The early months of 1960 were turbulent ones in North Carolina, with the civil rights movement at the forefront. In February, four African-American students staged a sit-in inside of a Greensboro Woolworth’s after they were denied service. And two weeks later, Martin Luther King Jr. came to White Rock Baptist Church in Durham on the heels of that protest and, for the first time, called for activists to break the law through nonviolent protests.
On that day, 1,200 citizens came to hear King’s message, which historians refer to as his “fill up the jails” speech. And this Sunday, NC State’s Virtual Martin Luther King Jr. Project will bring the civil rights leader’s words back to life as performer Marvin Blanks re-enacts the historic sermon in Durham.
“Doing it in the symbolic location of the church does two things,” says Keon Pettiway, a 2005 CHASS grad and doctoral student in the communications and rhetoric department who’s working on the project. “It’s a public marker for the history of Durham. But it’s also about the wider significance of the black church as a center for community activism.”
The virtual project, the idea of an NC State communications professor, is designed to explore the effectiveness of public speakers. When she saw the virtual Paul’s Cross project, which featured a digital re-creation of a medieval sermon in the James B. Hunt Jr. Library, she felt she could re-create a famous North Carolina speech. “We are interested in this as a rhetorical process,” says Victoria Gallagher, who teaches communication ethics and organizational communication. “We’re trying to understand how this type of public discourse affects people.”
For Gallagher, the project centers on the concept of “kairos,” a Greek term that describes the opportune moment when all elements come together. Her team is looking at audience, speaker, what the speaker says, and the exact moment in history. “When you bring about that right moment,” she says, “you have transformation.”
While the sermon holds a pivotal place in the history of the state and nation, Gallagher believes it offers lessons for the future. “What you find is when you hit these moments,” she says, “it’s important to have someone like King who can bring all these experiences together. It was him in that moment with the people at the church. We can use this to help people be great speakers.”
The sermon will be recorded and placed on a website that is under construction and should be ready later this summer. There, visitors can listen to King’s speech in different ways.
The re-enactment, open to the public, will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham.