On November 22, 1961 a radio reporter named Eleanor Fischer* interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta. She was producing a documentary series on Dr. King and that southern city for the CBC called Project 62. She spoke to him again in late 1966 and early 1967. Fischer's raw interviews were given to the New York Public Radio Archives by a close friend of hers after she died in 2008 at the age of 73. As far as we know, these unedited interviews have never been presented in their entirety until now.
In this first interview tape above, Dr. King talks about growing up in Atlanta and the reasons for his decision (after considering medicine) to join the ministry. He recounts his first awareness of racism at the age of five and his mother's efforts to explain why things were this way without conveying a sense of inferiority or loss of dignity. King describes how he arrived in Montgomery, Alabama. He had long been concerned about racial injustice and wanted to be part of solving this problem in the South. He details his church's efforts to combat the clergy's prevailing political apathy by setting up political action committees, encouraging membership in the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, and trying to increase awareness of the "social gospel."
The 32-year-old civil rights leader tells Fischer how he came to embrace non-violent resistance, first through Jesus and then by reading about Gandhi. He explains that it was with the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott in December, 1955 that he felt he could put the theory of non-violent resistance into practice. Dr. King views Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 as a legal and psychological turning point for the civil rights movement, which he considers a part of a worldwide struggle.
In tape two of this 1961 interview in Atlanta, Dr. King goes into more specifics about the Montgomery bus boycott and how it came about with Rosa Parks and what he calls a spontaneous reaction on the part of the black community. He talks of his role in the boycott, the constant threats and how he faced fear. He admits the movement had low moments but that there was always something to "give us renewed energy." He recalls how wonderful it was that first day back on the bus saying, "It gave all of us a sense not of victory over the white man, not victory over particular individuals, but a great sense of victory for justice and freedom and democracy." He responds to a question about the subsequent fear and bitterness that remain in Montgomery and violence against the freedom riders. But he says a non-violent movement does not work miracles overnight. Dr. King reiterates that non-violence is the key to change and that the gains of the Montgomery movement can be seen in other cities where they have voluntarily integrated their buses.
Dr. King talks pragmatically of his arrest the previous year for driving without a valid license in Georgia, and the intervention by then Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. He agrees that it was probably a politically motivated move to gain black votes but argues there is nothing wrong with the combination of political expediency that is morally sound. He responds to criticism that he has not spent enough time in jail or at sit-ins and he says there is a great need for direct action in other areas of the South, including liberal areas. He says it is impossible to live through such a movement without moments of doubt and frustration but that the movement is bigger than any one person and that Montgomery was ready for it.
1961 TAPE THREE
In tape three of the 1961 interview, Dr. King talks about the growing awareness of Africa on the part of African-Americans. He notes that in the past the continent reminded them of backwardness and a heritage of oppression, but that now they can identify with emerging African nations. King, however, disagrees with the underlying philosophy of black nationalism in the U.S. because of its segregationist stance. Black nationalists, says King, believe that the white man is beyond redemption; hence their call for segregation, not integration. Black supremacy, he says, is just as bad as white supremacy. "We don't advocate a purely negro struggle.” The system, he argues, debilitates the white man as well as the black man. However, the civil rights leader stresses we must understand that these movements are not spontaneous, but are symptomatic of the discontent of African-Americans. He says we must get rid of the conditions of segregation and discrimination that they, these nationalist movements, thrive on.
Dr. King emphasizes that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and CORE are for complete integration. Additionally, voting is critical. He calls on the federal government to insure the black right to vote so that the proper leaders get into office, a critical part of the transition from segregated to desegregated society, will go smoothly. He cites some 100 counties in eight states where blacks are harassed and intimidated and kept from voting and registering to vote. Similarly, the same pressure must be placed on the federal government to get affirmative action in employment. King argues that many problems would be solved if only government would enforce existing laws against discrimination.
King believes whites in the South do have a conscience and that they act the way they do because of a sense of guilt. It’s true, he says, that when we appeal to the conscience of whites in the South, many people will never be moved, but he knows the movement's actions do raise the consciousness of people in Washington and in the North. And if these people are aroused, they will do more to rectify the situation. The freedom rides and sit-ins, says King, have done just that.
King acknowledges that there is indeed a difference between the northern sympathy given to the participants of the lunch counter sit-ins and the freedom riders because the sit-ins are nearly all southern blacks, while northern whites were involved with the freedom riders and have been seen as interlopers or provocateurs. When asked by Fischer about black nationalists threatening his movement by frightening white liberals, King says he believes they will achieve the opposite because the non-violent movement is “a moderating influence on the Negro community.” He denies that his movement is a middle-class one and argues that it has demonstrated the ability to bring together the “classes and the masses.” Again, he cites the Montgomery bus boycott as an example of broad participation by the black community.
Fischer asks King how blacks in the North should solve their problems and whether a non-violent strategy can work there as well. King says such a non-violent movement can call attention to problems that exist in housing and employment discrimination and he again stresses that the federal government and the courts have a major role to play. Pressure can also be brought through anti-discrimination requirements placed in federal contracts. The civil rights leader says that "what has happened in the South has given the northern Negro a new sense of dignity and determination to struggle.”
Dr. King argues that the white South is looking to perpetuate a preferred economic position, "a system of human values that came into being under the slave plantation system" that cannot survive today. The fears and guilt feelings that came as a result of these factors, he says, highlight the psychological parts of this problem that include, among other things, a fear of intermarriage. All of these factors together explain this continuing negative mindset and system. Finally, Dr. King sees the use of civil disobedience and non-violent protest as applicable to the anti-nuclear movement to arouse the conscience of the world on issues of war and peace. We do need, he says, people here like Bertrand Russell in England.
1966-1967 TAPE 4
Tape four begins a with a short segment from an earlier interview (December, 1966). Dr. King comments that more and more people are becoming unaware of the fact that the war in Vietnam is a major factor bearing down on domestic issues and that a disproportionate number of blacks are fighting in this unjust and immoral war. Whether the civil rights movement gets into the peace movement as a programmatic factor is a matter of limited resources and staff. (The February, 1967 interview picks up here and takes place at the Hilton Hotel in New York) "The war in Vietnam is seriously diverting attention from the civil rights movement." He talks of the need to join issues of peace and justice, guns and butter. "The Great Society is being shut down every day on the battlefields of Vietnam and this war is playing havoc with our domestic destinies." King says he had hoped there would be a de-escalation, but that it only got worse. "The Negro is the chief sufferer and should be the chief protestor," says the civil rights leader.
Fischer questions him about the difference between his definition of a conscientious objector and the government's definition. King argues that we have to test draft laws by challenging them, saying, "People must have a right to oppose a particular war even though they are not pacifists and even though they will not oppose war in general." And he argues there should be constitutional provisions for these people.
Dr. King says he is prepared to go to jail for violating the draft laws and views it as an extension of his civil rights work. He comments on the prospect for a 3rd party peace candidate for President in 1968, saying that the country needs such a person to bring a new dimension to the political scene. He responds to the accusation that he has 'played into the hands of the enemy' by saying he disagrees philosophically with communism but that people have a right to determine their own destinies. "I love America,” says King, “And unless this problem is solved it will destroy the soul of our nation --it will further isolate the U.S. morally and politically from the rest of the world and lead us more to the possibility of the destruction of all mankind." Dr. King believes the U.S. suffers from “a pride of power, an arrogance of power” and that we are “on the wrong side of a world revolution.'' Too often the U.S. has identified itself with the wealthy and secure and we have ignored the poor and insecure, he says. And if we don't stop on this course, King believes we will have more Vietnams in African, Latin America and Asia. We are not here to police the world, says the civil rights leader, arguing we have the economic resources to revive the world, not police it.
In closing, King comments on the case of Mohammad Ali and the draft and says that Ali has a right to claim conscientious objector status.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. (Photo: NARA/USIA via Wikimedia Commons)
*Eleanor S. Fischer was a foreign correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the founder of National Public Radio’s New York office. She passed away on August 7, 2008, at the age of 73.
Fischer attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City, where she became an accomplished classical pianist. She received a degree in political science from Cornell University before graduating from Columbia Law School in 1959. Fischer began her career as a lawyer practicing civil rights law, poverty law, and criminal law but in the early 1960s, she changed course and left the law to produce radio documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for whom she also covered the Israeli Six-Day War. In the early 1970s, she opened the New York City office of NPR, where she continued to produce radio features.
Special thanks to WNYC Program Director Jacqueline Cincotta, WNYC's Senior Archivist Marcos Sueiro Bal, Elizabeth Starkey and
To hear Eleanor Fischer's interview with Malcolm X from the early 1960s, please go to: MALCOLM.