Durham County

NC State helps MLK's 'fill up the jails' speech get new audience

In this Feb. 16, 1960 photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King speaks at Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church about the need to go to jail to end segregation.
In this Feb. 16, 1960 photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King speaks at Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church about the need to go to jail to end segregation. AP

The 22-year-old civil rights pioneer and her friends flowed out with the crowd, down the steps of White Rock Baptist Church and out onto the sidewalk, talking about what they had just heard, and feeling the power of it seeping into them like fuel.

It was Feb. 16, 1960, and if Virginia Williams was shivering as she walked down Fayetteville Street it wasn’t because of the chilly weather. The voice still echoing in her thoughts was that of Martin Luther King Jr.

King, for the first time, had publicly called for direct action, for lawbreaking, for black Americans to be willing “to fill up the jails of the South” to awaken the nation’s conscience.

All these years later Williams, now 77, remembers … nothing of it. Not a word. “It’s been so long, and there were so many speeches and meetings,” she recalled last week.

She does remember, though, the power of the emotion it had stirred. “I was just excited to have been there.”

It had been a great speech, even by King’s unmatchable standards. But it was even more than that – and it accelerated the civil rights movement.

“It was the beginning the ’60s, really,” said Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, and leader of a project to edit and publish King’s papers.

The words, the famous leader, the audience of 1,200 jamming the church, and a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement all came together that night – an alchemy that a virtual reality project now underway by N.C. State University researchers is trying to bring to life again.

Technically King’s speech at White Rock is titled “A Creative Movement,” though it’s often called “Fill up the Jails.” There is no audio or video recording of it, unlike, for example King’s iconic “I Have a Dream.” Now, though, the researchers are using technology in an attempt to partly revive its true force.

The original White Rock Baptist Church, with its distinctive ivy-covered bell tower, was torn down in the late 1960s, and the church moved to a new building. Last summer, actor Marvin Blanks stepped on the stage there and, with a passable rendering of King’s deliberate opening cadence, spoke. “Victor Hugo once said that there is nothing in all the world more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” he began.

Among an audience of about 200, the NCSU researchers carefully positioned microphones to record his delivery of the speech to give a sense of the different experiences that members of the audience would have had.

With the Martin Luther King holiday and the 55th anniversary of the speech approaching, they released the recordings this month online.

Pivotal moment

King had traveled to North Carolina in reaction to the now-famous Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins that had started in Greensboro just two weeks earlier. He wanted to ensure he wasn’t left behind by younger, less patient activists, Carson said.

“This was a kind of a challenge to King,” Carson said. “He had talked about civil disobedience in general terms, this Gandhian perspective, but here you had students, young kids inspired by him, actually engaging in it and he was getting a lot of questions from people about what this was all about, where this was headed.”

King would face this question again and again throughout the ’60s: How do you stay in the lead of a movement of young people who might see you as too cautious, Carson said.

King had come to Durham rather than Greensboro at the invitation of a former graduate school classmate, the Rev. Douglas Moore, a Durham pastor who had pushed for action like the sit-ins for years.

Until this moment, the two had embodied the internal debate that the movement had for years over tactics, said Victoria Gallagher, who is leading the Virtual MLK research project at NCSU.

“Moore advocated for direct social action and King advocated very much for sermons and oratory and writing,” she said.

Moore had staged a Durham sit-in in 1957, nearly three years before those in Greensboro. He and seven of his congregants, including Williams, entered the Royal Ice Cream Parlor, which sat at 1000 N. Roxboro St., sat down in the white section and asked to be served. All but one, who slipped out, was arrested.

That sit-in was among the nation’s first, but in some ways was too early: The tactic came under fire even from the black community in Durham, with a backlash from established groups that favored slower progress through negotiation. It did, though, help fuel a debate locally and nationally about the value of direct action and in a sense set the stage for the 1960 speech, which touched on King’s touchstone theme of nonviolence even as it shaped the nature of the action he was now advocating.

When the researchers began to look deeply into the contents and the historical context in which King delivered the speech, they realized “Fill up the Jails” was an ideal choice for a digital exploration of the complex stew that makes a speech great.

Shaping the experience

The next phase in the project is to bring the experience of being at the speech to life in full surround video and audio.

The researchers have already identified four churches in the area with acoustics that should be much closer to those of the original, in part because the shape and volume of their interiors are similar, and in some cases the architect was even the same, Gallagher said.

A sound engineer will capture the acoustical characteristics of the best candidate and then re-engineer the audio of the re-enactment to reflect what it would sound like in a space like the original church. That will be merged with computer-generated video images of the inside of the church, complete with King and his audience, and programmed into the Immersion Lab at NCSU’s Hunt Library. The idea is that a visitor will be able to walk into the lab and be completely surrounded by the sights and sounds of being in White Rock that night. Moving around the room will change the perspective of the sound, allowing the listener to experience what it would have been like to be in the thick of the crowd, or up on the balcony, or on the front row near King.

It’s not a gimmick, or technology for technology’s sake, Gallagher said. The point is, historical speeches and sermons can be better understood if re-experienced as closely as possible to the original, rather than simply being read.

Even with just the audio, she said, the speech regains power that simply reading it can’t offer.

“We turned it on for this introductory communications course where we have maybe 130 kids, and it was like, wow, we were transported. The delivery was very evocative. Even these young people who never heard King featured on the news live, they’re just blown away by the crispness and resonance and the feeling that you’re right there.”

‘That was Martin’

Not that the audio recordings are perfect.

When King was in the area, he usually stayed with the family of N.C. Rep. Henry M. “Mickey” Michaux Jr. of Durham. Michaux, now 84, was even summoned to Washington by King to be with him for his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Like Williams, Michaux was present at “Fill up the Jails” and like her he didn’t remember any of the words.

And like Williams, he came to hear the actor this summer for a refresher.

Michaux isn’t sure that the words were exactly those spoken by King that night. He had seen first-hand that King was willing to change a speech on the fly.

Once, on a different King visit to Durham, Michaux said, he had accompanied him to a speech at another church. King had memorized the words, and had a ticket on a 10 p.m. flight home, the timing of his departure reflecting how long he expected to speak.

But the power of a good speech runs in both directions.

King walked in, gazed at the audience and, clearly absorbing energy from it, became pensive. Then he turned to Michaux and told him to reschedule the flight for the next morning.

“I feel like I might be there a little while tonight,” he said.

The actor in the re-enactment last summer, Michaux said, wasn’t bad. But Michaux was too close to the subject to give out a perfect grade.

“Having heard Martin, the intonations, well, he was making a good try at it,” he said.

But once, maybe twice, every nuance fell into place and Michaux heard the voice of a friend he hadn’t heard in person for nearly half a century.

He turned to his wife, June.

“That was him,” Michaux whispered. “That was Martin.”