In 1963, Berry Gordy released an LP (on the Gordy label) called “The Great March to Freedom.” It was a speech delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on June 23, 1963, in Detroit.
British-born historian Brian Ward tells the story behind this record in his 1998 book “Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations.”
Actually, Atlantic Records had expressed an early interest in recording one of Dr. King’s speeches. Dr. King was interested as well, but nothing came of this.
Then, in 1962, black entrepreneur Dootsie Williams released a bootleg album on his Dooto label – “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill” – of Dr. King speaking at a Baptist church in Los Angeles.
A Southern Christian Leadership Conference official recalled: “I asked a gentleman who was preparing to set up a recorder, for what purpose the tape would be used. He replied it was ‘for the church.’ Three months later while we were in Albany, the record came out. … Neither Dr. King nor anyone connected with SCLC knew anything about the record until it was being distributed.”
The SCLC ended up taking Dootsie Williams to court.
In September of 1962, Motown vice president Esther Edwards (Berry Gordy’s sister) reached out to Dr. King regarding an authorized LP release. Dr. King negotiated a deal whereby his artist royalties would go to the SCLC.
The album was released in August of 1963... on the date of Dr. King’s March on Washington. In fact, the Detroit speech concludes with an early version of the “I have a dream” portion of the March on Washington speech.
“The Great March to Freedom” is now available as an MP3 download (from Amazon, eMusic and iTunes).
I’m streaming a 9-minute excerpt on my Vox blog. Click here to listen.