Magician David Copperfield buys rare Martin Luther King Jr. audio tape

David Copperfield.
David Copperfield.Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images Contributor / Today

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By Steve Gorman

Magician David Copperfield said on Wednesday he had purchased a rare private audio tape of Martin Luther King Jr. and plans to donate the recording to a museum housed in the former Memphis, Tenn., motel where the civil rights leader was assassinated.

The superstar illusionist, who owns a library and museum dedicated to magic memorabilia, books and artifacts, declined to say how much he paid for the 10-minute reel-to-reel recording, which was discovered recently in the attic of a Tennessee home. 

He called it "priceless." 

"Not much amazes me, because of what I do, but to get a discovery like this is just mind-boggling," Copperfield said. 

Keya Morgan, a Manhattan-based collector and dealer in historical manuscripts and photos who acquired the tape and then sold it to Copperfield, told Reuters he appraised its value at $100,000. 

Morgan said he had received some 1,200 email inquiries from prospective buyers after advertising the tape. But he made the sale to Copperfield because of their prior business relationship and because the magician was committed to donating it to an institution that would make it public, Morgan said. 

Copperfield said he was turning the recording over to the National Civil Rights Museum, a private, nonprofit institution housed in the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot to death while standing on a second-story balcony to his room on April 4, 1968. 

King had come to Memphis in support of the city's striking sanitation workers. 

Speaking by telephone from Las Vegas, where he was finishing an 11-week engagement, Copperfield said the museum planned to put the original reel of magnetic tape on visual display in an exhibit that would allow visitors to hear the recording. 

Barbara Andrews, director of education and interpretation at the museum, said she was excited about the prospect of adding the tape to the museum's collection.

Three Years Before 'Dream' Speech 

According to Morgan, the tape was recorded on Dec. 21, 1960, nearly three years before King's famed "I Have a Dream" speech, by a man in Chattanooga who interviewed King for a book about non-violence and the civil rights movement. 

But the book was never written, and five decades later, the man's son, Stephon Tull, stumbled upon the reel in an old box marked "Dr. King" while going through belongings in his father's attic after the father entered a nursing home, Morgan said. 

Under an agreement with Tull, Morgan has declined to reveal the father's name. 

In the tape, King talks about the concept and importance of non-violent protest and asserts that 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." 

King also makes a reference to a trip he took to Africa earlier that year, a visit to Nigeria that he rarely spoke of in public and that received little media attention at the time. 

Clayborne Carson, a history professor and head of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University in California, said mention of the Africa trip sets the tape apart from most of the thousands of audio recordings that exist of King. 

"That made the tape interesting to me," Carson said. "It always seemed to me odd for Martin Luther King to have made a trip like that and not to have said very much about it." 

The tape is also rare in terms of it being one of the few known recordings of King that were either not a public speech or sermon or that were made in a private, one-on-one setting not intended for broadcast, he said. 

It was that intimate quality that so entranced Copperfield. 

"We are so used to hearing Dr. King speak in a public forum, in front of a big audience. We're not used to hearing him speak one to one, as we're speaking now. It's incredibly moving to me, and really deeply affecting," the magician said. 

However, Carson said he did not consider the tape to be "valuable as an historical document." He also said the extreme brevity of the interview made him "suspicious of the story that this was part of a book project."

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