Shaking history’s dust off King’s 1962 Rocky Mount speech

Origin of the Dream: Excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Rocky Mount Speech

Hear excerpts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech in Rocky Mount, NC in 1962 that was an early version of his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.
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Hear excerpts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech in Rocky Mount, NC in 1962 that was an early version of his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.

Half a century ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shook the halls of a Rocky Mount gymnasium, riveting a crowd of 1,800 people crammed inside, delivering a rough draft of what would rank among America’s most famous speeches.

He spoke for nearly an hour. He quoted Revelation. And for the first time – one year before his timeless words at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 – he told the crowd, “I have a dream.”

History largely forgot this event. It got little press. One fuzzy copy of a photograph remains. But an N.C. State University professor has unearthed and remastered King’s 1962 address, which will ring in public ears again Tuesday at an event at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus.

In seven years of research, English professor W. Jason Miller traced the connection between King’s speeches and the poetry of Langston Hughes, noting that the civil rights icon took cues from works such as “I Dream a World” and “A Dream Deferred.”

Reel-to-reel tape

The most startling discovery Miller made while writing his book, “Origins of the Dream,” came to him from a public library in Rocky Mount, where residents both remember and cherish King’s day in town. When Miller saw the reel-to-reel tape, still in its 1962 box, he treated it like a relic.

“I was scared to death it was going to crumble or fall apart or not be what it said it was,” he said. “Because nobody had heard it.”

In 2006, the state placed a historic marker outside the old Booker T. Washington High School, one of the first major nods to King’s speech there. But it hasn’t been widely heard or even read, except in excerpts, since then. Miller, who will air the recording at a press event Tuesday, plans to make it available this fall via a website being developed: kingsfirstdream.com.

Bringing those words to a new audience will help North Carolina get greater credit for civil rights history, said Cash Michaels, editor of The Carolinian newspaper. King came to Rocky Mount at the invitation of the local voter empowerment movement, he noted.

Having heard the recording, made on Nov. 27, 1962, Michaels described it as an almost exact duplicate of King’s speech at the March on Washington, which has its 52nd anniversary on Aug. 28. Miller has listened to more than 120 of King’s speeches, and he can find no earlier reference to the famous “dream.”

“I think there’s a great deal of pride in people knowing that perhaps the most famous refrain in history – arguably, for sure – was born right here,” Michaels said.

King and Hughes

Miller, who specializes in 20th-century American poetry and is co-producing a documentary on the King-Hughes relationship, said scholars have long suspected King’s dream had its origin in Hughes’ poems. In his research, he has tracked allusions to the Harlem Renaissance figure’s work in speeches dating to 1956. Hughes and King met and wrote frequent letters, Miller said, and they died within a year of each other.

The Rocky Mount speech proved crucial to Miller’s work. When the tape surfaced and the library needed help verifying that it was authentic, he jumped. Miller drove the tape to Philadelphia audio archivist George Blood to have it remastered. Blood has converted thousands of recordings for clients ranging from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the New York Public Library.

“It certainly has never been heard in this quality,” Miller said. “I still get goose bumps.”

But the speech escaped the eyes of history for so long because it wasn’t easily available to scholars. Only The Carolinian and the Rocky Mount Telegram covered the speech at the time, and Miller could not locate a quality copy of the newspaper photograph. Some Rocky Mount residents who heard the speech in 1962 will be at the Tuesday unveiling.

Rocky Mount qualified as an important stop for King for more than his “dream” remark. He peppered that address with two other phrases that would rank among his most quoted lines: “Let freedom ring” and “How Long? Not long.”

“This is the triumvirate of rhetorical prowess,” Miller said. “It’s just not had anybody to be its advocate.”

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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