A panel of members from the technical and research teams from the Virtual MLK project met in the Caldwell Lounge Tuesday to discuss the finer points of the project from the perspective of its implications for communication research and for the memory of the Civil Rights era as part of COM Week 2015. 

Virtual MLK is a three-phase project conducted by Victoria Gallagher, associate dean of academic affairs for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS), and a team of researchers from NC State’s Department of Communication, and aimed at creating an immersive experience of Martin Luther King’s “Fill Up the Jails” speech, which originally took place Feb. 16, 1960 at the White Rock Baptist Church in Durham. 

King’s sermon has been at risk of being lost to history, Gallagher said. No recording of it exists, and the church itself was bulldozed in the late 1960s to make way for the Durham Freeway, according to NC State News. 

“There are many public speeches that are not remembered for one reason or another, even though those speeches were, and continue to be, transformative,” said Kenneth Zagacki, head of the Department of Communication. “Thanks to Dr. Vicky Gallagher and her team of researchers, we have what I think is a classic example of this.” 

The discussion began with a portion of a separate documentary about the speech which placed it in its historical context at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, before the term “sit-in” had become part of our lexicon. 

Following the documentary  Gallagher broke down excerpts of the recordings of the speech, which captured live sound from the speaker’s perspective at the podium and the audience’s perspective from the pews and the balcony. 

“You’re hearing emotion in the speaker’s voice in a significant way, because of how the speakers work [in the room],” Gallagher said. “You’re hearing it very up close and you’re getting a sense of what we would call his candor, and the pace and the ‘loud-soft’ that he’s doing. All of that adds to making it a different experience of hearing rather than reading the speech,” Gallagher said. 

After each portion of the video, audience members were able to identify where they would have been seated in the recreated scene in relation to the voice actor and commented on the differences in sound, which they said were echoes reverberating off the walls, and could get a sense of the size of the building. 

“It was a lot more intense from the speaker’s perspective, and then from the pew perspective, you could hear the echo,” said Beth Cangley, a junior studying communication. 

Multiple microphones were used to get a clear recording, but because they were recorded in a church, there was a lot of acoustical reverberation which the research team could not get rid of—even using modern techniques to cancel out unwanted sound, according to Justin Drust, the audio director for the Virtual MLK project. 

“That is part of what is so captivating—when you listen to this it is the sound of the sanctuary itself,” Drust said. 

The project captures a familiar side of King and brings the audience to an understanding of the early struggle of King’s activism, where he reluctantly faced the responsibility of putting people in harm’s way, said Blair Kelly, associate professor in the CHASS Dean’s office.

“It really reminds us that this wasn’t King’s ‘vision for America’ and not that he’s ‘fixing America’ as a superhero,” Kelly said. “He was a person who was reacting to the community and the movement around him.”