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"MY DEMAND IN WASHINGTON IS: REPENT, AMERICA!" MARTIN LUTHER KING. Reel-to-reel tape recording of Dr. King speaking to the SCLC board, January 1968. 1/4-inch audio tape wound onto 7-inch green plastic Ampex reel, housed in metal cannister; minimal wear. Atlanta, GA, 17 January 1968
Any piece of oratory by Dr. King is a part of the nation's heritage, but this is not just any speech. It was given at a planning meeting for the last of his great protest movements: the Poor People's Campaign. The audience was a large group of leaders and staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which he had founded and led for ten years as his primary vehicle for activism. Here before his most loyal followers, we can hear shouts of affirmation and rueful laughter from the audience.
The stakes were high; the Poor People's Campaign would soon be publicized and launched, but the group was still debating its tactics and list of demands. King told the Atlanta Constitution that an "idea task force" was presently preparing demands for Congress, adding that "we're trying to provide an alternative to the long hot summer" (17 January 1968).
King's central argument was the need to reach Washington on the side of justice, without getting slowed down by the details: "We are moving around the right issue. It's a simple thing. Jobs are income. , , , We are talking about bread now. We are talking about the right to eat, the right to live, this is what we're going to Washington about. . . . The nation needs this. We don't have to worry about just jobs or income. Let's get to Washington. And after we get there, and stay a few days, call the peace movement in. . . . I don't know what Jesus had as his demands, other than 'Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.' My demand in Washington is Repent, America!"
The power of demonstrations, if channeled to non-violence, is discussed at length: "The nation needs a movement now. . . . and I say to you that many of our confusions are dissolved, they are distilled in demonstrations. . . . They have served the purpose of giving people new senses of dignity and destiny." Apparently motioning to SCLC staff member Lester Hankerson, a former street gang leader, he said "Lester wouldn't be here today if there hadn't been some demonstrations around Savannah, he'd probably be out there in jail somewhere, not for demonstrations but for other reasons. But Lester became a man, and a person committed to moral purposes, through demonstrations. The sociologists don't write about it much, but whenever you have demonstrations in a community, the crime rate goes down." Demonstrations were King's tool and he had clearly thought through their impact: 'In dangerous moments, people begin to hold hands that didn't know they could hold them. The question of black and white goes out in a demonstration. We will argue it philosophically, but out on that line, black folk and white folk get together in a strange way. And I'm saying many of the things we argue about, segregation or integration, will be dealt with in demonstrations. . . . The nation needs a movement. And the questions we argue about, violence and non-violence, will be dealt with in a demonstration. . . . Hope is the final refusal to give up. In this sense it has a medicinal quality. . . . As we go into these communities, we go with the hope that we can move this sick nation away from at least a level of its sickness."
King also uses a series of analogies and parables to make his points--some religious, some not. He calls upon the national religion of baseball by recounting a rousing walk-off victory by his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, who he had rooted for since Jackie Robinson's arrival in 1947. Oddly enough, his central parable is about the great 19th-century Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who is said to have broken his A string just after the intermission of his performance. Rather than give up in despair, Bull improvised a transposition of the whole performance to the three remaining strings and finished flawlessly. You might not be able to turn a story about a long-dead Norwegian violinist into a powerful metaphor, but you are not Martin Luther King. He reflected upon the victories and stumbles of the SCLC over the past seven years: "We don't have much. The people we are going to be recruiting don't have much. Their A strings have broken. We in this movement have had our disappointments, we've had our failures, we've had our moments of agony. Our A strings are broken. We went to Albany, Georgia and things didn't come out like we wanted to see them come out, and everybody said SCLC is finished, movement is finished, the A string broke down in Albany, but we transposed the composition in Birmingham and finished on three strings. Some people say we failed in Chicago. I haven't concluded that, but we certainly didn't do everything in Chicago that we set out to do. And I never will forget one day an agreement was reached, and Chicago didn't live up to that agreement. A string broke, I look back over, and I wish we had gone to Cicero now, but don't worry about these things, you make mistakes, in any game. If you run your football down the goal, don't be upset about fumbling the ball, just try and recover it. We are going to Washington and we are going to transpose the composition." King apparently saw the Poor People's Campaign as a way to redeem the Chicago Freedom Movement, which had ended with a fizzle in 1966 when some of his more radical supporters had instead wanted to march on the white suburb of Cicero.
King drives toward his conclusion with a series of rhetorical flourishes like a fireworks display: "That is a law in this universe: when it is dark enough, you can see the stars. There is a law in this universe, no lie can live forever. There is a law in this universe, truth crushed to earth will rise again. . . . I go away with this faith. I don't know if I'll see all of you before April, but I send you forth as Jesus said to his disciples as sheep amid wolves, be ye as strong and as tough as a serpent and as tender as a dove and we will be able to do something that will give new meaning to our own lives, I hope new meaning to the life of the nation. I may not see you before, but I'll meet you in Washington." King never made it to Washington to see the launch of the campaign.
This tape has 23 1/2 minutes of King's speech, beginning in mid-sentence but apparently near the beginning of his remarks. The remarks are repeated twice on the tape, with the second appearance much clearer in sound. More extensive notes transcribed from King's remarks are available upon request. A digital audio file of King's remarks will be provided to the winning bidder. Provenance: estate of C. Clarence Mayfield, lawyer for the SCLC and NAACP in Savannah, GA who died in 1996; acquired by the consignor at auction in 2017 and loaned to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture for their temporary exhibit, "City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People's Campaign" from December 2018 to February 2019.
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