Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Kansas State University just months before his death in 1968, and school officials long believed that any full recording had been lost in a fire later that year.
But last week, the university unveiled a recently found full-length audio recording of the speech during a packed event titled “The Dreamer Speaks Again.” About 300 people — including three men who were with the civil rights leader that day — turned out to listen to the words that King spoke to more than 7,000 people at Ahearn Field House on Jan. 19, 1968.
“It sounds wonderful,” university archivist Anthony Crawford said ahead of the event. “Things fall in your lap sometimes.”
King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference had what is believed to be a recording of an abridged version of the speech, but the school didn’t know about it until recently. And any recordings of the entire hour-long speech were thought to have been destroyed in a blaze that gutted the building housing the campus radio station.
But last year, the school received surprising news: Shortly after King delivered the speech, a Wichita man requested a reel-to-reel tape of it from a radio station — and kept it in his personal library.
Pat Patton heard King speak that day four decades ago, and came to hear him again. Now a research specialist at the school, she had helped operate the dorm for athletes in 1968 and was called over to sit with King in a quiet office before he spoke. Patton recalled that King arrived with no one and asked for nothing. Before departing, he apologized for disrupting her day.
“I thought ... ‘How can this man with so much going on in his life be so calm and serene?’” she said in a telephone interview. His death less than three months later was “devastating,” she said.
Although King had delivered a version of the speech before, he often adjusted to respond to his audience and address current events. Those off-message moments are often what historians find most interesting, and King’s appearance at Kansas State didn’t disappoint.
King used the speech to respond to the State of the Union address that President Lyndon Johnson delivered two days earlier.
“He talked about the highways and the beautiful cars flowing on those highways,” King told his audience. “He talked about the 70 million television sets. And then he wanted to know why there is so much restlessness.
“I would like to answer the president by saying that there is restlessness in this society because we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.”
Those words were faithfully transcribed before the school’s recording was lost and included in a book published by the University Press of Kansas. The speech was entitled “The Future of Integration.”
Three men who joined King on the stage that day also participated in last Thursday’s event. Homer Floyd, the former executive director of the Kansas Human Relations Commission, and George Haley, a former state senator, were at the luncheon, while former Kansas State political science professor William Boyer appeared through an Internet video feed.
Their names, along with the name of then-university president James McCain, were written on a slip of paper found in King’s coat pocket after he was killed.
Clayborne Carson, a history professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, said many of King’s speeches were never recorded and many recordings were later lost. About a dozen new recordings surface each year.
Carson was eager to get a copy of the full version of the Kansas State speech.
“I’m always looking for, ‘is there something that sets him off and causes him to deliver an exceptional speech?’ ” he said.
But the university is being cautious with the recording. The school will allow people to listen with headphones, and attorneys are still looking into whether the speech can be posted online.
For those who get to hear it, Crawford said it would be a powerful experience.
“To think ... that those words were spoken just right here on campus,” the archivist said.
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