George Battle was 15 when he watched Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his I Have a Dream message not from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial but nine months earlier, in a packed Rocky Mount gymnasium in Eastern North Carolina.
My friends of Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight, Battle heard King tell more than 1,800 people at Booker T. Washington High on Nov. 27, 1962. It is a dream rooted deeply in the American Dream I have a dream that one day right here in Rocky Mount, North Carolina the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will meet at the table of brotherhood.
Scholars say it was the first known time King used the dream language he made famous 50 years ago in Washington.
Until somebody comes forward and says there was an earlier time, it was the first time he ever used the phrase, I have a dream, said Claiborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. It was a turning point, where he personalized the American Dream. It made his message more effective.
For young George Battle, it was a turning point, too. After working all day in an Edgecombe County tobacco field in November 1962, Battle had hiked into town to the all-black high school to hear King speak.
People were saying this guy is going to get us freedoms and opportunities we never had, Battle recalled.
So I was curious. You couldnt tell your boss you were going to see Martin Luther King because they saw him as an agitator.
During most of his 55-minute speech that night, King recited the evils of segregation what he described as a cancer in the body politic and called for ending it through ballots, courts and nonviolent protests.
Foreshadowing the Washington speech he would make on Aug. 28, 1963, he ended with an appeal: Let freedom ring ... from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire (and) every hill and molehill of Mississippi. Let it ring from every mountain of North Carolina.
The transcript, kept in Rocky Mounts public library, shows people responding with shouts of Tell it! and Jesus! At one point, it describes the response with a single word: tumult. When King finished, everyone joined him in singing We Shall Overcome.
Kings North Carolina visit came during a difficult time for him and his movement. Three months earlier, a long desegregation effort in Albany, Ga., had been marred by violence and ended in failure and frustration. King shouldered much of the blame.
The rest of the world didnt know this, but in Kings world, this was a low point for him, civil rights historian Taylor Branch told the Observer in 2001. He felt the movement had been stagnating since the Freedom Rides.
According to Branch, King never planned to use the Dream language at the Lincoln Memorial. Branch has written that it was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who shouted Tell em about the dream, Martin.
The day King spoke about his dream in Washington, Battle sat in front of his mothers TV and watched a rebroadcast of the speech, much like the one hed heard in Rocky Mount nine months before. When I heard the words he spoke in Washington, it all resonated, Battle said. I was thinking, This is why they said we should follow this guy.
50 years of ministry, politics
Battle got involved with AME Zion church as a teen. Later ordained, he pastored congregations in both Carolinas and went on to chair the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.
In 1992, he was elected an AME bishop and became senior bishop of the Charlotte district in 2012. He serves the board of directors of Carolinas HealthCare, Central Piedmont Community College and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Last fall, he was a North Carolina delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
Battle, who heard an early version of Kings most famous lines, this week got a preview of another speech the one President Barack Obama will deliver at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday on the anniversary of Kings address.
On Monday, Battle gathered with Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and other religious leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, where they talked about the anniversary as well as health care and other issues.
Obama just shared generalities about what he was thinking about (saying), Battle said. I think the tone will be, Weve come a long way, but weve got a long way to go.
Battle thought about how far hes come from the tobacco fields of Eastern North Carolina to a White House meeting with the nations first African-American president.
It still seems unreal, he said. I pinch myself to say, Is this really you? Yet here I am meeting with the president of the United States. Im still trying to see if this is really me or if Im in a dream. Only in America.
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