Clarification posted Jan. 21: The UCLA Library also has recordings of the speech in its collection, available for listening by special arrangement but not online.
A long-lost audio recording of a 50-year-old speech delivered at UCLA by the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. has been unearthed in a storage room in the communication studies department, which will put it online. The 55-minute speech (embedded below) went live on January 15, King’s birthday, four days before the national holiday honoring him.
“It’s a speech of importance that deserves to be released on a day of importance,” said Derek Bolin, a 2013 UCLA graduate who found the recording while working as a contract archivist. Over the years, King’s visit to UCLA became a proud part of campus lore. The spot where the civil rights leader stood to deliver his speech, at the base of Janss Steps, is now marked with a plaque and is a stopping point on some campus tours.
The speech, recorded originally on 7-inch, reel- to-reel tapes, will become part of the UCLA Communication Studies Speech Archive, an online collection of more than 400 speeches delivered on campus by politicians, activists, entertainment personalities and other newsmakers primarily during the 1960s and ’70s. Like King, the speakers were brought to campus by UCLA’s now-defunct Associated Students Speakers Program. With donations from alumni, the department began last year to digitize the speeches and upload them to YouTube. So far, more than 180,000 listeners have tapped into the online archive.
The timing of the speech is significant. King delivered it on April 27, 1965, one month and two days after the triumphant march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that is depicted so movingly in the new biopic “Selma.” The film’s director, Ava Marie DuVernay, attended UCLA in the early 1990s as an undergraduate English major, according to registrar records.
The march and protests leading up to it paved the way for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The federal legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting was signed into law four months after King’s UCLA visit, said Paul Von Blum, a senior lecturer in the department and in African American studies, who participated in the civil rights movement as a young man.
“It’s tremendously important,” Von Blum said of the speech. “It shows that Dr. King recognized that American universities were crucial in the movement for social justice. Students, especially at elite universities, were kind of the foot soldiers of the movement.”
The audio recording would have been completely forgotten had Bolin not noticed King’s name on a list of campus speakers. Tapes of the speech weren’t in the two cabinets that stored the recordings of the 365-plus speeches he had already processed. So he scoured the storage room where tape reels had languished for decades. Eventually, he found a cabinet that had been hidden from view by shelving, old beta players and other out-of-date audiovisual equipment.