Sometimes people witness history and don’t even realize it.
That’s what happened in Dublin on April 17, 1944, when a 15-year-old named Martin Luther King Jr. stepped to the lectern at First African Baptist Church. It was a statewide public speaking contest organized by the Colored Elks Lodge. It was King’s first public speech and, of course, he won it.
Little did anyone know at the time they were watching someone who would go on to change the world.
The speech was titled “The Negro and the Constitution,” which was the theme of the contest. King focused on how the treatment of blacks was not consistent with the Constitution.
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“We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down and thwarted that it is almost forced into unsocial attitudes and crime,” he said. “Today, 13 million black sons and daughters of our forefathers continue the fight for the translation of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments from writing on the printed page to an actuality. ”
The event was forgotten about in Dublin until King wrote about it after he rose to fame in the 1960s as leader of the civil rights movement. His recounting showed it was significant for much more than being his first speech. He said on the ride home he was forced to give up his seat to a white man and go to the back of the bus. The man cursed him and used racial slurs.
“I had to stand all the way to Atlanta,” he wrote. “That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”
The church is believed to be largely unchanged from when King gave the speech. Even the worn wooden lectern that stands there today is believed to be the same one from which King spoke, said Jerry Davis, a Dublin City Council member who is a deacon of the church. He grew up in Dublin and never knew about the King speech until he was an adult.
“That speech set the foundation of his journey and his lifelong commitment to the civil rights movement,” Davis said as he stood in the pulpit Wednesday. “His journey to the mountain top started right here at the First African Baptist Church.”
Now the event is well known. In 2017, with public and private funds, the city constructed a small park adjacent to the church commemorating the speech. The park includes a large mural on an adjacent building, and a wall with a photo of the inside of the church and a full copy of King’s speech.
Julie Drigger, a former Dublin City Council member and member of the church, served as King’s secretary in 1964 when he was fighting for civil rights in St. Augustine, Florida.
“We did our demonstrations and got what we wanted and he was able to move on,” she said.
And the place he moved on to was Selma, Alabama.
Visitors to the park can hear a recording of Drigger telling her experiences of oppression in St. Augustine and how King fought to help residents there. Drigger said she is glad to see the park recognizing his connection to Dublin.
“It’s marvelous, because Dr. King did a lot for everybody,” she said. “He did help everybody in his deliverance of helping us learn to love one another, get along with one another, respect one another.”
She was there was when he delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech before thousands in Washington.
“I thought it was miraculous and I still think it is,” she said. “He was talking about how things are going to change and things have changed and things are still changing.”
Creation of the park was spearheaded by Visit Dublin. Bill Brown, City Council member and chair of the Visit Dublin board, said the original idea was for the park to be on the church property but public funds could not have been used so it was put on an adjacent property owned by the Downtown Development Authority.
Grant money has been secured to turn the building with the mural into an art center as a part of the park. Plans also include adding a water feature to the park.
“This has been a collaborative effort of both public and private donations,” Brown said. “From the start is seemed like an insurmountable task but everything fell into place.”
“People just came together like no other time I have known and wanted to be a part of it,” he said.