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Read Through Early Drafts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Speeches

One website gives you a peek into the mind of one of America’s most powerful orators

(Marvin Koner/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

It’s one thing to read a speech long after it was spoken, when all of the kinks have been smoothed and every word has been lassoed into order. It’s a whole different matter to read a speech in an early draft, complete with cross-outs, substitutions and the stains from the desk where it lay.

The King Center’s digital archives offer anyone on the Internet just that kind of close contact with one of history’s greatest speakers. Begun in 2011 and sponsored by JPMorgan Chase's Technology for Social Good, the project has organized and digitally preserved over 1 million documents from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, with more added each day.

Of the vast collection of documents available, some of the most illuminating are speech drafts, marked up by editing—often in King's own hand, but also by others, likely secretaries or other staff—demonstrating the creative and philosophical process behind their composition.  

Take, for example, a draft of “The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations,” a speech he made on December 4, 1957, when addressing the National Council of Churches on race relations. There’s evidence of word-choice revisions—for example, subbing in “distorts” for “degrades.” But there are also dozens of lines scratched out with a pencil, showing how Dr. King reconsidered, in one instance, a section describing the efforts of the Klu Klux Klan. The draft suggests he ultimately chose to only give the group a mere sentence.

There’s something deeply intimate about browsing through the King Center’s Archive. And there is so much more there than speeches—you’ll find letters, articles, sermons, photos, pamphlets and telegrams, too. There are also dozens of notecards filled with the civil rights leader’s own handwriting, remnants of his education at Morehouse College and Boston University.

All together, the collection can absorb you in the world of Dr. King’s personal history, as well as his global contributions to everything from Vietnam and the integration of schools to economics and philosophies of nonviolence—which might just be one of the best ways to spend part of the long holiday weekend.

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