Thursday, February 6, 2014

It's shaping up as a fertile period for African American artifacts being found in unlikely places. Earlier this week I wrote about Marvin Gaye's passport being found in an old LP that had been purchased for 50 cents. Now it turns out that an Arizona graphic designer named Mary Scanlon has made a similarly momentous find: Last spring she was at a Phoenix-area Goodwill shop and spotted a pile of 35 old reel-to-reel tapes. One of the tape boxes was labeled "Martin Luther King, Tempe" (see above), and the others had the name "Lincoln Ragsdale." Scanlon bought the whole pile for $3.

Scanlon eventually contacted an archivist at Arizona State University, who told her that King had given a speech there in June of 1964 but that no recordings of it were known to exist. Sure enough, the tape Scanlon found at the Goodwill included King's ASU speech, as well as a shorter speech he gave the day before at a Phoenix church. You can stream some of the audio here, and there's some additional information here.

Any King-related find is important, of course. But as the AP noted in its coverage of this story, it's particularly interesting to know more about King's experiences in Arizona, a state that has not been kind to his legacy:

In 1987, then-Gov. Evan Mecham rescinded Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday. The fallout, which included losing a bid to host the Super Bowl, damaged Arizona's image. In 1992, an initiative to restore Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Arizona was approved, making it the first state with a voter-approved King holiday.

More recently, the ASU chapter of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity had its recognition permanently revoked [in January] after several members attended a Martin Luther King Jr. Day party that was deemed distasteful. The party allegedly perpetuated racist stereotypes with offensive costumes.

As for the tapes, they had belonged to Lincoln Ragsdale, a Phoenix civil rights leader who was one of the original Tuskegee airmen during World War II and died in 1995. Most of the other tapes were recordings of his 1960s radio show, which was focused on his civil rights work at the time. It's not clear when the were donated to the Goodwill shop or how long they had been sitting there before Mary Scanlon found them.

Three bucks for a unique piece of history — not bad.

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