The vMLK project serves to expand audiences’ understanding of 1) specific aspects of civil rights history in North Carolina and in relation to the history and impact of the larger movement, 2) the nature of civic and political engagement, both in the 1950s and 1960s and today, 3) the transformative and affective aspects of public address, particularly in relation to issues of racial justice, and 4) the importance of sound in developing immersive experiences.
Understanding the Consequences of the Speech
Historians and other commentators credit the Woolworth sit-in in Greensboro with helping to launch the Civil Rights Movement across the nation. Yet, as the vMLK project demonstrates, the history of less well known sit-ins, like the Royal Ice Cream Parlor sit-in in Durham, and the relationships formed between everyday people and their pastors and community leaders as well as those between more well-known leaders of the movement such as King and these local leaders, are all essential elements forming the larger trajectory of the movement and leading to its eventual successes. Each event and relationship as well as countless other acts of protest served to make visible the challenges and struggles of African American citizens under segregation. King’s speech, by articulating and shaping public knowledge through offering interpretive and evaluative versions of who does what to whom, when and where, brought those elements together in a manner that allowed the many acts to coalesce and to become meaningful and powerful to people across the South and across the nation. While it took several more years for King to declare, in 1963, that the goal of filling up the jails with non-violent protesters was being achieved, and making a difference in the attitudes and actions of members of Congress and the people of the United States, the way in which King’s words motivated the protesters and led the SCLC to endorse and participate in direct non-violent confrontation is well-documented.
The speech, as made available through the vMLK project has powerful consequences for those who engage with it today as well. Visitors have filled out surveys indicating what they have learned from the project. They have written responses to prompts such as “An idea whose time has come is.....” and “A Creative Protest is.....” They have also shared their responses to the experiences orally at the public exhibitions. All of this feedback suggests that one of the consequences of the speech, both at that time in history and today, in the contemporary moment, is making people aware of the ongoing struggle for justice and of their role in relation to that struggle. As one audience member wrote: “[The vMLK project] challenges me to consider where I would have been during that time and where will I stand in the struggle for justice today.”
Understanding Public Address as Experience and the Comparative, Locative, and Generative Functions of Sound
By inviting visitors into the vMLK experiences of public address, the project structures a comparative rhetorical stance such that visitors reflect on the symbolic aspects and impact of words, text, and discourse as well as the embodied experience and consequence of sound, sight, and movement all of which they experience as interwoven into a unified whole. Through the collective sound experience, the listening experiences and the gaming and VR experiences, the project demonstrates the location-based function of sound by focusing attention on how the sound of King’s voice (as re-created by Mr. Blanks) and of the congregation (the people who gathered for the re-creation event) function to immerse visitors/audiences in the experience of the speech.
When audience members are physically close to the image of King at the front of the sanctuary (whether in a physical exhibition space with images projects on walls or in the gaming platform with headphones or in the Oculus Rift headset) they hear his voice as if they were sitting directly in front of him on that night in 1960. If they move to the center of the room, they hear his voice at more of a distance and they hear the congregation around them, engaging in call and response with the speaker. As they move to the back of the room, they hear the amplification of the speaker’s voice and the voices of the congregation more in front of them than around or beside or in back of them., signaling to the visitors the distance between their own bodies and both the voice of the speaker and the rest of the congregation.
In this way, visitors are guided to consider how their position or location in the space -- and more generally, how one’s physical relationship to the sound of the speaker and to others—impacts their experience of the speech. The components of the vMLK project thus demonstrate how the connection between sound and image acts powerfully on the body to bring about an attention and awareness that invites a response.