Original Martin Luther King Jr. recording for auction

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

An original recording of one of the last speeches delivered by civil rights icon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. goes up for auction beginning at 11 a.m. Friday.

The speech at Grosse Pointe High School in 1968, titled “The Other America,” was delivered three weeks before his assassination April 4. According to Remarkable Rarities Auction, headquartered in Boston, it is the only known original audio of the speech.

“There were no other tape recorders that day at the event,” RR Auction executive vice president Bobby Livingston told The Detroit News. “It wasn’t like the press was there recording like they would be today.”

According to Livingston, a digital copy of the recording has been transferred to a USB drive, so the winning bidder can preserve the original. Three cassette tape copies of the recording were produced in the 1980s but never widely circulated.

Livingston said bidding should begin at around $500, and he expects it to significantly climb from there.

“We have an estimate of $10,000,” he said. “But it’s one of those things where we never know. It was one of his last speeches and it’s hard to believe that people were hearing him speak three weeks before his death. It’s certainly important.”

Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School, said a speech of that significance should remain in the public domain.

“There’s no doubt about the historical significance of the recording, but what bothers me is when these kind of things go up for auction, it’s commercializing them, and they arguably should stay in the public domain,” said Hammer. “Who gets the benefit of the auction? Is it the King estate or some random person? Whoever gets the recording may or may not make it part of history.”

A description of the tape says King opened his remarks in part: “I want to discuss the race problem tonight and I want to discuss it very honestly. I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth. I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.”

King is repeatedly interrupted during the speech by hecklers described as being from the “ultra-right wing organization Breakthrough.”

King said afterward it was the “most discourteous treatment he had ever received at any gathering in this country,” according to a letter to the editor in the Grosse Pointe News published March 21, 1968, and written by Bishop Richard S. Emrich, who introduced King to the Grosse Pointe audience.

Emrich wrote that U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who sat beside Emrich on the platform, said it was “worse than anything in the deepest South.”

Livingston commented on the significance of the recording.

“Being someone who remembers how divisive 1968 was, this is a remarkable artifact from that moment, and what it says about the United States even today,” he said.

Bidders may log onto the auction website at www.rrauction.com. Bidding ends Thursday.

Among the auction house’s sales since its inception in 1980 are Truman Capote’s hand-notated manuscript for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for over $300,000; a 1963 Lincoln Continental convertible used by President John F. Kennedy for $318,000, and a pair of Bonnie and Clyde’s guns for over $500,000.