MLK's 1960 speech at White Rock Baptist, retold
In the days following the 1960 wave of sit-ins begun in Greensboro, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Durham to tour downtown lunch counters and give a speech at White Rock Baptist Church.
In his Feb. 16, 1960, sermon, he urged students not to fear jail if they were arrested for standing up for their rights. He delivered the sermon at the church’s building which was later demolished for the Durham Freeway. On Sunday, King’s speech will be re-enacted at White Rock Baptist where it stands now on Fayetteville Street.
Victoria Gallagher and Matt May, professors at N.C. State University and rhetorical communication scholars, approached the church for a project they’re working on to re-create the speech digitally and study how oral recordings are perceived in different settings at different times. They launched their digital humanities project with a re-enacted speech from Medieval England, and this time wanted to follow up with a speech significant to North Carolina, Gallagher said.
The Rev. Reginald Van Stephens, pastor of White Rock, said the re-enactment is a great opportunity to use it as a teaching tool for young African-Americans and the community to see the church’s role in the civil rights movement. He said that not everyone knows how King’s speech helped galvanize the sit-ins movement to desegregate.
The text of the speech is available to read on the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute website through Stanford University, under its King Papers Project. It is part of “Volume V: Threshold of a New Decade: January 1959-December 1960.” The name of the speech was “A Creative Protest.”
Actor Marvin Blanks of Michigan will re-enact King’s speech at White Rock. N.C. State will record the audio and it will eventually be available through the university.
White Rock Baptist Church member Raymond McAllister Sr. will be there Sunday, and was there on Feb. 16, 1960. He has been a member of the church for 77 years. He was 30 years old when he went to see King speak. McAllister, now 84, was working at the downtown Durham post office. King was young then, he said, and he had yet to hear him preach. He got to church early for the evening event, on a Tuesday, which ended up being standing-room only to about 1,200 people. The week before, Durham residents – mostly college students – had held sit-ins at the Woolworth’s and Kress lunch counters downtown.
McAllister said he just remembers little excerpts of the meeting. Working at the post office, they were not permitted to participate or discuss publicly the civil rights movement, he said. In the segregated South and working at the post office, McAllister said he stayed about his business and wasn’t a rabble rouser. “They didn’t want you saying anything,” he said. “So I listened.”
He also went to hear former Alabama governor and segregationist George Wallace, who ran for president in 1968, speak in downtown Durham.
“I was mighty careful. People carried guns then, so I kept back,” he said.
That 1960 evening at White Rock, McAllister thought it would be a good opportunity to hear King. He went by himself, and sat about midway back in the sanctuary.
“Everyone was in accord with what he said and was about to say,” McAllister said. “The more speeches he made, the more people came. He was a good speaker. I liked him. I shook his hand.”
McAllister said King’s speech was encouraging.
“I came from the old school. I came from segregation. I wasn’t going to change the world. All those places were segregated, with signs for white and colored,” he said. Even so, King’s speech made him hopeful.
“I felt sorry for the people who participated [in civil rights protests] with the dogs and hoses. I was empathetic. I look back and am thankful they did, so I could enjoy freedom,” he said. “I wasn’t a rabble rouser, but agreed with what King and other people said.”
King had come to Durham at the request of Durham’s the Rev. Douglas Moore, who led protests including Durham’s own sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream parlor in 1957. According to Morning Herald and Durham Sun archives, at the gathering, Moore asked people to stand if they supported a boycott of Durham stores that continued segregation. Everyone stood.
King’s speech was published as a pamphlet. In his speech, he encouraged young protesters and talked about Southern politics and segregation, and that they made clear they would not be satisfied with token integration. King called for support of the students, and for white North Carolinians to back up the protests as well.
King said the protesters were doing something that would ultimately save the soul of country, and there would be a new day in America.
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Re-enactment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Feb. 16, 1960. speech at White Rock Baptist Church, called “A Creative Protest”
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: White Rock Baptist Church
3400 Fayetteville St., Durham
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