phoenix as a child and walked around the ASU campus … so ASU has always had a special place in my heart.”
Many of the other tapes were found to be recordings of radio shows affiliated with the late Lincoln Ragsdale Sr., a Phoenix civil rights leader who apparently donated the tapes to Goodwill before his death. Lincoln Ragsdale Jr., his son, later gave the University permission to use the recordings. Both he and his father are ASU alumni.
The Martin Luther King Jr. speech was officially released Jan. 23 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration on the Downtown campus.
Keith Miller, who teaches English at ASU, is widely regarded as a national authority on Martin Luther King Jr. and has written two books about King and his speeches. He said he’s read every King biography, though they all fail to mention the speech occurred.
Before Scanlon’s discovery, the only documentation of the event were two photographs and descriptions found in two books specific to Arizona’s civil rights history.
This speech is monumentally important to the history of Arizona and the entire Civil Rights movement, because it highlights a unique occurrence that ran contrary to much of the political culture of the time, Miller said.
Miller credited former University President G. Homer Durham with providing support crucial to the speech’s success.
“Barry Goldwater, who lived about 20 miles from ASU, was extremely popular,” he said. “Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act. The president of ASU, G. Homer Durham … is going out on a limb, because he praises Dr. King in his introduction, which is on the tape. And he says, ‘Dr. King is putting into practice the sermon on the mount,’ which is about as high of praise as it gets. And he’s doing this even though Arizona likes Goldwater.”
Durham, a Mormon, also showed his progressivism in defying the traditional emphasis of his church, Miller said.
“The Mormon church didn’t fully recognize racial equality until 1978,” he said. “So he’s a racial liberal in this context; not everyone in the Mormon community supported this or understood this. So he’s being progressive on racial issues in ways a lot of Mormons weren’t.”
The speech also featured King’s call for Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, a foreshadowing to the law’s passage less than one month later.
Miller said the speech’s recording documents not only King’s words, but also the crowd’s positive reaction — something that King didn’t always receive, and that contrasts the popular idea of Arizona being unfriendly to civil rights.
Miller said present legislation, such as the controversial immigration law Senate Bill 1070, as well as historical instances, have led to this racist portrayal. In 1987, Gov. Evan Mecham rescinded the state’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, prompting national shock and a widespread boycott of Arizonan businesses.
The state later approved the holiday in 1992, after the NFL threatened to relocate the 1993 Super Bowl, planned for Sun Devil Stadium.
“Arizona got, in the eyes of a lot of people, a racist image,” Miller said. “(But) no one acted in a hostile way against him like they did in other places, including Alabama, including Georgia (and) including Chicago. The people welcomed him here. And there were 7 or 8,000 people who came to listen to the speech and applauded the speech.”
Matt Whitaker, professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, agreed that this speech sheds light on the positive acceptance of King by many Arizonans in 1964. He shared his colleague’s belief that the speech belonged at ASU for students to become educated about Arizona’s history in civil rights.
“(When I heard the tape) I learned more about King’s relationship with local leaders and the extent of which he was willing and able to lend his time and energies to this struggle near and far,” Whitaker said.
This recording also contrasts the negative University image created by the recent controversy surrounding the offensive Tau Kappa Epsilon party, Whitaker said. The fraternity’s chapter was revoked after an investigation into the incident revealed multiple violations of ASU’s Code of Conduct.
“These tapes show that there have always been conscientious people at ASU who understand the necessity of the Civil Rights movement and what they were fighting for, and unity and equality and progress,” he said.
Whitaker said both in history and today, King’s message resonates, as even when racism remains present, there are those willing to preserve the morals they know to be correct.
“Even in the midst of racial controversy, there are always elements of progressivism and conscientiousness and goodness,” he said.
Whitaker shared in the excitement of the recording now being housed at ASU, where it was successfully archived and is now available for public access on the ASU Digital Repository website.
“At the risk of sounding like Indiana Jones, something like that belongs in a library,” he said. “It belongs in a depository where it can be maintained, cataloged, and made available to the public. If it’s not there, it runs the risk of being lost again. Now we know it has a home.”
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