August 9, 2004
Black voters were key to putting JFK in the White House, Martin Luther King Jr. says in newly discovered recording
As President George Bush and his challenger, John Kerry, appeal to African American voters in the run-up to the Nov. 2 election, a recently unearthed recording reveals how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. regarded their influence in an earlier presidential contest.
According to a transcript to be released later this month by the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, King maintained that black voters were key to propelling U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy to the White House.
"It is pretty conclusive now that the Negro played a decisive role in electing the president of the United States, and maybe for the first time we can see the power of the ballot and what the ballot can do," King said in a speech delivered Dec. 30, 1960, in Chattanooga, Tenn. "Now we must remind Mr. Kennedy that we helped him to get in the White House. We must remind Mr. Kennedy that we are expecting to use the whole weight of his office to remove the ugly weight of segregation from the shoulders of our nation."
Even before the discovery of this speech, many scholars asserted that Kennedy's intervention on behalf of an incarcerated King helped to attract support from the black electorate. On Oct. 19, 1960, King and 35 others were arrested during a sit-in at Rich's department store in Atlanta. Because the arrest violated the terms of an earlier probation King had received as a result of a traffic citation, Judge J. Oscar Mitchell sentenced him to four months of hard labor in Georgia State Prison at Reidsville.
Kennedy telephoned King's wife, Coretta Scott King, to express his concern about the imprisonment. Meanwhile, Kennedy's campaign manager and brother, Robert F. Kennedy, contacted the judge to inquire about King's right to bail. The next day King was released on $2,000 bond. In an interview after his release, King acknowledged that he was deeply indebted to John Kennedy but maintained his nonpartisanship.
However, the recently found recording of King's speech, which is titled "The Negro and the American Dream," provides solid evidence that King believed black voters played a significant role in electing Kennedy. "The recording adds to our understanding of King's evolving relationship with Kennedy," said Stanford historian Clayborne Carson, director of the King Papers Project.
The speech was discovered after Barry Tulloss of Danville, Ind., received a recording of it on the original master reel from his father, Jerry Tucker of Louisville. Tucker had been a radio personality in Louisville and interviewed King in Chattanooga on Dec. 30, 1960, before King delivered the speech. After the station aired the interview, Tucker took the master reels home with him and put them in a shoebox, where they "sat collecting dust for over 40 years," Tulloss said. Recently, Tucker gave his son the collection of reels, including two interviews with King and two full-length sermons by King, as well as an interview with Muhammad Ali. Tulloss is currently seeking a collector to purchase the recordings.
The transcript of King's speech is among the documents that the King Papers Project has assembled for possible inclusion in a forthcoming collection of King's sermons, speeches, correspondence and other writings. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume V: Threshold of a New Decade, January 1959-December 1960 will be published by the University of California Press in January 2005. The volume also explores King's relationship with both John and Robert Kennedy and includes King's statement to the press expressing appreciation to Kennedy for the candidate's role in his release as he leaves the prison at Reidsville.