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How Martin Luther King Jr. and Motown Saved the Sound of the Civil Rights Movement

12 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

You know Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Or at least you think you know it—you’ve read about it in textbooks, or heard politicians quote from it, or seen clips in classrooms or museums.

But chances are, you haven’t heard the full 17-minute address from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and what you have heard failed to capture what made it the one of the most famous speeches in history. Even if you wanted to, despite its renown, it’s surprisingly hard to find. Online clips are removed swiftly, and those that evade detection crackle with white noise.

But this month, there will be a new way to hear the speech. TIME is releasing The March, a virtual reality experience that takes participants back to that day in August 1963. The experience uses original audio, available in rare fidelity thanks to an unlikely source: Motown Records. In its recording, King’s clarion voice carries without the distracting echo picked up by inferior attempts to capture it. Spectators on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial chime in audibly as King proceeds through his remarks, making listeners feel as if they’re 10 ft. from the podium. Crucially, the recording, which is also slated for rerelease for audiences today, challenges long-held notions about that day—and its story reveals King’s struggles over how best to share his words with the world.

The speech’s journey to its place in history began months before the March on Washington. In Birmingham, Ala., in the spring of 1963, King led a series of protests against segregation that were brutally met by attack dogs, fire hoses and arrests. While in jail there, King wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which quickly became an essential treatise for civil rights. His resilience—and the national coverage the protests garnered—led to the legal, if not de facto, desegregation of the city, and solidified his place on the program at the August event.

“If [Dr. King] had failed in Birmingham, no one would have asked him to give the concluding speech at the March on Washington,” says Clayborne Carson, a Stanford historian and editor of King’s autobiography. “After Birmingham, no one would have wanted to follow him.”

Meanwhile in Detroit, Motown Records was making waves as a rising power-house of black excellence. At a time when there were few black executives in the music industry, founder Berry Gordy had shepherded the rise of a factory-line production model that saw songs like the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” ascend the charts. Until that point, Gordy had mostly stayed away from activist causes. “I never wanted Motown to be a mouthpiece for civil rights,” he tells TIME in an email. He had conceived Motown as a force for utopian integration—the “sound of young America,” not just of black Americans—and he saw the label’s economic success as a statement in itself.

But he was intrigued by King’s non-violent credo and had reached out to him in 1962 about recording his speeches. “I saw Motown much like the world he was fighting for—people of all races and religions, working together harmoniously for a common goal,” Gordy says.

King was wary. When a poorly recorded bootleg of one of his speeches, Martin Luther King at Zion Hill, had been released that year, he was dismayed that a speech he didn’t consider particularly polished was being distributed nationally. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) filed a court injunction to prevent sales of the record, which ultimately cost more to produce than it recouped in sales.

Stevie Wonder, left, with Marvin Gaye in a Motown studio in Detroit in 1965. Founder Berry Gordy came to see the label as a force for integration
Stevie Wonder, left, with Marvin Gaye in a Motown studio in Detroit in 1965. Founder Berry Gordy came to see the label as a force for integrationGilles Petard—Redferns/Getty Images

King had another reason to be skeptical of Motown: he disapproved of the secularized brand of church music that was the label’s specialty. “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music,” King, who was himself a minister, wrote in an advice column in Ebony magazine in 1958. “The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God; the latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”

But as soul music became institutionalized, King would come to see how it might be useful to him. In 1967 he spoke to black DJs at a convention, telling them, “School integration is much easier now that they share a common music, a common language, and enjoy the same dances.”

So in June 1963, King allowed Motown to record a speech in Detroit. An estimated 125,000 people attended the rally, which raised money for the SCLC and would come to be known as the Walk to Freedom. While now overshadowed by the March on Washington, the speech King gave at Cobo Hall includes the refrain “I have a dream” in cascading waves of conviction, presaging what would become one of the most enduring lines of the 20th century.

The Detroit speech would be Motown’s first foray into both spoken-word recording and the civil rights movement more broadly. In August, Gordy traveled to an SCLC benefit concert in Atlanta to meet King and present him with a copy of the album. It was around this time that the two reached a handshake deal for Motown to record King’s Washington speech the following week.

But while King and Gordy were reaching an arrangement, the march’s organizers were forging a deal of their own. They had agreed to give exclusive recording rights to WRVR, a radio station based out of New York City’s Riverside Church. News outlets flocked to the march to get their own versions too. The resulting confusion meant many microphones were near when King, 11 minutes in, went off script. After a planned section that likened segregation to a “bad check,” King cast aside his papers and launched into a new theme that would include this indelible line: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The speech was an instant classic, and it only grew in stature throughout that summer and fall. King made sure it was copyrighted from the start. But as its prestige increased, so did the number of recordings that began cropping up without -permission—and without royalty deals that would benefit civil rights causes. King’s lawyer Clarence Jones, in his book Behind the Dream, wrote that he would walk into record stores to find unauthorized versions of the speech on full blast. “As Martin’s lawyer and friend, I had a duty to pursue legal recourse as soon as I got my hands on the records,” he wrote.

In October 1963, King filed a lawsuit against three recording companies, including Motown, to stop the spread of the speech and demand proceeds from any earlier sales in order to protect its legacy and more closely manage the use of his already famous words.

The lawsuit sent Gordy into a bewildered panic. In a hastily typed Oct. 14 telegram riddled with typos, Gordy pledged to stand down if necessary, writing, “The Motown Record Corporation is more concerned with the unity ov [sic] civil rights organizations and the progress of the negro in American [sic] than it is with the sale of a single record album.

“We were told by attorney Clarence Jones that the combined council would go along with the release of our album,” he wrote. “If this is not true we will remove our album from the marked [sic]immediately.”

A few days later, Motown was dropped from the lawsuit. An article in Billboard on Oct. 19 explained that Jones had not known of the agreement between King and Gordy when the suit was filed. The album hit the market as planned, with royalties flowing to the SCLC. King and Jones eventually reached additional deals with 20th Century Fox and Folkways to release their own records. The “official” WRVR version was also released, but only about 5,000 copies were pressed because of another, unrelated legal case.

Step Into History: Learn how to experience the 1963 March on Washington in virtual reality

The confusion over the recording from the march did not deter Gordy from his devotion to civil rights causes. Motown was the first label to release a posthumous compilation of King’s major speeches, titled Free at Last, and in the 1970s, Gordy founded the label Black Forum, which released compilations of speeches, poetry and oral history, as well as King’s “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.”

But “I Have a Dream” began to get harder to come by: after King’s death in 1968, his estate strove to protect his legacy by preventing unauthorized releases, including suing CBS for selling a videotape that included excerpts from it in 1996. Motown stayed away from a re-release. From the beginning, King and his estate had retained the rights to the speech itself, and when Gordy sold Motown to MCA in 1988, he gave his only master copy of the company’s recording to King’s widow Coretta Scott King.

“To me they weren’t just commercial masters to be bought and sold. They had historical significance,” Gordy told TIME. “They represented a social and cultural change in our world. I felt they should belong to his family and to history.”

When TIME producers began work on the VR project, they hoped to find a full-length, high-quality audio version of the speech. After some searching, just such a copy, which had been stowed away in an archive, was retrieved and digitally restored. “Because this version hadn’t been touched in a long time, it didn’t have the same degradation that any of the other recordings had,” said Erik Lohr, audio director for The March and head of audio at Verizon Media’s RYOT. “Specifically with the ‘Dream’ sequence, it’s difficult to tell that it was recorded in 1963.”

TIME producers also came across another archival discovery—from the stacks of WRVR, the radio station at Riverside Church. On the day of the march in 1963, WRVR sent a reporter, Walter Nixon, to interview people throughout the crowd and capture the day’s atmosphere. But his tapes were never released, and they were found by an archivist at the church only last year. His interviews reveal a warm communal spirit on the ground, as well as minor details, like the fact that there were cicadas buzzing in the background. These aural discoveries were incorporated into the TIME project.

“It’s small details like that that take you out of the history book and put you there on that hot day,” Cynthia Nixon, the actor and daughter of Walter Nixon, tells TIME.

But the heart of the experience lies in its use of the Motown tape, which isn’t just remarkable for its impeccable sound quality: it also answers questions about the speech itself. While King was addressing the entire nation, he was also feeding off the energy of his immediate surroundings on the Lincoln Memorial, including that of his many friends and colleagues who treated the speech as a call-and-response. “He sensed the crowd,” Carson, the Stanford historian, says. “It’s one of the aspects of African-American oratory: the audience is part of the speech.”

One of the loudest voices that can be heard on the record is that of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who also performed that day. She contributes loudly and frequently, her utterances serving as exclamation points for King’s most fiery sentences. But while Jackson’s impact on King’s energy is palpable, Motown’s recording also deflates a popular theory set forth by Clarence Jones and others: that she prompted King to launch into the “Dream” portion of the speech by imploring him to “tell them about the dream.”

Jackson can be heard yelling “Yes!” the first time King says that he has a dream. But at that particular moment, she cannot be heard suggesting where the speech should go. Carson has long been skeptical of the idea of that version of history. “If she had shouted out something, the mic would have picked it up,” Carson says. “It’s just that simple.”

In an interview with TIME, Jones still maintains that he heard Jackson yell to King. But whether or not she changed the course of history, the new release allows listeners to make fresh discoveries for themselves. In addition to the VR experience, King’s estate says that it and Motown plan to rerelease the speech widely so people can hear it again.

For Motown president Ethiopia Habtemariam, it was extremely important that King’s speech be readily available in this moment.“It’s kind of crazy that it’s 2020—here we are in an election year—and to think where our country is now and where it was then,” she tells TIME. “We need his words now. We are looking for leadership and guidance and hope.”

—With reporting by Max Blau/Atlanta

This article is part of a special project about equality in America today. Read more about The March, TIME’s virtual reality re-creation of the 1963 March on Washington and sign up for TIME’s history newsletter for updates.

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