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A Promise Unfulfilled: 1962 MLK Speech Recording Is Discovered

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Last fall, curators and interns at the New York State Museum were digging through their audio archives in an effort to digitize their collection. It was tedious work; the museum houses over 15 million objects. But on this particular day in November, they unearthed a treasure.

As they sifted through box after box, museum director Mark Schaming remembers: "They pull up a little reel-to-reel tape and a piece of masking tape on it is labeled 'Martin Luther King, Jr., Emancipation Proclamation Speech 1962.' "

It's audio no one knew existed.

That year — 1962 — fell in the midst of the Civil War centennial. At one commemorative event, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation and invited King to speak. No one had heard his speech since. When Schaming listened to the audio, he found it still relevant. "It's 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation is released, and this promise is still unfulfilled, very much as it is still today in many ways," the museum director says.

At the end of the speech, King quotes a slave preacher who he says "didn't quite have his grammar right but uttered words of great symbolic profundity."

"Lord, we ain't what we oughta be. We ain't what we want to be. We ain't what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain't what we was."

The passage, Schaming says, is so powerful it must be heard to be appreciated. You can hear the full speech and explore King's typewritten speech at the New York State Museum's online exhibit.

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