National Press Club

Panel explores context of MLK's 1962 speech at NPC

January 13, 2016 | By Julia Haskins | juliaannehaskins@gmail.com

On July 19, 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. became the first African American to address the National Press Club. Nearly fifty-three years later on Jan. 12, portions of the speech were played for the first time since being delivered in the Club ballroom where King stood.

The event also marked the unveiling of a plaque commemorating King’s speech that will hang outside the ballroom.

Human and civil rights activist Joe Madison, the radio host known on SiriusXM’s Urban View channel as "The Black Eagle,” moderated a panel that provided context and insight into King’s remarks.

King’s speech came at a pivotal moment; just days before he had been released from jail in Albany, Ga., only to address the audience at an organization where he was not entirely welcome.

It was panelist Simeon Booker -- the NPC’s 1982 Fourth Estate Award winner and second African American member -- who advocated for King’s visit as a member of the Club’s speakers committee. Booker was joined onstage by his wife, Carol McCabe Booker.

“It wasn’t just the Press Club, it was the whole environment, it was the whole society for the black community, and for Simeon to take that stand took a whole lot of courage,” said panelist Courtland Cox, a Mississippi organizer during the Civil Rights movement and President of the SNCC Legacy Board.

King’s 1962 visit to the Club was fraught with tension, a point that his friend and advisor, Clarence B. Jones, hoped he would address in his speech.

Speaking by phone with Madison, Jones said, “I wanted him to say as part of the speech, ‘Why has it taken so long for a Negro to speak at the Press Club?’”

However, Jones said King believed his speech was well-received for an audience that had little grasp of the struggles faced by African Americans in the 1960’s. King’s presence in and of itself held major significance, Jones said, and his discussion of racism was important, if not uncomfortable, for a white audience.

“He said ‘I thought it went over very well, but sometimes even some of our friends ...have difficulty when you talk about matters publicly that they are embarrassed to hear,’” Jones recalled.

While King didn’t call out the Club for its lack of inclusion, panelists said his speech’s measured, thoughtful tone reflected his legacy as a powerful speaker.

“[The audience] probably didn’t expect the cogent vision,” said John Franklin, senior manager in the Office of External Affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “They probably expected a preacher, but not a scholar, and … they were probably surprised at the presentation, the decorum, at his civility.”

Judy Richardson, former SNCC staff member and documentarian who worked on the Academy Award-nominated PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” echoed Franklin’s sentiment. “Dr. King [had] this incredible intelligence but he was also a charismatic leader,” she said, recalling his work with SNCC.

Cox also pointed to King’s youth in light of his strength as a leader. “What’s amazing to me is King was 33 years old,” he said. “Think of another 33-year-old [who] had to craft a message, a strategy, and a way of approaching [racism] so we would move forward as opposed to moving in on each other.”

WUSA-9 Anchor-Reporter Bruce Johnson wrapped up the event by drawing parallels between the significance of King speaking at the Club and the current media landscape that often fails to include people of diverse backgrounds. “You have to work at diversity, and that’s what Dr. King was saying,” Johnson said. “You’re changing the mindset, you’re changing the culture.”

He concluded with a piece of advice with implications beyond just the world of media: “Count who’s at the table -- that’s who decides. If you’re not at the table, you’re not deciding.”

Recordings and a transcript of King’s speech are available on the NPC website.