Friday night, February 23. I am writing these words at the old Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount, N.C. A very special event is happening here tonight.
More than half a century ago, on November 27, 1962, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a historic speech in this school’s gymnasium, only a few feet from where I am sitting now.
And not just any speech—the speech, an embryonic but wholly recognizable rendition of what became one of the most famous speeches in American history—the “I Have a Dream” speech that he delivered at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
Several years ago, an N.C. State English professor, Jason Miller, discovered the only known audio recording of Dr. King’s Rocky Mount speech at the city’’s Braswell Memorial Library.
At the time, Prof. Miller was conducting research for his book Origins of the Dream: Hughes’ Poetry and King’s Rhetoric, which has since come out. It’s a revelatory look at the influence of Langston Hughes’ poetry on Dr. King’s oratory.
Finding any of Dr. King’s speeches is noteworthy. But after tirelessly tracking down and listening to scores of the great civil rights leader’s speeches, Professor Miller realized that this one was special.
Here at Booker T. Washington High School, Dr. King first put together the most recognizable parts of the “I Have A Dream” speech, including the words, “I Have a Dream.”
Tonight we’re going to hear that recording for the first time in the place where Dr. King actually delivered the speech. At the time, by the way, Booker T. Washington was Rocky Mount’s high school for African American students. Now it’s a community center.
Hundreds of people are here. A choir is warming up. Special guest speakers wait in the wings. The mayor and other city officials are here, too. I can feel the excitement in the air.
The city’s mayor pro tem, Lois Watkins, just welcomed us to Rocky Mount. Then a young man sang a hauntingly sweet rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” that made the old pop song sound like a hymn.
While he was singing, I looked around the gym and I was glad to see so many young people in the audience.
Now a local performer, Vanessa Scaife, is taking on the persona of Helen Gay, the woman who fixed supper for Dr. King when he visited Rocky Mount. “Steak, potato and a green salad,” she says, is what she made for him.
In Ms. Gay’s voice, Ms. Scaife recalls that Dr. King did not seem like a great hero or somebody famous. He was, she says, “a polite and ordinary man.” That made a deep impression on her. “He could have been any one of us.”
Her impression of Dr. King made her feel as if anybody could do great things, and anyone could do things that could change the world.
After Dr. King’s visit, Helen Gay turned around her life. She took his visit to heart, and she was later the first African American woman to be elected to Rocky Mount’s city council.
Now the choir is singing “Amazing Grace”— T’was grace that brought us safe this far, And grace will lead us home.
Now Senator Angela Bryant is addressing the crowd. Senator Bryant heard Dr. King here when she was in the 6th grade. She says Dr. King’s visit to Rocky Mount was a turning point for her, one of the things that led her to dedicate her life to fighting for the down and out.
As an attorney, administrative law judge and state legislator, Senator Bryant has been a fierce advocate for those who need somebody on their side and usually can’t get any help—black farmers, injured workers, the elderly and their caregivers, and many others.
She draws her comments tonight from the Sermon on the Mount. The meek shall inherit the Earth. She talks about Dr. King’s radical vision– his call to struggle with all our might against oppression and injustice and to love and forgive our enemies.
“Love,” Senator Bryant says, “is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
Now I’m listening to another speaker, a local woman named Joyce Dickens. She remembers when she heard Dr. King here. “I stand here as a 14 year old, 14 and 1/2 ,” she is saying. “Seems like I stood right over there in the corner.”
She was in the 9th grade at the time. “I got caught up in the civil rights movement when I was a child,” she says.
Like many of the speakers tonight, Ms. Dickens considers Dr. King’s visit to Rocky Mount to have been a catalyst for a lifetime of activism for civil rights and economic justice.
“Dr. King gave us hope. He gave us a sense of direction,” she is saying now. “He also planted that seed of possibility—struggle, vote, serve and work to make a difference.”
She is explaining that she did not even reside in Rocky Mount in 1962, when Dr. King came to Booker T. Washington High School. Her family were sharecroppers, and they lived near Pinetops, a little town in Edgecombe County. She says sharecropping wasn’t much different than slavery.
In 1962, she is confiding now, whether you lived in a little place like Pinetops or a city like Rocky Mount, African American people knew that a momentous change was in the air.
“You knew there was a fight going on. You just didn’t know what your role was,” she just said. She remembers that Dr. King’s visit inspired her generation to discover its role in the civil rights struggle.
Now she is recounting the progress that Rocky Mount’s black citizens have made since Dr. King’s visit. They won voting rights. They ended segregation. They made important inroads against prejudice and discrimination. They improved housing, and they made economic progress.
She notes that Rocky Mount now has a black majority on its city council, while the large majority of blacks could not vote at all when Dr. King visited the city in 1962.
She says she has endeavored to work for Dr. King’s Dream. For decades, she has been a driving force behind the Rocky Mount-Edgecombe Community Development Corporation, a non-profit that I’ve heard a lot of good things about over the years.
She just said: “We in Rocky Mount have implemented not all of the Dream, but some of the Dream.”
Then, echoing a phrase from Dr. King’s speech that night in 1962, Ms. Dickens just concluded by saying, “Let’s wait no more.”
The final speaker before we hear the recording of Dr. King’s speech is the Rev. William Barber III, the former head of the state’s NAACP and the leader of the “Moral Monday” movement.
He couldn’t make it to Rocky Mount in person, but he sent a recorded video message to this gathering that is playing now.
On the video, the Rev. Barber just referred to Dr. King as “a prophet of subversive hope.” He places him in a tradition of Biblical prophets called to speak out against oppression and injustice.
I know the Rev. Barber has been traveling across the country relentlessly for months, as he prepares for a “Poor People’s March” in Washington, DC this spring, as well as for smaller protest marches in dozens of state capitals. He looks bone weary. Yet his voice still holds its deep gentleness, a quality that is always appealing in a man as strong and defiant as he is.
“We need to organize intentionally and stand unwaveringly,” he concludes his remarks. He adjures the people of Rocky Mount to see the Poor People’s March as a continuation of Dr. King’s work.
Now Luther Barnes, the son of the legendary gospel singer, Bishop F. C. Barnes, is leading the choir in a jubilant version of his father’s most famous song, “Rough Side of the Mountain.”
Now we’ve come to the speech that Dr. King delivered here in 1962. In his very insightful, a little bit gangly and wholly endearing way, Professor Miller introduces the recording. He says that we’re going to hear long excerpts of the speech—approximately 25 minutes of it.
He reminds us that we will be hearing an historic occasion—the birth of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Professor Miller also tells us that Dr. King visited Rocky Mount after one of the hardest stretches of his life. A frustrating civil rights campaign in Albany, Georgia, weighed on him particularly heavy. He was weary and reaching deep to keep up his strength, maybe like Rev. Barber is now.
Now we are listening to Dr. King’s words. His voice—that voice, that unforgettable, recognize it anywhere, anytime, baritone—catches me off guard for a moment. It feels almost as if he is here.
On the recording, Dr. King says that he’s glad to be in Rocky Mount, N.C. He thanks the Rocky Mount Voters and Improvement League for inviting him. He’s glad to see a childhood friend in the audience, the Rev. George W. Dudley, the pastor at Mount Zion First Baptist Church.
Now he has begun to preach. He starts with the Book of Revelations and the story of John of Patmos, who in his prison cell, “lifted his vision to heaven [and…] saw a new heaven and a new earth, the New Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.”
And God told John of Patmos, “Behold, I make all things new, the former things are passed away.”
Dr. King says that is what is happening in the world today. The colonial peoples of the world are overthrowing their masters, and the black people of America are on their way toward ending their oppression.
“An old order is passing away, and a new order is coming into being,” Dr. King tells us.
And then he goes back to Revelations: “Behold, I make all things new. The former things are passed away.”
Dr. King talks about many things. He discusses his recent visit to India, and the ways in which humanity is bound together.
“All I’m saying is simply this,” he says: “that all life is interrelated, and all men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Then I hear him say: “And for some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
He tells the 1,600 people in this gymnasium that they will have to sacrifice if they are going to be free. They must work hard, and they must register and vote. They will need to contribute money to support civil rights groups such as the Rocky Mount Voters and Improvement League. They will need to campaign for legislative reforms. They will need to fight segregation in the courts.
He tells them that they will also need to take their struggle into the streets. “Let us never forget that a court order can never deliver rights, it can only declare them,” he says.
He also talks about his philosophy of non-violence. He says that “non-violent direct action” is rooted deeply in the Christian faith. He says it is more than a political tactic: it is also a healing force for a broken society. He says it can liberate the oppressed and the oppressor alike.
When we engage in non-violent protests, he says, we are not defenseless. “We have a powerful weapon, the power of our souls.”
He also says: nonviolent direction act enables us to strive “for right and defeat an unjust social order, and yet maintain an active love for the perpetrators of that unjust social order.
“You can stand up against segregation and love the segregationist. This is the power of non-violence…,” he exults. “We need not hate. There is another way.”
He does not make non-violent direct action sound easy. Not once does he downplay the potential costs. Instead he talks about love and sacrifice and says that the price we might pay is worth it.
“We can stand before our most violent opponents and say, … `Do to us what you will, and we will still love you… Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and as difficult as it is, we will still love you.”
He doesn’t stop there. “Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drive us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead,” he also says. “We will still love you.”
He defies belief. But he also says, “Some things are so dear, some things are so precious, some things are so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for.”
And he adds: “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.“
His words might have frightened some other people, in some other place or at some other time.
Not the black citizens of Rocky Mount in 1962. On the recording, I can hear the standing room-only crowd applaud those lines. The strength of the applause makes Dr. King pause and start again.
“Be assured,” he goes on, and here he addresses white Southerners for the first time in the speech, “that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and to your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”
I think I had forgotten that human beings could aspire to be that good. Perhaps I have lost sight of our capacity to rise above our enmities and feuds, our frailties and our littleness.
Now Dr. King tells the crowd, “I know some of you, and suddenly all over, we get weary.”
“I know that,” he says again.” He sounds as if he knows something about weariness.
The time for poetry has arrived. “Somebody’s asking tonight,” Dr. King intones, “when will wounded justice be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?
“When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls the manacles of fear and the chains of death?”
Here, as Prof. Miller has pointed out elsewhere, Dr. King echoes the words of Psalm 13:
“How long, somebody’s asking, will justice be crucified, and truth be buried? How long will we have to struggle in order to get those rights which are basic, God-given rights deep down in the Constitution of this nation?”
Dr. King answers the question “how long?” with these words: “And I can only say to you tonight: not long.”
He declares to them, “Evil may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the powerful forces of justice and goodness.” He says that Caesar may occupy the palace and Christ the cross for a time, but that one day Christ’s time will come again.
“How long?” he asks again, his voice now rising and falling like great waves in the sea.
And again he answers: “Not long, that is the story of my faith.” He is no longer talking only about redemption in this life.
He quotes the philosopher Thomas Carlyle (“No lie can live forever”), the poet William Cullen Bryant (“Truth crushed to earth will rise again”), and the poet James Russell Lowell:
Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadows, keeping watch above his own.
And then he asks yet again, “How long?” And he quickly gives us the answer one more time— “Not long.”
On the recording, I can hear the roar of the people in this gym at Booker T. Washington High School.
As Professor Miller showed me, Dr. King later used that refrain, “How Long? Not Long,” in another famous speech. That was at the end of the historic final protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 25, 1965.
Now Dr. King is saying those words, the ones that he uttered for the first time here in Rocky Mount, the ones that he repeated at the Lincoln Memorial nine months later. They are the words that school children recite all over the country now.
And so my friends of Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight. It is a dream rooted deeply in the American dream.
He tells Rocky Mount’s black community about that dream. He tells them how he dreams that one day “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls and walk the streets as brothers and sisters.”
He tells them that he dreams of a day when, here in Rocky Mount, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will meet at the table of brotherhood, knowing that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.”
He tells them that he dreams of the day when the words of the prophet Amos will be fulfilled, `Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’
He tells them that he has a dream that someday we will all be free. He also tells them that, if America is to be a truly great nation, freedom must ring from every hilltop and mountainside.
Then, over thunderous applause, as his listeners rise out of their seats and clap their hands, I hear him say the words we all know:
And when this happens all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual….
Free at last, free at last,
Thank God almighty we are free at last!
Tonight, more than half a century later, in that same school gymnasium, the crowd comes to their feet once again. This time they are not just applauding Dr. King. They are reciting the words with him.