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Doctoral Student Helps Recreate Historic King Speech

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Bringing the words of a 1960 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to life has been the work of doctoral student Keon Pettiway, a digital humanist and research assistant with NC State’s Virtual MLK Project (vMLK). And as he completes his Ph.D. in communication, rhetoric and digital media, he and the vMLK team are preparing for a September event at NC State University that will draw attention to King’s involvement in North Carolina during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In 1960, King delivered what has become known as the “Fill Up the Jails” speech at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham. Though a transcript of the speech survived, there are no known video or audio recordings. The vMLK team led by Dr. Vicki Gallagher, NC State professor of communication, launched the vMLK Project to recreate this historic speech.

The speech is significant because it represents a shift in King’s position toward non-violent, direct action, said Pettiway, who is among NC State graduate students earning degrees in spring and summer. “Prior to this speech, King’s message was about how you can change people’s minds and their hearts through speech, through public address,” he said. “This was a big turn in his rhetorical position in terms of civil rights.”

The Virtual MLK Project will be part of a major event Sept. 15-17 — Experiencing King at NC State — that will highlight the university’s work in rediscovering important MLK speeches of the Civil Rights era delivered in North Carolina. It will include Dr. Jason Miller’s work discovering a recording of King’s first “I Have a Dream Speech” given in Rocky Mount. As part of the event, actors Danny Glover and Felix Justice will portray King and Langston Hughes in Stewart Theater Sept. 16.

Prior to this speech, King’s message was about how you can change people’s minds and their hearts through speech, through public address. This was a big turn in his rhetorical position in terms of civil rights.

— Keon Pettiway

In today’s digital world, it is hard to imagine a significant speech not being recorded or videotaped. But in the early 1960s, King relied on news media covering his speeches to spread his message. Apparently, the Durham speech wasn’t widely covered by media, leaving only a transcript of the speech to mark the event.

“King knew that media attention was needed to bring the issues to the people. He knew that,” Pettiway said. “But in this case, the ‘Fill up the Jails speech’ wasn’t heavily recorded by the media.”

The event also will focus attention on North Carolina’s place in the history of civil rights. “North Carolina played a huge role in the civil rights movement,” Pettiway said.

The original White Rock Baptist Church where the King delivered his speech was torn down in 1967, so recreating the speech at the original location was not an option. But the Virtual MLK team decided to recreate the speech in June 2014 at the current location of the Durham church.

Actor Marvin Blanks performed King’s speech in the church sanctuary, much as the 1960 speech was delivered. The 2014 reenactment even attracted some church members who were present 54 years prior at King’s original speech. The authenticity of hearing the speech delivered before an audience is clear from the recording on the Virtual MLK Project website.

Doctoral Student Helps Recreate Historic King Speech

Keon Pettiway, right, explains his goals for the Dissertation Institute at the Hunt Library in December. Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries.

For the second phase of the project, the team matched black and white photos from the original King speech with the recording of Blanks’ speech. The third phase, which will be unveiled in September at NC State’s MLK event, will be a full, digital recreation of the King speech with the recording and photos of the old church. Listeners will be able to experience the speech from different locations in the church.

Pettiway was interested in the speech for how its message of non-violent protest continues to influence society, even today. Modern non-violent protests, like the peaceful protesters who are arrested at Moral Monday events at the NC legislative building, can trace their roots back to King’s “Fill Up the Jails” speech, Pettiway said.

“The speech that was given in Durham set off a huge storm of direct non-violent action that we came to see is still living on even today,” he said.

Three years before King came to Durham, African-American protesters staged peaceful sit-ins at the city’s whites-only Royal Ice Cream Shop. Following the sit-ins, a friend of King’s invited him to speak at White Rock Baptist Church.

At the September MLK event, guests will experience King’s “Fill Up the Jails” speech, from the time they enter NC State’s Hunt Library at the iPearl Immersion Theatre until they reach the Teaching and Visualization Lab, where they will be “physically immersed in King’s speech in a recreation of the old White Rock Baptist Church.”

After completing his Ph.D. in June, Pettiway will join the faculty of Eastern Michigan University as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, beginning in August. Teaching was a goal when he was selected to participate in the Graduate School’s Preparing for the Professoriate program this year.

The PTP program is highly competitive, open to no more than 20 Fellows each year. The year-long program includes weekly workshops for the Fellows and a mentoring relationship with a faculty member.

In his quest to complete his degree, Pettiway participated in the Graduate School’s Dissertation Institute to help him write his dissertation analyzing the role of visual communication in developing and displaying African modernity and identity in Ghana up to and following independence from Britain in 1957, as well as a vision of Pan-Africanism identity that continues to circulate today.  He said the institute helped him to develop his arguments and consider future research directions for his work.

“The Dissertation Institute was significant for getting started on this project,” Pettiway said. “It is a huge undertaking to create a single focus for a very deep research project. Also, it was significant for understanding the genre of a dissertation, which is quite different from a book or an article.”

Though he will be moving to Michigan this summer to start his new position in August, Pettiway will return to Raleigh for the MLK Weekend in September. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he said.

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