In this Aug. 28, 1963 photo, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gestures during his "I Have a Dream" speech as he addresses thousands of civil rights supporters gathered in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo)
Martin Luther King’s 1st “I Have a Dream” speech
January 10, 2018
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Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in 1963. Before that he fine-tuned his civil rights message. That was before a much smaller audience. It was in North Carolina.
Reporters had covered King's 55-minute speech in Rocky Mount. He spoke in a high school gym. This was on Nov. 27, 1962. But a recording of it was not known to exist. Not until English teacher Jason Miller found a reel-to-reel tape. It was in a town library. Miller played it in public for the first time Aug. 11. He was at North Carolina State University.
"It is part civil rights address. It is part mass meeting. And it has the spirit of a sermon," Miller said. "And I never before heard Dr. King combine all those genres into one particular moment."
King used the phrase "I have a dream" eight times in his address. He spoke to about 2,000 people at Booker T. Washington High School. It is in Rocky Mount. That was eight months before he excited the nation with the same words. He spoke them at the March on Washington.
He also talked about "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners." He said he dreamed they would "meet at the table of brotherhood." King changed that on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He changed it to "sit down together at the table of brotherhood."
"Let Freedom Ring" was in both speeches. It served as his rallying cry.
"It is not so much the message of a man," said the Rev. William Barber. He is president of the state chapter of the NAACP. "It is the message of a movement. Which is why he kept delivering it. It proves once again that the 'I have a dream' portion was not a good climax to a speech for mere applause. It was a lasting call to hopeful resistance and a nonviolent challenge to injustice."
Miller discovered the recording while researching "Origins of the Dream." It is a book he has written. It explores similarities between King's speeches and the poetry of Langston Hughes. His ah-ha moment came when he learned about a transcript of the speech. He learned about if through a newspaper story. It was in state archives. He thought that if there was a transcript there must be a recording.
He sent emails and made calls. He eventually heard back in the fall of 2013 from the Braswell Public Library in Rocky Mount. The library staff said a box with the recording had mysteriously appeared on a desk one day. Handwriting on the box described it as a recording of King's speech. It said "please do not erase."
Miller confirmed that the tape could be played safely before listening to the recording. He brought it to an audio expert in Philadelphia. The expert was George Blood. He set it as close to its original levels as he could. Then Blood digitized the tape.
It was good for King that he had practiced the dream part of his speech in Rocky Mount. He also practiced it later in Detroit. That is because it was not part of his typewritten speech in Washington. Historians say the singer Mahalia Jackson shouted "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" She spoke out as he reached a slow point in his speech. King then spoke words that were not on his written speech. He lit up the audience. It was with phrases very similar to those he had delivered in that gymnasium.
Three people who were in the audience that day in 1962 listened to the recording again. It was when it was played at the university's James B. Hunt Library. Herbert Tillman was about 17 years old when the Rocky Mount speech was given. He remembered how happy they were to see and hear such an inspiring leader.
"Everybody was attentive to what he had to say," Tillman said. "And the words that he brought to Rocky Mount were words of encouragement. We really needed to hear that in Rocky Mount at that time."
Barber said this newly available recording of King's earlier speech is just as inspiring today.
"Make no mistake. This kind of speech-making is dangerous," Barber said. "Especially for those who want to go back. Especially for those who want the status quo. Because this kind of speech-making can loose the captive and set people free to stand up and fight for their own freedom."
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How is this recording made in North Carolina connected to the speech Martin Luther King gave in Washington?
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