Monday, January 16, 2012

Dr. King's Voice

I have written about oratory before on this blog. Today, I just wanted to point to the enduring power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice--as heard, remembered, recorded, and re-created. Many talk about the content and message of King's speeches, as they should, but I have been struck also about how many news stories there are out there about the auditory experience of his speech: reprints of news accounts of him at the podium, people remembering where they were when they heard the "I Have a Dream" or "Mountaintop" speeches; stories about re-creations of his speeches in community centers and town halls and college auditoriums; people listening to recordings of him speaking and writing about their inspiration. In particular, there have been several accounts over the past several years about the recovery of "lost" recordings of King's speeches and the excitement over our ability to actually hear his ideas anew:

In Cleveland in 1967:

At Kansas State University in 1968:

At Bethel College in 1960:

Part of recounting where and when one heard Dr. King speak is a certain claim to historical authority; we elevate the knowledge that comes from encountering social leaders face-to-face or participating in significant historical moments. But beyond that, I think there really is something special about having the opportunity to give oneself over to the power and resonance of his oratory. After all, we could just silently read transcripts of speeches, or watch his televised appearances, or converse about his legacy. But that's not really how MLK Day has come to work for many Americans. Audio clips of King's speeches are all over the Internet; many people, every year, reflect through listening, just as King, a preacher, asked his congregants in the 1950s and 60s to reflect through listening. This is not simply mimicry. There is something about the recorded human voice that provides for many hearers a sense of immediacy; inflection and "grain" can feel like a more direct trace of a person's body and spirit than published writing or news photographs. His words are still--literally--with us. By re-gathering each year to hear King's voice, we celebrate his legacy but we also create and sustain a new kind of call-and-response, one that is not simply in the past but across the past.

"I Have a Dream" Audio:

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