Ear­lier ‘I Have a Dream’ speech record­ing dis­cov­ered


Be­fore the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. de­liv­ered his fa­mous “I Have a Dream” speech to hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered in Washington in 1963, he fine-tuned his civil rights mes­sage be­fore a much smaller au­di­ence in North Carolina.

Re­porters had cov­ered King’s 55-minute speech at a high school gym­na­sium in Rocky Mount on Nov. 27, 1962, but a record­ing wasn’t known to ex­ist un­til English pro­fes­sor Jason Miller found an ag­ing reel-to-reel tape in a town li­brary. Miller played it in public for the first time Tues­day 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 to about 2,000 peo­ple at Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount in eastern North Carolina, eight months be­fore elec­tri­fy­ing the na­tion with the same words at the March on Washington.

He also re­ferred to “the sons of for­mer slaves and the sons of for­mer slave own­ers,” say­ing he dreamed they would “meet at the ta­ble of brother­hood.” On the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial, King changed that to “sit down to­gether at the ta­ble of brother­hood.” In both speeches, “Let Free­dom Ring” served as his ral­ly­ing cry.

“It’s not so much the mes­sage of a man,” the Rev. Wil­liam Bar­ber, pres­i­dent of the state chap­ter of the NAACP, said Tues­day. “It’s 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, but an en­dur­ing call to hope­ful re­sis­tance and a non­vi­o­lent chal­lenge to in­jus­tice.”

Miller dis­cov­ered the record­ing while re­search­ing “Ori­gins of the Dream,” his book ex­plor­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween King’s speeches and the po­etry of Langston Hughes. His ah-ha mo­ment came when he learned through a news­pa­per story about a tran­script of the speech in state ar­chives. If there’s a tran­script, then there must be a record­ing, he thought.

‘Please do not erase’

He sent emails and made calls un­til he even­tu­ally heard back in the fall of 2013 from the Braswell Public Li­brary in Rocky Mount, where 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, and said “please do not erase.”

Be­fore lis­ten­ing to the record­ing, Miller con­firmed that the 1.5-mil­lime­ter ac­etate reel-to-reel tape could be played safely. He brought it to an au­dio ex­pert in Philadelphia, Ge­orge Blood, who set it as close to its orig­i­nal lev­els as he could. Then Blood, whose clients in­clude the Li­brary of Congress, dig­i­tized the tape.

It proved for­tu­nate for King that he had prac­ticed the dream part of his speech in Rocky Mount and later in Detroit, be­cause it wasn’t part of his type­writ­ten speech in Washington. His­to­ri­ans say the singer Ma­halia Jack­son shouted “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” as he reached a slow point in his pre­pared text. King then im­pro­vised, and lit up the au­di­ence with phrases very sim­i­lar to those he had de­liv­ered in that gym­na­sium.

Three peo­ple who were in the au­di­ence that day in 1962 lis­tened again Tues­day as the record­ing was played at the univer­sity’s James B. Hunt Li­brary. Herbert Till­man, who was about 17 years old at the time, re­called how happy they were to see and hear such an in­spir­ing leader.


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.

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