By W. Jason Miller, author of Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric
Rather than looking through the glass at the past, have you ever held history in your hands? After eight years of research, I found a long-lost reel-to-reel audio tape of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first ever “I Have a Dream” speech—delivered nine months before the famous March on Washington. Preserved for 38 years in an attic, the reel was cracked, the tape was frayed, and the box had flakes of rust dried deep into its cardboard. No one knew if the words written inside were true—“Dr. Martin Luther King’s Speech, November 27, 1962”—but I concurred with its next wish: “Please Do Not Erase.”
Imagine finding the blueprints to the Gaza pyramids, holding the score to an unknown Beethoven symphony, or thumbing through the pages of Einstein’s handwritten notes on his theory of relativity. That is how it felt for me when Dr. King’s iconic phrase finally rang out through George Blood’s studio in Philadelphia as every word of this fifty-five minute address was carefully restored. This discovery turned a whisper into an echo that you can hear at King’s First Dream.
How the Discovery Was Received
The world was stunned to hear this news. It was immediately the “Best New Thing in the World Today” on the Rachel Maddow Show. The audio rang out on CBS, ABC, and BBC News, and in USA Today. Articles appeared in the New York Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, Huffington Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In addition to being featured in hundreds of local newspapers and on radio stations throughout the U.S., articles were published in Canada, Japan, Nepal, China, Ghana, New Zealand, France, Belgium, Australia, and even translated into Dutch, French, German, and Italian. More people than I ever knew listened as I was interviewed on NPR and live on CNN.
The greatest reception, however, was felt in the city of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Its citizens, numbering about 50,000, took on a sense of greater civic pride and added depth to their collective identity in knowing their city was the birthplace of Dr. King’s dream. The city kindly buried my book in a time capsule to be opened in 2067, its mayor named me an honorary citizen, and its citizens staged numerous programs recreating the details of Dr. King’s historic visit.
One of the most exciting events of his visit happened in the gym when Dr. King spoke. Learning more about those who attended the speech has humbled me in ways I could not have anticipated. Their stories of that experience are remarkable. Many people—senators, city councilmembers, doctors, and pastors—name that single speech as the defining moment in their careers, and the testimony of their lives is unimpeachable evidence for what they experienced. To see them relive a touchstone from their adolescence was incredibly rewarding.
The speech is now the subject of an exciting documentary film titled Origin of the Dream. In addition to interviewing many citizens, the film also features conversations with U.S. ambassador Andrew Young, actor Danny Glover, and Dr. King’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer David Garrow. In researching for the film, we uncovered oral history that was about to be lost. It has been incredible to actually name those who were laughing during the jokes Dr. King delivered, to meet those who prepared and served his pre-speech meal, and to talk with a minister who shared a Coke with Dr. King as a young man. I even learned the code words shared among citizens to communicate and conceal where and when Dr. King arrived to keep him safe from white supremacists.
What the Discovery Meant to Me
The audio served as the clearest evidence for the argument I made in my book, Origins of the Dream, that Dr. King’s dream has its origins in the poetry of Langston Hughes. Dr. King and Hughes, the leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, knew each other and exchanged letters. In fact, they traveled together to Nigeria in 1960, and King even personally asked Hughes to write a poem that the poet was happy to compose. Hughes died in May of 1967, less than a year before King’s assassination. From his deathbed, Hughes sent one of his final handwritten letters directly to Dr. King.
Because of Martin Luther King Jr.’s extensive invocations of it, Langston Hughes’s poetry—unbeknownst to most—became as significant to the Civil Rights Movement as it was to the Harlem Renaissance. During his career in the public eye from 1956–1968, Dr. King invoked no less than seven of Langston Hughes’s poems in his speeches and sermons, often reciting Hughes’s poems from memory. These speeches became a rallying cry throughout the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the most visible statements of dissent against the war in Vietnam. In fact, when Americans turned on their televisions to hear Dr. King critique the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, they heard him quoting Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again.”
I’m still not sure if I found the tape, or if the tape found me. Years before the speech I found took place, on August 11, 1956, Dr. King ended a speech by rewriting the lines to one of Langston Hughes’s poems, “I Dream a World.” In that speech, long considered the predecessor of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King spoke of a new world. In the 1962 tape I found, he was revising and updating his metaphor to start dreaming of a new world. By doing this, he was repeating a habit he had perfected of riffing on or sampling the ideas of Hughes’s poems to avoid accusations of being too closely aligned with the incendiary ideas of the subversive poet. Dr. King veiled his source, and I had pulled back the curtain.
This is the story of a researcher who traveled all across the country documenting the connections between two American icons only to find the most important evidence less than an hour from where he works. Now we all know a great deal more about the development of the most famous speech in American history. The story of this surprising discovery shows that what seems lost can be found. And in some cases, silence can be heard.
W. Jason Miller, author of Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric, is professor of English at North Carolina State University. He is also the author of Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture.