Rediscover MLK’s Impact at ‘Experiencing King’

Statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Rocky Mount.

Most Americans know that Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most prominent leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement during the 1950s and 60s. Recently, however, scholars at NC State have used a combination of groundbreaking research and cutting-edge technology to shed new light on King’s work — and on the pivotal role that North Carolina played in the struggle for equal rights for black Americans.

These findings will be shared and discussed during Experiencing King at NC State University, a two-day series of events giving the public a chance to rediscover King’s impact on our state and nation through stage drama, documentary film, recently unearthed audio archives, modern art and immersive technologies that re-create the experience of what it was like to attend two of King’s landmark speeches in North Carolina.

The schedule of events begins Friday, Sept. 16, with What’s On the Table, a discussion of the art exhibit Black Man With the Horn, currently on display in the art gallery on the second floor of the African-American Cultural Center. Artist Antoine Williams will discuss how his site-specific installation, consisting of life-size figures made from wheat paste and found objects, serves as a metaphor for larger systemic issues of a broken criminal justice system. What’s On the Table will take place 3-4:30 p.m. in Witherspoon 355.

Friday at 8 p.m. in Talley Student Union’s Stewart Theatre, actors Danny Glover and Felix Justice will present An Evening With Martin and Langston, which draws audiences inside the worlds of Martin Luther King Jr. and poet Langston Hughes, a contemporary of King’s and one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance art movement. At 7 p.m. in Talley’s Coastal Ballroom, NC State English professor Jason Miller will give a pre-show talk on the connections between Hughes’ poetry and King’s rhetoric, as outlined in Miller’s recent book Origins of the Dream. Tickets to An Evening With Martin and Langston cost $35-$40 ($8.75 for NC State students) and are available online.

On Saturday, multimedia exhibits for Experiencing King will be set up throughout the James B. Hunt Library on Centennial Campus from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Printed cards will be available to take a self-guided walking tour of the exhibits, or you can participate in one of two guided tours conducted by Jason Miller and NC State communication professor Victoria Gallagher. Gallagher led development of the Virtual MLK Project, which uses sophisticated audiovisual technology to re-create King’s “A Creative Protest” speech (more famously known as “Fill Up the Jails”), which he delivered in 1960 at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. Miller and Gallagher will conduct their tours 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 1-2:30 p.m.

The Experiencing King tour will include monitors showing excerpts from the documentary film Origin of the Dream about Miller’s research connecting Hughes and King. The tour will also visit the Hunt Library’s Game Lab to explore the Virtual MLK Project’s 3-D rendering of the interior of White Rock Baptist Church.

The tour’s most immersive exhibit—the Virtual MLK Project’s 2014 re-creation of King’s White Rock Baptist Church speech—will be set up in the Hunt Library’s Visualization Lab. Life-size photographs of the church sanctuary from the actual night of the 1960 speech will be projected on the walls, and attendees will be encouraged to walk around the room during the speech so they can hear how the oratory must have sounded at different places in the sanctuary.

“We’ve had some students come through here who’ve said, ‘You know, growing up in North Carolina, I didn’t have the best image of Martin Luther King,’” says Gallagher. “But after they experience this re-creation and actually hear his words and learn more about everything that went on back then, they come to the conclusion that King was a really amazing man.”

Next door to the Visualization Lab, the Hunt Library’s Creativity Studio will offer audiovisual listening stations presenting video of the recreation of King’s White Rock speech, as well as a long-lost audio recording of a speech King gave in a high-school gymnasium in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1962. King’s Rocky Mount speech is significant because it’s the first time he used the phrase “I have a dream” in a public address, some nine months before he gave his world-famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963. Miller discovered tape of the Rocky Mount speech when doing research for Origins of the Dream last year, and audio from the speech is available on the King’s First Dream website.

At 12:30 p.m. in the Hunt Library’s Duke Energy Hall, Miller will give a talk about King’s Rocky Mount speech, and a historian from the North Carolina History Museum will discuss how King’s visit to Rocky Mount figured in the city’s history.

“We’re particularly excited to have two original attendees of King’s Rocky Mount speech who will be with us at the Hunt Library that day,” Miller says. “They have a lot to say about what it was like to hear the speech in person and how it affected people in Rocky Mount.”

At the same event, artist Synthia Saint James — best known for creating the original cover art for Terry McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale — will unveil the original artwork she created for the Origin of the Dream film.

Then Gallagher and Miller will hold a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Garrow, author of multiple books on Martin Luther King Jr. and senior adviser for Eyes on the Prize, the award-winning PBS television history of the civil rights movement. The conversation with Garrow will take place in the Hunt Library’s Duke Energy Hall 2:30-3:30 p.m.

More information on Experiencing King at NC State University, including a complete schedule of events, is available online.

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