FBI Text of Rev. King Speech Made Public
On a winter night in 1965, three weeks into a black voter registration drive in Selma, Ala., an FBI tape recorder rolled as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urged followers at an Alabama Baptist church to keep their eyes on the prize.
He beseeched them to pursue nonviolence and focus on the coming “dawn of a new fulfillment,” despite the beating of a black woman that day by sheriff’s deputies.
Until this year, a text of the speech sat in the hands of an Alabama police informant and King’s biographer. But now a former speechwriter for President Clinton has published the speech in an anthology of civil rights oratory, “Ripples of Hope.”
“This is not what you see on national television. This is talking to the foot soldiers. It’s a really brilliant moment. I was lucky enough to be given the transcript,” said Josh Gottheimer, 28, a Harvard law student.
King’s remarks were transcribed from FBI surveillance tapes held by an Alabama police “consultant” for 32 years, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer Taylor Branch.
Branch said he worked for 15 years to convince the Selma man -- who wanted to sell the tapes for $1 million -- that they belonged in the public domain. Branch obtained the transcript in 1997 and supplied it to Gottheimer.
The speech was delivered on Jan. 25, 1965, six months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Hundreds of blacks would line up each day to register to vote in Selma, only to be kept waiting in a frustratingly slow process that turned violent with the beating of a woman who had come to King’s defense.
“They’re going to try to provoke violence, because their backs are against the wall. But if we will keep in the spirit of love and nonviolence, we can change this thing,” King said that night.
And he reminded them of the stakes: “Now, the way we’re going to change these things, the way you’re going to get this street out here paved and all of the other streets where Negroes live that are unpaved, the way you’re going to get better salaries, the way you will have better homes, will be to engage in a vigorous, nonviolent struggle to get the ballot and put people like Sheriff [Jim] Clark out of office.”
Branch said it is significant because it is one of King’s few fully transcribed speeches made directly to his followers behind closed doors during a crisis in the movement.