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Martin Luther King’s Rocky Mount dream speech rings out again

N.C. State University English professor W. Jason Miller, center, speaks alongside of Tolokun Omokunde, left, Herbert Tillman, second from right, and Rev. William Barber, right, during a press event that revealed audio from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1962 Rocky Mount speech Tuesday, August 11, 2015 at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library in Raleigh, N.C.
N.C. State University English professor W. Jason Miller, center, speaks alongside of Tolokun Omokunde, left, Herbert Tillman, second from right, and Rev. William Barber, right, during a press event that revealed audio from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1962 Rocky Mount speech Tuesday, August 11, 2015 at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library in Raleigh, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

At age 95, Helen Gay rolled into the room in a wheelchair, an oxygen tank in one hand and a cane across her lap. She turned down all offers of help as she rose to tell her story: the day she met Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was 1962 in Rocky Mount, and Gay was a caterer preparing steak and potatoes on borrowed linens and china, serving dinner at a pastor’s house for the world’s most famous civil rights leader. Just that day, he’d made a speech at the high school gym in her hometown, where he’d first uttered his famous wish for all God’s children, from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire to the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

She used to have pictures, long-since loaned out and vanished. Half a century later, this is what Gay remembered:

“I don’t know what you might have heard,” she said, offering what must be the world’s most stunning understatement. “I found out that Dr. King was just a nice, ordinary person.”

The world might have forgotten that speech, confined for decades to those who witnessed it at Booker T. Washington High School, but for a remastered recording recovered from a Rocky Mount library and played publicly for the first time at N.C. State University on Tuesday.

In research for his book “Origins of the Dream,” English professor W. Jason Miller discovered a reel-to-reel copy on acetate tape, probably recorded by a teacher at Booker T. Washington and stored for years within the school library.

It “mysteriously appeared” in Braswell Memorial Library in Rocky Mount, where the staff had no equipment to play it. Miller noticed “Please Do Not Erase” penciled on the box. Transformed to digital format, it is now confirmed that King gave Rocky Mount listeners the first taste of his “I have a dream” speech delivered in Washington, D.C., nine months later.

Played out loud in the Hunt Library on NCSU’s Centennial Campus, you could recognize the same words and cadences played on thousands of occasions since, this time coming from the gym of a segregated North Carolina high school. As King’s voice filled the room, freed from an old box, the Rev. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP, silently mouthed the famous words.

“I have a dream tonight....”

Herbert Tillman remembered it well, a student at “Booker T” from the class of ‘63.

“There was no room,” Tillman said Tuesday. “Everything was full. Everyone was attentive, and Martin Luther King had always been a great speaker. The words he brought to Rocky Mount were words of encouragement we really needed.”

Tolokun Omokunde, now the pastor of Timothy Darling Presbyterian Church in Oxford, recalled being an unruly teen student, forced by his grandmother to rake his teacher’s yard after saying the mild expletive “Shoot” in frustration.

As further punishment, or maybe reward, he stayed after class for personalized history lessons from Mrs. Esmerelda Hawkins, told he would be competing for the school’s world history prize.

“She tutored me in the Marshall Plan and Winston Churchill,” Omokunde recalled, “and sliding in some Martin Luther King.”

Weeks later, informed he had won a special prize, he came to Booker T with his underwear starched and ironed, his tie in a Windsor knot, a pair of Buster Browns on his feet. Knocking on a school door, he found himself in a private meeting with King himself. When he shook the great man’s hand, he guessed King had “never worked in tobacco.”

King drank coffee with cream and sugar while his young guest sipped Coca-Cola, asking about Gandhi. And when Omokunde saw King speak again the following night, this time at an AME church, King recognized him and asked him to sit with the pastors.

“That sealed it for me,” he said. “I was going to be a pastor.”

As the small crowd left the Hunt library on Tuesday, speakers hoped the Rocky Mount speech would give North Carolina greater due as the host of civil rights history. This fall, the entire 55-minute speech will be available online at www.kingsfirstdream.com.

And 50 years from now, said Cash Michaels, editor of The Carolinian newspaper, recordings of Tuesday’s event better not be hidden in a library drawer.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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