Skip to main content

A never-before heard recording of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. captures what historians believe is the birth of the “I Have a Dream” speech that would become one of the iconic speeches of the 20th century.

The recording was made on Nov. 27, 1962, in a high-school gymnasium in Rocky Mount, N.C., before an audience of 1,800 supporters, who can be heard cheering as Dr. King painted a vision of racial tolerance and equality.

“I have a dream tonight. One day my little daughter and my two sons will grow up in world not conscious of the colour of their skin, but only conscious of the fact that they are members of the human race. I have a dream tonight,” he told the North Carolina audience.

Nine months later, at the March on Washington – a galvanizing moment for the civil-rights movement that attracted more than 200,000 participants and thousands of television viewers – Dr. King used the same rhetorical flourish.

Jason Miller, a professor of English at North Carolina State University who helped uncover the recording, said it was “one of the most unique and historic speeches” delivered by Dr. King.

“This speech in Rocky Mount is part sermon, part mass meeting, and part civil-rights address,” he said.

The recording offers proof of what historians have long believed: that the civil-rights leader fine-tuned “I Have a Dream” at other speeches leading up to the famous August 28, 1963 speech he gave at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The North Carolina speech is the earliest known use of the “I have a dream” refrain, and ends with a line that Dr. King would repeat during the March on Washington: “Free at last, free at last. Great God A-mighty, we are free at last!”

Among the audience, listening to Dr. King in Rocky Mount, was a high-school senior. “I was all into it, all eyes, all ears, and I just felt so uplifted,” Herbert Tillman told the ABC11 WTVD news channel.

Nine months later, at the March on Washington, he would hear Dr. King again.

“After listening to it and seeing it on the news, and I come back and say, ‘Hey, you know, that was kind of similar,’ ” he recalled.

Expanding voting rights for African Americans through non-violent action was a major theme of Dr. King’s Rocky Mount speech. The U.S. federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to end racial discrimination in voting. The issue of voting rights remains a divisive issue as African American activists believe that state measures to stop voter fraud are, in fact, attempts to roll back hard-fought voting rights from the 1960s.

“Make no mistake. This kind of oratory is dangerous,” said Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, referring to the Rocky Mount speech, “especially for those who want to go back, especially for those who want the status quo because this kind of oratory can loose the captive and set people free to stand up and fight for their own freedom.”

With a report from the Associated Press