Today in NYC History: MLK’s Last Speech in New York (1968)

Dr. King gives his final major address at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1968. (Photo courtesy of Carnegie Hall archives.)

Dr. King gives his final major address at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1968. (Photo courtesy of Carnegie Hall archives.)

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? For Dr. King, it was the 100th Birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois, a pioneer in the African-American community. The event, held on February 23, 1968, was King’s final major public address, and his last appearance in New York City.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a titan of his time, a scholar and organizer who likely did more than anyone to advance civil rights in America during the first half of the 20th century. A co-founder of the NAACP, Du Bois refused to intellectually or politically accept a second-class citizenship for African-Americans, once a radical position even in his own community.

Du Bois’ 100th birthday (he had died five years earlier) was a luminous event, emceed by Ossie Davis, and featuring James Baldwin and Pete Seeger. Of course, the headliner was Martin Luther King, Jr.

Du Bois had renounced his American citizenship and moved to Ghana in 1961, passing away in 1963, but Du Bois’ and King’s lives intersected briefly. When King was having difficulty during one of his campaigns, Du Bois sent him a telegram quoting “Fear Not, O Little Flock,” a Swedish battle hymn:

Fear not o little flock the foe / That madly seeks thine overthrow / Dread not its rage and power / What though thy courage often faint / Its seeming power o’er God’s saints / Lasts but a little hour

As befitting a 100th birthday party, King’s speech is largely a glowing tribute to Du Bois. King focused on Du Bois’ towering intellectual achievements, particularly Black Reconstruction, a masterpiece that the New York Herald Tribune called “an economic treatise, a philosophical discussion, a poem, a work of art all rolled into one,” and which King claimed “demolished the lies about Negroes in their most important and creative period of history.”

How we remember history is the central concern of King argued that blacks wrestled not only with their present hardships, but a written history that had saddled them with loathsome traits and crippled their spirits: “[Du Bois] had to deal with the army of white propagandists – the myth-makers of Negro history. Dr. Du Bois took them all on in battle.”

King then pivoted to Du Bois’ accomplishments as an organizer, the gritty work uncharacteristic of most Harvard graduates. For King, it was the duality of Du Bois’ education and bare knuckled politics that made him so potent: “The educated Negro who is not really part of us and the angry militant who fails to organize us have nothing in common with Dr. Du Bois. He exemplified black power in achievement and he organized black power in action. It was no abstract slogan to him.” One could clearly say the same of King.

Dr. King backstage with Mrs. DuBois Peck.

Dr. King backstage with Mrs. DuBois Peck. Courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives.

King firmly believed that even as organizers must live the struggle, they must always fight with sophistication, unclouded by anger. King had spent his career on this impossible political tightrope, and, by 1968, he had lost both his ability to convince young blacks to abandon anger in the face of injustice and access to mainstream political power.

At this radical, lonely twilight of his career, King’s comments about communism explain his political isolation, and perhaps why this speech gets such little play. (You’re not likely to hear a reading of it on MLK Day.) Some writers (here and here) wonder whether corporate sponsors are responsible for the absence of audio or visual recordings of the speech – apparently even tracking down the text was difficult. Passages like this make you wonder:

 We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. In contemporary life the English speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the twentieth century and a Communist or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.

Whatever the mystery behind the missing audio/visual, the text of the speech is revelatory enough. This is how it closed:

In conclusion let me say that Dr. Du Bois’ greatest virtue was his committed empathy with all the oppressed and his divine dissatisfaction with all forms of injustice. Today we are still challenged to be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every man can have food and material necessities for his body, culture and education for his mind, freedom and dignity for his human spirit. Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent, sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized. Let us be dissatisfied until brotherhood is no longer a meaningless word at the end of a prayer but the first order of business on every legislative agenda. Let us be dissatisfied until our brother of the Third World- Asia, Africa, and Latin America-will no longer be the victim of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Let us be dissatisfied until this pending cosmic elegy will be transformed into a creative psalm of peace and “justice will roll down like waters from a mighty stream.”

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