Rhetorical History of the “Fill Up the Jails” Speech

The following historical context is an excerpt from the following book chapter: Gallagher, Victoria J., Zagacki, K., and Swift, J. “From ‘Dead Wrong’ to Civil Rights History: The Durham ‘Royal Seven,’ Martin Luther King’s 1960 ‘Fill Up the Jails’ Speech, and the Rhetoric of Visibility,” in Like a Fire: The Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Sit­Ins. Edited by Sean Patrick O’Rourke and Lesli K. Pace. University of South Carolina Press.

As with many significant events in history, the events that led up to Dr. Martin Luther King’s delivery of his speech, “A Creative Protest,” in February 1960 are as important as the speech itself. The events that led up to that evening, help us to understand how this particular speech came to be delivered by this particular person on this particular day in this particular church and city.

On June 23, 1957, nearly three years before the now famous sit-in at the Woolworths’ store in Greensboro, North Carolina, Reverend Douglas Moore, the pastor of Asbury Temple United Methodist Church in Durham, organized a protest at the Royal Ice Cream Company, the members of the protest later becoming known as the “Royal Seven.” Rev. Moore had been a classmate of Dr. King’s in Boston and had tried to convince him to join Moore and another classmate, George Thomas, in non-violent direct action while they were in Boston. King felt strongly, at that time, that a conversion approach based on traditional oratorical agitation -- speeches, rallies, and petitions for redress -- was the best path to follow to change people’s hearts and minds about racial segregation.

When the students in Greensboro started their sit-in on February 1, 1960, Moore, and his colleague Floyd McKissick, drove to Greensboro to hold training sessions and to develop strategies to help the sit-ins spread. Moore reached out to Martin Luther King, Jr. and on February 16, with the sit-ins dramatically raising visibility and showing potential to have national impact, King accepted Moore’s invitation to speak in Durham where, Moore promised, “we’re ready” to hear the message that citizens must be ready to fill up the jails of the South if that was what was needed to attain civil rights and human dignity for all. When Rev. Moore told Dr. King that in Durham “we’re ready” to hear his speech, he was basing that assessment on his experience working within the black community there, sometimes with mixed results.

In discussing the 1957 Royal Ice Cream Parlor Sit-in, Moore and other members of the Royal Seven indicated their strategic selection of the ice cream parlor. Virginia Williams, one of the Royal Seven, indicated this as follows: “We could have picked from any establishment...They were all segregated. The reason we chose this one was it was located in the heart of the black community” (Rickard 2007, see also West 2007, Khanna 2007). Moore had previously challenged racial discrimination in Durham by petitioning the Durham City Council to end segregation at a public library and a city-owned theater. After those petitions failed, he moved toward non-violent direct action, attempting to enter a whites-only swimming pool in Durham (Rossi 2008). These previous failures helped convinced him of the need for coordinated non-violent direct action focused on strategic targets -- targets which would serve to help make visible to blacks as well as whites, the problems of segregation.

Although the black community did not come out in strong support of the Royal Seven in 1957, Reverend Moore’s continued efforts to challenge segregation in the community provided a state of readiness that led him to confidently invite King to Durham for what would be a pivotal moment in the history of the civil rights movement.

The White Rock Baptist Church was the building in which King gave his speech on the night of February 16, 1960 and serves as the basis for all of the visual depictions of the sanctuary for the vMLK project. In the late 1960s, Durham city officials decided there was a need to connect the downtown city center with the growing suburbs and determined that they would build a freeway through parts of the historically black Hayti community in Durham. The White Rock Baptist Church sanctuary was in the middle of that community and so was slated for demolition and torn down in 1967. The congregation survived and built a new sanctuary at another location in Durham in 1971. That building was renovated and enlarged to the sanctuary where, on June 8, 2014, the re-creation of King’s speech was held.