Early Recording Found Of King's 'I Have A Dream' Speech
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In 1962, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech in Rocky Mount, N.C.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I have a dream tonight. It is a dream rooted deeply in the American dream.
GREENE: Of course, that phrase would become far more famous when Dr. King repeated it the following year at the March on Washington. But what you just heard is a recording of the first known version of the "I Have A Dream" speech. The recording was released publically just last week. It was discovered by Jason Miller, a professor at North Carolina State. He was traveling the country researching the origins of the famous speech and ended up finding it just an hour from his office, hidden in a public library in Rocky Mount. Our colleague Renee Montagne spoke to Professor Miller, as well as Herbert Tillman, who saw Dr. King speak in Rocky Mount in 1962.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Welcome to both of you.
HERBERT TILLMAN: Thank you.
JASON MILLER: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: I would like, Professor Miller, to start with you. What was the first clue that you found?
MILLER: So the first clue I found was a old typed-out transcript that had all kinds of errors, mistakes in it, question marks because it was incomplete. And the first thing I said to myself, well, if someone was able to make an actual transcript at some point in time, there must be an audio. And so finally I was able to track down, after contacting numerous people, that it had showed up in this public library in Rocky Mount. And this reel-to-reel tape, about seven inches in diameter, was in a box with rust on it. The actual plastic on the reel was cracked, and the end of the tape was frayed. But I was very, very hopeful that it was what I thought it was because inside, in pencil, was written these words - Doctor King's speech November 27, 1962. Please do not erase.
MONTAGNE: Pretty amazing that it was even usable.
MILLER: Yeah, it was my first concern, Renee. But fortunately it hadn't had any water damage or exposure to sunlight and that's what saved it.
MONTAGNE: And, Herbert Tillman, you were a student at Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount where Martin Luther King gave that speech. Take us back to the room. What would you be seeing?
TILLMAN: Basically people were shoulder to shoulder. Our auditorium wasn't large enough so we put it in the gymnasium so they were up on the bleachers and everything all around, and it was just anticipation, waiting for Martin Luther King to actually come on stage. And when he actually walked on stage, everybody just rejoiced with jubilance and excitement.
MONTAGNE: He was indeed by 1962 already a towering figure.
TILLMAN: Exactly. And what he was doing in the deep Southern states were some of the same things that were going on in Rocky Mount, N.C. and by him coming, it was giving us hope also.
MONTAGNE: Why don't we play a little bit of that tape now to take us to that moment that you, Herbert Tillman, actually experienced. And when you say he had a message that he was bringing throughout the South - let's listen now to a bit of the speech, where his message is about voting rights.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
KING JR: We're going to break down the barriers of segregation. We must continue to register and vote in large numbers, for I am convinced that one of the most significant steps that the Negro can take at this hour is that short walk to the voting booth.
MONTAGNE: Now, you would've been a very young man - a teenager, a student.
MONTAGNE: But at that time, did you think of yourself as having a chance to vote?
TILLMAN: Well, let's put it this way. At that time, even though I was in high school I had a part-time job where I would work after school. And I remember the business that I was working for stopped everything and had a meeting downstairs where they brought all the blacks, and it was getting close to time for voting. And basically what he had called all the blacks down for was to tell us that if he caught any of his black employees and found out that they were at the voting booths trying to vote that their job would be in doubt.
MONTAGNE: Let me turn you, Professor Miller, is there anything else in this Rocky Mount speech that anticipates Dr. King's famous, legendary speech in Washington, D.C.?
MILLER: There is. And during my research for my book "Origins Of The Dream," I listened to about 120 different sermons and speeches by Dr. King and I've never heard one quite like this. It has part the feel of a mass meeting, it has the formality of the civil rights speech and it has the spirit of a sermon. And Dr. King ended this speech with his three most famous endings. And he starts in what he called his "How long? Not long," set piece. Then he goes into eight lines of "I Have A Dream." That's actually two longer than the famous one in Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
JR: I have a dream tonight. (Inaudible) to do unto them. I have a dream tonight. (Inaudible) not just because of the color of their skin, but on the (inaudible) fact that they are members of the human race. I have a dream tonight.
MILLER: So this actually has more of "I Have A Dream" than the speech we all know. Third and finally, he goes into his "Let Freedom Ring" set piece which he had been using in different speeches way back to 1956.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
JR: From every mountainside, let freedom ring. So let it ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia. Let it ring from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee.
MONTAGNE: Mr. Tillman, hearing this speech again, how did it strike you? I mean, what was the feeling like? Because you wouldn't have probably ever expected to hear it again.
TILLMAN: No I didn't expect to hear it again. And even after all this time, it kind of kicks in some of the memory recall and the emotions, you know, were very, very high. I remember how excited and how everybody applaud and clapped and was joyous. Just listening to it again made me feel the same things - I really felt all of those emotions in my heart.
MONTAGNE: I just had the impression you might have sort of a feeling of joy and also a tear in your eye.
TILLMAN: You're right. You're correct.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you both very much for joining us.
TILLMAN: Thank you very much.
MILLER: It's been our pleasure.
GREENE: Herbert Tillman and Professor Jason Miller speaking to our colleague Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.