The vMLK Project

Dr. Victoria Gallagher presenting Virtual MLK in the Hunt Library’s Teaching and Visualization Lab.

Dr. Victoria Gallagher presenting Virtual MLK in the Hunt Library’s Teaching and Visualization Lab.

Last July, communication professor Victoria Gallagher in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS) learned that her Virtual Martin Luther King Jr. (vMLK) Project had been awarded a $146,000 American Council of Learned Societies Digital Extension Grant. The funding would underwrite partnerships with schools and civic institutions in providing digital scholarship and immersive learning experiences about Dr. King’s civil rights legacy. It was an exciting moment of acknowledgment for the success of a 2020 pilot program with faculty at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School in which they used the vMLK website to enhance their language arts, history, and social studies instruction.

The Libraries has been an integral part of the vMLK Project—which presents virtual, multimedia experiences of Dr. King’s inspiring “Fill up the jails” speech in a Durham, NC church in 1960—right from the project’s start: providing its initial inspiration in 2013; realizing its immersive, interactive vision through a series of events beginning in 2016; and supporting its current expansion into an educational platform for civil rights history and contemporary racial justice.

Over the years, vMLK has become one of the best examples of how Libraries spaces, programming, and expertise can support the growth of a small idea into one with wide-reaching impact.

What is vMLK?

an image of an exhibit graphic panel that features a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and the words Virtual MLK Project, Experience the Speech
A panel from an exhibit by NC State Design students.

Another way to ask that question is: What have we lost when our history goes unrecorded? When one recalls Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, one sees the determined expression on his face above a lectern full of microphones and hears his lilting, stirring voice amplified across the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Those images and sounds are part of the reason that the speech’s lesson persists well over a half-century later.

But what about King’s equally important “Fill up the jails” speech from 1960? Entitled “A Creative Protest,” it helped accelerate the burgeoning student protest movement throughout the South. Unfortunately, there were no movie cameras or tape recorders running in the White Rock Baptist Church in Durham when King said, “Let us not fear going to jail. If the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights, we must answer by saying that we are willing and prepared to fill up the jails of the South.”

Delivered as the Greensboro sit-ins were ongoing, and just days after a Durham sit-in by students from North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University) and Duke University, the speech was a crucial moment in King’s public advocacy of non-violent protest against segregation laws and a rallying point for student organizers around the country. Where “I have a dream” conveys King’s vision, “A Creative Protest” outlines his plan for action. Through the years, however, the speech has only existed as words on a page.

The vMLK Project brings King’s “A Creative Protest” speech to life through a combination of advanced digital and audio technology and scholarship. Through an immersive, virtual reenactment, one can step back into the White Rock Baptist Church on that February day to stand among the congregation and directly experience the power of King’s speech.

First, the project team, led by Gallagher, staged a dramatic reenactment of King’s speech in June 2014 in front of a live audience—including a few Durham residents who had attended the original speech in person—in the church now standing where White Rock once stood. The original church was razed in 1967, along with much of Durham’s historically Black Hayti neighborhood, to make way for the Durham Freeway.

Next, Gallagher and her team—including Libraries staff and David Hill, Head of NC State’s School of Architecture—used the recording of that reenactment plus information about the layout and acoustics of White Rock to develop audio, video, interactive VR, and immersive environment experiences. One can now sit in the church amid the congregation and feel the power of Dr. King’s delivery and message. Since the project’s first public exposure in the visualization spaces at the Hunt Library, it has expanded its reach to new audiences and built a curriculum to extend into classrooms.

It’s fitting that the vMLK Project found its first exposure in the Hunt Library, since that’s where its seed germinated in Gallagher’s mind.

The “Aha!” moment

image of a poster advertising the vMLK event
The poster advertising the most recent vMLK event.

When Gallagher saw the “Virtual Paul’s Cross Project” in Hunt’s 270-degree Teaching and Visualization Lab in 2013, a light bulb went on over her head. That project, led by English professor John Wall, provided the experience of hearing John Donne’s 1622 Gunpowder Day sermon in Paul’s Churchyard. Combining a virtual reality model of the church and the surrounding churchyard with audio reenactments of the liturgical events of the day, the project won “Best Digital Humanities Data Visualization” at the 2014 DH Awards.

“I had been thinking about the ways in which you could use the Teaching and Visualization Lab to do a kind of sound and body experience that would be highly relevant to rhetorical scholars and to public address and civic engagement in the same way that the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project was about literary and historical knowledge,” Gallagher told the Libraries for an article in 2017. “And although we’ve long studied civic engagement and civic transformation and public address, it’s hard to set it up and just make that happen. It’s something that we tend to talk about after the fact.”

Prompted by her interest in North Carolina sit-ins, Gallagher searched for a historically significant speech to bring to life in the Teaching and Visualization Lab. She settled on King’s “A Creative Protest” because of its proximity in time and place to the famed Greensboro sit-ins. But no known recording of King’s delivery existed. Gallagher scoured through the White Rock church archives which were at North Carolina Central University and are now at UNC-Chapel Hill. Eventually she discovered a printed version of the speech in the King Papers at Stanford University, and the reenactment got its green light.

“We really do think about this as a kind of technology of recovery because it allows us to bring back things that would otherwise be lost to us, things that matter today,” Gallagher says. “We know from people who were at the original speech that, when they came here and experienced it, it seemed very much like what they remember. Yet at the same time, everybody who experiences it does so within the knowing frame of today.”

A young attendee makes her mark on a Jam Board in the Creativity Studio at the Hunt Library.
A young attendee makes her mark on a Jam Board in the Creativity Studio at the Hunt Library.

The Libraries helped Gallagher and her research and production team transform the panoramic projection wall of the Teaching and Visualization Lab into White Rock. Though she has taken vMLK to other libraries and museums over the years, she feels that the Hunt Library has been the most effective platform for her work.

“We can do versions of it to give people an idea, but that’s a very different thing than going into the Teaching and Visualization Lab and having that immersive experience. We have just been so thankful for the Libraries. The librarians have been remarkable in their collaboration, and especially in putting together a huge event.”

Experiencing King at the Libraries

That huge event was the weekend-long “Experiencing King at NC State University” at the Hunt Library in September 2016. vMLK’s multimedia components were showcased in Hunt’s immersive spaces, and tours were led by Gallagher, English professor Jason Miller, and digital humanities scholar and NC State alumnus Keon Pettiway.

Visitors were encouraged to walk around the Teaching and Visualization Lab during King’s speech so they could hear how the oratory would have sounded at different places in the church’s sanctuary. In Hunt’s Game Lab, visitors could move around the crowded church with gaming controllers or they could don Oculus Rift headsets for a VR experience with real-time audio of the speech.

Victoria Gallagher (center) and Keon Pettiway (right) chat with actor Felix Justice at a reception following his performance.
Victoria Gallagher (center) and Keon Pettiway (right) chat with actor Felix Justice at a reception following his performance.
Reception attendees pose for photos with actor Danny Glover at the Talley Student Center.
Reception attendees pose for photos with actor Danny Glover at the Talley Student Center.
NC State’s Uninhibited Praise choir performs.
NC State’s Uninhibited Praise choir performs.
The White Rock choir performs.
The White Rock choir performs.

“Experiencing King” included other events around campus, as well. Renowned actors Danny Glover and Felix Justice performed as Dr. King and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, Miller presented his documentary film Origin of the Dream and audio restoration project “King’s First Dream,” and Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer David Garrow and artist Synthia Saint James made appearances. The program was co-organized by the Libraries, NC State LIVE, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS), and the African American Cultural Center (AACC).

In February 2020, the Hunt Library hosted another event that again featured vMLK. Tours of the project were led by Gallagher and graphic design professor and head of Art and Design Derek Ham, whose award-winning “I AM A Man VR” experience (partially developed in the Libraries’ VR Studio) documents historic events of the Civil Rights Movement including King’s assassination.

The 2020 event also featured many community-centered components developed through collaboration between the Libraries’ Director of Community Engagement Marian Fragola, Dr. Gallagher, and the White Rock church community. Dr. Joyce Blackwell, a professional historian and member of White Rock Baptist Church since 2005, gave a talk and signed copies of her book Upon This Rock: White Rock Baptist Church’s Dynamic People and Their Influence in the Durham, North Carolina, Community, 1866-2016. Pastor Dr. Reginald Van Stephens led a community conversation about advocacy with Gallagher and Dr. Elizabeth Nelson, Director of Public Speaking at NC State. At noon, the White Rock choir and NC State’s Uninhibited Praise choir each performed on the Roman stairs in the center of Hunt Library. The Libraries helped coordinate fun family activities including a reading of the Little Golden Book of MLK and a Panoform of White Rock—a coloring book page of the church that can be made into 3D VR with one’s phone. The Libraries also provided bus transportation for church members to attend the events, and Piri—a Black-owned, female-owned catering company based in Durham—ran a pop-up cafe.

“Words cannot convey White Rock’s sincerest gratitude for the vMLK project team and the entire NC State staff for the outstanding collaboration and support of church and community over this past weekend,” wrote Dr. Mary C. Foster, event planning committee member and White Rock church leader. “We appreciate the opportunity to engage as partners in the commemorative 60th anniversary of Dr. King’s ‘Creative Protest’ speech which coincided with our annual Historical Black College and Universities’ celebration. The feedback from White Rock and the community has been positive with many stating they intend to bring others to the vMLK exhibit in the near future.”

The 2020 event was co-sponsored by the Libraries, CHASS, and the College of Design and was made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the North Carolina Humanities Council.

Most recently, in January 2022 as part of the university’s “MLK Campus Commemoration Week 2022,” the Libraries hosted Gallagher and associate professor Elizabeth Nelson for a talk about how vMLK enacts and embodies history—as well as a discussion of its consequences. The Libraries also staged the pop-up exhibit “Stories of Solidarity and Change: The Legacy of MLK Jr. at NC State” in the Talley Student Union lobby, featuring stories of solidarity and activism in university history. The exhibit was a collaboration between the Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, the AACC, Multicultural Student Affairs, and University Housing.

Through these and other events, thousands of NC State students, students at other universities, high school students, and community members have experienced the vMLK Project.

vMLK at the moment

The Libraries has recently formalized an agreement with Gallagher to exhibit and support vMLK permanently. The project now has a home base at Hunt and, soon, in the Hill Library’s new Visualization Studio. This agreement isn’t just a nice thing to do; it crucially supports the first course that communication students take at NC State.

Annually since the 2014-2015 academic year, the COM 110 foundational course for public speaking skills uses the vMLK Project to introduce beginner-level communication students to the concept of being in dialogue with a historical text through reenactment. Each semester, the Libraries hosts around 30 sections of the class. Nelson developed pedagogical tools for the project, and student projects made in response are presented in the Hunt Library’s iPearl Immersion Theater and Teaching and Visualization Lab.

Event attendees gather in the iPearl Immersion Theater.
Event attendees gather in the iPearl Immersion Theater.

“This project and collaboration is a perfect example of how much our services, staff, and spaces can impact and enhance student learning. It is also one of my favorite parts of my job,” says Hannah Rainey, Associate Head of Research Engagement. Rainey works with Gallagher, Nelson, and their team of graduate research assistants to plan and coordinate the COM 110 vMLK unit.

“Through the vMLK Project, students experience this historically significant speech in different modalities, such as audio and text,” Rainey says. “Through the Libraries, students experience and embody the vMLK Project collectively, which is very powerful, especially because a core message of the speech is about collective action towards justice and liberation. After students go through the experience, they are invited to reflect on white boards, or digitally (using JamBoard, Padlet, Google Forms). Many of these reflections express how the speech comes alive through this project and when experienced within the Libraries.”

Several communication graduate students who came through that class are now part of a consulting team for the vMLK Project as it expands to other universities such as Molloy College, High Point University, and Saint Augustine University. The team has created unit plans, a user guide, and teacher orientation materials and made them available on EDSITEment, a website supported by the NEH that provides resources for K-12 instructors across the country. There are also plans to develop a hybrid model of the vMLK exhibition.