Martin Luther King Jr.'s Rocky Mount, NC Connection

Race Relations in Rocky Mount NC

Was Rocky Mount, NC  a “test audience” for the “I have a dream” phrase?

On Nov. 27, 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood not on the vast mall of Washington, D.C., but in a small gymnasium at Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount, NC.  He delivered a speech about the importance of race relations and civil rights. While this speech -  given before 1,800 people - was not on the size or scope of the landmark Washington, it did contain a familiar phrase:

 …I have a dream.


There are many who believe this is one of—if not the—first example of Dr. King’s use of this phrase. According to an article in the L.A. Times, Dr. King said, "I have a dream that one day right here in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will meet at the table of brotherhood."

So was it the first use of “I have a dream”?  According to information from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, while it is not clear whether or not this was the first use of the phrase, Clayborne Carson, King Papers editor at Stanford University, said that it “appears to be an important new rhetorical formulation.”  An N.C. historic highway marker at Atlantic Avenue at Spruce Street in Rocky Mount memorializes the event.

Regardless of whether or not Rocky Mount was the first location for these timeless words, Rocky Mount continues to embrace its rich African-American heritage with a series of events celebrating Martin Luther King Day. The city recently held its 27th annual MLK Unity Breakfast, which featured guest speaker Peggy Wallace Kennedy. Kennedy is the daughter of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, who famously opposed the integration of the Alabama school system. Kennedy has since broken her family’s legacy to become a national voice for justice and equality.

And the Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount?

Rocky Mount race relationsDuring segregation, the Booker T. Washington High School was the school for African-American students, while Rocky Mount High School was exclusively for white students.  According to information from the Rocky Mount Telegram, the two schools were merged in 1969.  The high school mascots were also merged to symbolize the integration. The old mascots – the Lions and the Blackbirds—were combined into a Gryphon.

A fitting symbol for future generations of Rocky Mount residents.
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