Martin Luther King Jr.'s Amazing 1964 Interview With Robert Penn Warren

Six months after the March on Washington, he discussed the obligations of "the Negro" in an integrated society, non-violence, and having eggs thrown at him in Harlem.
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On March 18, 1964, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren sat down with Martin Luther King Jr. in King's offices in Atlanta to interview him for what would become Warren's 1965 book Who Speaks for the Negro? Warren, a Kentuckian who in the 1940s had been one of America's first poet laureates (then called the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress), was going around the country interviewing civil-rights leaders and grassroots organizers, such as King, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, and Ralph Ellison. The tapes remained in Warren's archives, and were scattered between universities for decades until a young scholar in 2006 sparked a conversation that led, six years later, to a unified collection of the tapes and other research materials for the Warren book at one university, in a digitized format that made them easily accessible online for the first time.

Housed online at the Robert Penn Warren Civil Rights Oral History Project, which is part of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, and at the Vanderbilt University Library, the interview between Warren and King was publicly aired for the first time on C-SPAN Radio in October 2006, and was re-aired by C-SPAN Radio over the weekend in advance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

It's really a treasure. "I've never heard him just talk. You only hear (recordings of) King preach or give a speech," Mona Frederick, executive director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt, told The Tennessean when the digital archive finally went online in September 2012. "It's pre-YouTube and social media."

She's right. Even for those who have listened to King's speeches and read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and other writings, there's something to just hearing the man talk, to listening to his mind at work in real time, that offers a greater sense of who he is. In this interview, we get a glimpse of King not just as an orator preaching on behalf of civil rights and a more just society, but as a psychological observer, political tactician, and social-change strategist grappling with a wide array of opponents and personal threats with extraordinary clarity and sympathy.

It's worth taking an hour to listen to the full interview. I've excerpted some of the most illuminating passages, below:

* * *

On the obligations and responsibilities that would come after integration:

WARREN: Now, what problems, responsibilities, and obligations would you say the Negro would have in this relationship in this third phase?

KING: Well, I would think this would be the phase, or the responsibilities of the Negro in this phase would be in the area what Mahatma Gandhi used to refer to as "constructive work," his constructive program, which is a program whereby the individuals work desperately to improve their own conditions and their own standards. I think in this phase, after the Negro emerges in and from the desegregated society, then a great deal of time must be spent in improving standards which lag behind to a large extent because of segregation--

WARREN: -- yes --

KING: -- discrimination, and the legacy of slavery. But it seems to me that the Negro will have to engage in a sort of operation bootstraps in order to lift these standards. And I think by raising the, these lagging standards, it will make it much more, well, I, I would say much less difficult for him to move on into the integrated society.

* * *

On being accused of selling out:

WARREN: -- come to a point of pause there. Two weeks ago a prominent newspaperman said to me -- a Southerner by birth -- "Thank God for Dr. King; he's our only hope." He was worrying about violence. Now, this is very often said by white people. Dr. Kenneth Clark has remarked in print that your appeal to many white people is because you lull them into some sense of security. And I hear, too, that there is some resistance, automatic emotional resistance on the part of Negroes because they feel that your leadership has somehow given a, not "sellout," but a sense of a soft line, a rapprochement that flatters the white man's sense of security. Do you encounter this, and how do you, how do you think about this? How do you feel about these things, assuming they are true?

KING: Well, I don't agree with it. (laughs) Naturally. I think, first, one must understand what I'm talking about and what I'm trying to do when I say "love" and that the love ethic must be at the center of this struggle. I'm certainly not talking about an affectionate emotion. I'm not talking about what the Greek language would refer to as "Eros," or --

WARREN: -- yes -- 

KING: -- famile. I'm talking about something much deeper. And I think there's a misunderstanding.

WARREN: But now how can this misunderstanding be cleared up? I know your writings and I've heard you speak on, on that. But a misunderstanding somehow remains among a large segment of Negroes and among a large segment of whites.

KING: Um-hm. Um-hm. Well, I don't think it can be cleared up for those who refuse to look at the meaning of it. I've done it.

WARREN: I see.

KING: I've said it in print over and over again.

WARREN: Yes, you have. Yeah.

KING: But I do not think violence and hatred can solve this problem.

WARREN: Yes.

KING: I think they will end up creating many more social problems than they solve, and I'm thinking of a very strong love. I'm not, I'm thinking, I'm thinking of love in action and not something where you say, "Love your enemies," and just leave it at that, but you love your enemies to the point that you're willing to sit-in at a lunch counter in order to help them find themselves. You're willing to go to jail.

WARREN: Yes.

KING: And I don't think anybody could consider this cowardice or even a weak approach. So I think --

WARREN: -- yes --

KING: -- that many of these arguments come from, from those who have gotten so caught up in bitterness that they cannot see the deep moral issues involved. That you're --

WARREN: -- or the white man, caught up in complacency.

KING: Yes.

WARREN: Refuses to understand it.

KING: Yes, I think so. I think both.

* * *

On whether movements need centralized leadership:

WARREN: Let me try something else, another general question. All revolutions, as far as I know, in the past have had the tendency ... to move toward a centralized leadership --

KING: -- um-hm --

WARREN: -- to move toward a man who has both a power and symbolic function.

KING: Um-hm.

WARREN: Now you are stuck yourself in a very peculiar role by a series of things, personal qualities and God knows what else, you know. But still there is no, this revolution, if we call it one, does, is not following that pattern, though we see the tendency to focus on single leadership. Can a revolution survive without this symbolic focus, even if not without, even without a literal focus under single leadership?

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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