514th Air Mobility Wing Historians Office - Martin Luther King Jr. Day

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walter W. Napier III

Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1962 Emancipation Proclamation Memorial Speech

This year, as we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I wanted to showcase a speech given to celebrate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.  While Dr. King has given many great speeches, this one may have slipped through the cracks.  In 2014, a recording of this speech, given in New York City, was uncovered at the New York State Museum.

The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most well-known executive orders given by an American president.  On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation in the middle of the United States Civil War.  To this day, the American Civil War remains the bloodiest war in American History.  With a key factor of the war being the South’s slave economy, the Emancipation Proclamation read in part, that on January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”  If you are interested in reading the Emancipation Proclamation in full you can find it at the National Archives here: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation.

 In September of 1962, Dr. King was invited to speak at an event in New York City to celebrate the 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  He presented the speech at the New York Civil War Centennial Commission’s Emancipation Proclamation Observance, New York City, New York, September 12, 1962.  In his speech, Dr. King praises the document as one of two (the other being the Declaration of Independence) “imperishable” American contributions to civilization.  He said, “The Emancipation Proclamation shattered in one blow the slave system, undermining the foundations of the economy of the rebellious South.” If you would like to read the speech in full it can be found here: https://www.nps.gov/anti/learn/historyculture/mlk-ep.htm.

 While the speech was powerful, it in some ways was lost.  Part of the reason was Dr. King’s many brilliant speeches.  In August 1963, he gave the often quoted “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1965 he gave “Our God is Marching On” during the events in Selma, Alabama.  He spoke at Stanford in 1967, where he gave “The Other America” speech, highlighting the poverty gap, and his final, hauntingly prophetic, speech in 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In 2014, however, a group or researchers at the New York State Museum working to digitize their audio archive collection came across an unknown audio recording of Dr. King’s “Emancipation Proclamation Centennial” speech. At the end of the speech Dr. King quotes a slave preacher with words that are as relevant today as they were then, “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.”