The only time Joe Angotti and Martin Luther King, Jr. ever met face-to-face, the result was a “very mediocre interview, said the Monmouth College communication professor and former news reporter in a public lecture on campus earlier this week.
However, Angotti revealed that another connection he had with the famous civil rights leader was much more memorable, not only to him, but to the nation, as well.
Angotti and his film editor were the first members of the media to discover what has since come to be known as King’s “Mountaintop” speech. It was delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, less than 24 hours before King was assassinated in the Tennessee city.
Angotti, who was in the early years of what would be a long career with NBC, explained the circumstances leading up to his discovery.
“NBC had media in Memphis due to the potentially explosive garbage collectors’ strike. I was on the night desk in Chicago, and I’d only been there two or three months. When King was killed, it happened after the evening news. The network decided to pre-empt its 9 p.m. program to provide special coverage. For most people, that 9 p.m. broadcast was the first time they’d heard that King had been killed.”
With a very limited amount of time, Angotti was assigned the task of going through NBC’s film of King’s speech the previous night in Memphis to search for anything that might be relevant for the special broadcast.
“We were getting to the end of the reel, and I thought I heard him say something about living a long life,” Angotti recalled. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, play that again.’ And then I heard him talk about going to the mountaintop. I quickly transcribed it and faxed it to New York. Soon, I got a call back from (TV news innovator) Shad Northshield. He asked, ‘Are you sure that what you faxed us were Martin Luther King’s comments in Memphis last night?’ I said I was sure, and he said, ‘We’re going to lead our special tonight with that sound byte.’”
Here is the final portion of that “Mountaintop” speech, which King delivered extemporaneously and which has been called “startling in its power and prescience”:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
In addition to playing that clip for the overflow audience, Angotti also showed footage of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remarks following King’s assassination and comments from Jesse Jackson, who was standing near King when he was shot. Another clip featured footage from King’s visit to Cicero in 1966, when the Chicago suburb was in the news for segregation, with realtors systematically denying blacks access to housing in white neighborhoods. It came from the PBS documentary, “Citizen King,” and revealed the hours that King spent working with some of Chicago’s toughest gang kids, stressing non-violence.
In a speech there, King said, “When you segregate, you discriminate.”
The footage showed the disturbing hatred that was common at the time, and King, who was hit by a brick during a march organized by Jackson, said, “This is one of the most tragic instances of man’s inhumanity to man … more so than what we’ve seen in Mississippi.”
Angotti also touched on how leading figures such as King were covered in the 1960s. Regarding claims that King may have been a philanderer, Angotti said he never even thought of asking King about that when he interviewed him in a church basement in Louisville in 1965. King was in the city to visit his brother, A.D. Williams King, pastor of the Zion Baptist Church, who helped Angotti land one of just two interviews that he gave on his visit.
“It just wasn’t done,” Angotti said of asking personal questions.
Said an audience member about those times, “Personal life isn’t the news.”
Added another, “It’s the other way around now.”
In his one-on-one interview with King, Angotti did broach the subject of Communism related to King and his associates – an accusation that drew the attention of not only the media, but FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. He said he also asked King about his Nobel Peace Prize and about his relationship with his brother. Sadly, said Angotti, just 15 months following his brother’s death, A.D. Williams King was found dead in his pool of an apparent suicide.
Unlike the stirring video from April 3, 1968, that Angotti helped uncover, no tape remains of his 1965 interview with King.