By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A previously unknown audio tape of an interview with slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was discovered recently in the attic of a Tennessee home, and a New York collector who bought the recording says he plans to offer it for sale next week.
The 10-minute reel-to-reel recording was made on December 21, 1960, nearly three years before King's famed "I Have a Dream" speech and more than seven years before he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, collector Keya Morgan told Reuters on Thursday.
Morgan, the proprietor of a Manhattan gallery that deals in historical manuscripts, photos and other artifacts, described the tape as an extremely rare discovery.
"It's like a unicorn," he said, adding he was struck by the intimate tone of the interview.
"The quality is so good, so crisp that it sounds like Dr. King is sitting in my parlor having tea with me," he said. "It's an intimate, frank, low-key discussion, but he still comes through so clearly and powerfully."
Despite thousands of letters and other King artifacts he has handled or come across while in business, Morgan said he had heard of just one other original audio recording of King being uncovered since he opened his gallery in 1993.
In the tape, King talks about the concept and importance of non-violent protest and asserts that the sit-in demonstrations aimed at ending racial segregation in public places would ultimately be viewed as a pivotal moment for American society.
"When the history books are written in future years, historians will have to record this movement as one of the greatest epics of our heritage," he said. "I think the movement represents struggle on the highest level of dignity and discipline."
The tape was recorded by a man in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who interviewed King for a book about non-violence and the civil rights movement that the man never wrote, according to Morgan.
Five decades later, the man's son, Stephon Tull, stumbled on the reel in an old box marked "Dr. King" while going through belongings in his father's attic after his father entered a nursing home, Morgan said. Under an agreement with Tull, Morgan declined to reveal the father's name.
'YOU CAN HEAR HIS VOICE'
Morgan said he had played the tape for several scholars and historians, as well as for U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, himself a veteran civil rights activist and friend of King.
Clayborne Carson, a history professor and head of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University in California, told CNN it was difficult to discern immediately the tape's historical significance from the thousands of interviews King conducted during his life.
"What is interesting about this is rather than just a transcript, you can hear his voice," Carson said.
Morgan said he planned to sell the original tape and all rights to it early next week in a private "treaty sale," as opposed to an auction, and that the recording might be packaged with other artifacts.
One factor in selecting a buyer would be his interest in trying to find "a good home" for the tape, preferably a museum, archive or other institution that would keep it available for the public, he said.
In any case, Morgan said he would retain a copy of the recording for his own collection.
Based on prices fetched for similar recordings of historical figures of similar caliber, Morgan said he estimated the King tape would be valued at between $20,000 and $60,000. He declined to say how much he paid Tull for the tape.
(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)