In Cleveland, new Martin Luther King Jr. recording uncovered

David Martosko Executive Editor
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On an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday 45 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spent 21 minutes speaking to an audience of students, parents, and other members of the public at Glenville High School, in one of Cleveland, Ohio’s poorest east-side neighborhoods.

In 2009 an art teacher unearthed a dusty tape of that April 26, 1967 speech, previously lost to history, in a library’s trash pile. Another teacher in a nearby suburb had her own copy of the speech on a reel-to-reel tape, which she played to her students whenever she taught about King.

The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s hometown newspaper, published that recording for the first time on its website Saturday morning.

In Cleveland, King delivered a speech that some witnesses still remember. Though portions of the text were carbon copies of other remarks he had delivered, in some cases as many as four years earlier, his charisma and vocal power were at his full command.

King quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, Victor Hugo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cowper, Langston Hughes and the Michigan lumberjack poet Douglas Malloch. He brought down the house by shouting, “I am black, but I am black and beautiful!”

He called on his audience to mount a massive grassroots voter-registration drive. He encouraged young black men and women to “develop a deep sense of somebodyness” and ditch their own “segregated minds.”

“Cleveland, Ohio is a city that can be the first city of major size in the United States to have a black mayor,” he said, “and you should participate in making that a possibility. This is an opportunity for you.”

King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet just 14 months later, but not before seeing Carl Stokes, a former state legislator, elected Cleveland’s first black mayor in his second attempt.

The Cleveland of 1967 was embroiled in the same sort of racial tension that had already enveloped other cities, mostly related to discriminatory employment opportunities, race-based school busing and segregated housing.

The march in Selma, Alabama and the Watts riots in Los Angeles were just two-year-old memories.  The Black Panthers were in their sixth month of existence. Stokely Carmichael had coined the phrase “black power” just one week earlier. Major race riots in Detroit and Newark were just three months away.

There were not yet any African-Americans on the Supreme Court. (Thurgood Marshall would be nominated to serve just two months later.)

And less than a day before King’s April 27 speech, Cleveland’s Democratic mayor, Ralph Locher, had stirred up racial animosity by labeling him an “extremist.” (He also applied the label to Congress of Racial Equality director Floyd McKissick and Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace.)

Against that backdrop, King told his audience to “develop that red-rugged determination. Stay in school. Stick with it to the end. It may be that you will have to work harder than other people, but don’t mind that. Go on and do it anyhow!”

And the message of determination and ruggedness continued.

“Get ready to compete with people,” he bellowed. “Don’t set out merely to ‘do a good Negro job.’

“If you are setting out one day to be a good Negro doctor, or a good Negro lawyer, or a good Negro schoolteacher, or a good Negro preacher, or a good Negro skilled laborer, or a good Negro barber or beautician, you have already flunked your matriculation exam for entrance into the university of integration.

“Set out to do a good job and do that job so well that nobody can do it any better. If it falls your lot to be a street-sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say ‘Here lived a great street-sweeper who swept his job well.'”

Asked how the recording ever wound up in the trash, Cleveland School District archivist John Basalla told The Plain Dealer, “I can’t speak to how it got to wherever it got because I wasn’t there, but I’m glad they still exist.”

David is The Daily Caller’s executive editor. Follow him on Twitter