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Crafting A Necessary Space: The Virtual MLK Project

Published onAug 27, 2020
Crafting A Necessary Space: The Virtual MLK Project


Principal Investigator Dr. Victoria J. Gallagher (Professor of Communication, North Carolina State University). Dr. Gallagher provides scholarly, administrative, grant-writing, partnership development and community engagement expertise to the project. She oversees and directs all aspects of the project, develops content for the website, for pedagogical and curricular guides, for scholarly articles/manuscripts and develops assessment plans/instruments for the project.

Co-Investigators Drs. Keon Pettiway (Independent Scholar) and Derek Ham (Assistant Professor of Design, North Carolina State University).1 Dr. Pettiway provides scholarly, design, production and marketing expertise for all aspects of the project. He works on design aspects of all components of the project. Dr. Ham is the key animation and VR architect for the vMLK project and works on the translation of those assets/components to the website and to exhibitions in physical spaces.

Research and Production Team lead: Dr. Max M. Renner (Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and New Media, Molloy College). Dr. Renner leads collection and assessment of audience/pedagogical data, distributes and updates production assets and provides research support, grant writing support, community engagement, and website development support for the project.

Production Team: Shadrick Addy (Ohio State University) is the key VR designer for accessibility, positionality and avatar movement; Justin Drust (Redstorm Studios) is the audio director for the project, David Hill (Head, Department of Architecture, NC State) is the lead for the construction of the sanctuary model for the VR and Gaming platforms, and James Alchediak (Senior Lecturer, NC State) is the director and producer of the project documentary videos.

Project URL & Materials


Project Abstract

Investigators on the Virtual Martin Luther King, Jr. Project (vMLK) began with a digital humanities vision: to develop an immersive recreation of a historic moment in the US civil rights movement (an interactive, digitally rendered experience of a 2014 recreation of MLK’s 1960 “A Creative Protest [Fill up the Jails]” speech). The vMLK project serves to expand understanding for scholars, students, and public audiences in regard to the following:

1) specific aspects of civil rights history in North Carolina,

2) the nature of civic and political engagement, both in the 1950s and 1960s and today,

3) the transformative, material, and affective aspects of public address, particularly in relation to issues of racial justice, and

4) the importance of sound in developing immersive DH experiences.

Two theoretical frameworks guide the project, Kim Gallon’s technology of recovery framework and a rhetorically-informed conceptualization of public address as material, embodied experience.

The vMLK project is funded and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Projects for the Publics Grants, the North Carolina Humanities Council, the North Carolina State University Libraries, as well as the Colleges of Humanities and Social Sciences and Design at NC State.

Time Needed

When did you begin this project? When did you complete this project?

Time Span: June 8, 2014 - present

The vMLK Project is an iterative (rather than formulaic), narratively rich and necessarily incomplete project. This deliberate incompleteness allows the project to continue to develop and grow based on reflexive community partnerships and interests.  In relation to how DH projects are often articulated, vMLK is somewhere between active creation and ongoing maintenance.

Length: 6+ years


What is the outcome of the project?

The award winning vMLK project (the North Carolina Humanities Council awarded Dr. Gallagher and the vMLK project team the Harlan Joel Gradin Award for Excellence in Public Humanities in September 2017) began in 2014 as a partnership between the White Rock Baptist church congregation and local communication scholars. On February 16th, 1960, shortly after the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the speech, “A Creative Protest” at the White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, NC. Despite the historical and rhetorical significance of what became more commonly known as the “Fill Up the Jails” speech, no known recording exists and the church building was torn down a few years later to make way for a freeway. On June 8, 2014, a team of local communication scholars, congregation members and community partners staged a public recreation of King’s speech at the current church location. Featuring a voice actor, the recreation event attracted over 250 people, including individuals who had attended the speech in 1960, area politicians and activists, members of the Durham Ministerial Alliance, congregation members, and members of the NC State community. Based on the sound recordings of the recreation event, the vMLK Project utilizes advanced digital and audio technologies to afford scholars, students and citizens an opportunity to engage this speech through presentation of six components:

1) historic context,

2) individual listening and

3) collective sound experiences,

4) virtual reality and

5) gaming platform experiences, and

6) the “your creative protest” feedback opportunity.

A poster showing the six presentation components.

The first public exhibition of the project was held in 2015 at NC State’s Hunt Library. Since then, over 1000 students per year, registered in the basic Public Speaking course have experienced the project either at Hunt Library or via the project website. Additionally, the project has been exhibited publicly 10 times since 2015, including at the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian in October of 2017. The vMLK 60th Anniversary of a Creative Protest Exhibition was held at Hunt Library on February 15, 2020, with over 500 community members in attendance. Materials and resources for K-12 use are currently under development.

Assessment of the project is informed by audience feedback and survey data in relation to the following:

A) Documenting and recovering the history and everyday experience of African American/Black life.

B) Innovating the use of digital tools to provide audiences with historical and cultural knowledge.

C) Providing audiences with sound-centered, embodied experiences of civic and political engagement and transformation.

D) Providing pedagogical materials for teachers and students in the areas of civil rights history, social studies, public address and visual/digital rhetoric.

Additionally, in September of 2019, Dr. Victoria J. Gallagher, along with her colleagues, Dr. Derek Ham and Dr. Keon Pettiway, led a 1.5 day workshop for humanities advisors, library and museum partners, scholars and community partners to assess the vMLK Project, to assist in developing priorities for the next phase of the project, and to consider the project contributions including transferability, access, and the future of intellectual work in relation to digital projects. This workshop was funded and supported through the NEH Foundation’s Digital Projects for the Public Production Grant and the NC State Libraries.


The vMLK Workshop at NC State was a key part of the larger NEH funded vMLK production process.  The goals of the workshop included the following:

1.  To review the production of the project components with humanities advisers, museum, library, and community partners and with interested colleagues.

 2.  To assess how well the project was meeting production goals and to receive consultation and advice in preparation for the production of the 60th anniversary of the speech exhibition in February 2020 and in planning for the second year of the grant cycle.

3.  To articulate and evaluate the best practices emerging from the vMLK project and to determine how best to make those available and accessible to advisers, partners, and scholars.


What tools, resources, programs, or equipment did you use for this project?

Because there is no known audio recording of King’s 1960 “A Creative Protest [Fill Up the Jails]” speech, the most important resources for the vMLK project include the following:

  • A transcript of the speech text, available through the Stanford Library King collection. This is the text of the speech that voice actor Mr. Marvin Blanks (who specializes in performing Martin Luther King’s speeches) used to re-create the speech before a public audience at the new White Rock Baptist Church sanctuary in Durham, NC on June 8, 2014 and the next day, in a professional recording studio on a vintage microphone.

  • Professional audio and video recordings of the June 8, 2014 re-creation of King’s speech by Mr. Marvin Blanks before a public audience of approximately 250 citizens of North Carolina, 10-15 of whom were present at the February 1960 speech given by King.

  • Archival photographs of Dr. King giving the speech at the old White Rock Baptist Church sanctuary in February 1960.

  • Architectural drawings, Sanborn Maps, building plans, and photographs of the old White Rock Baptist Church sanctuary prior to demolition to inform the digital architectural modeling.

  • Church archival materials from North Carolina Central University and the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill to inform the digital rendering of the interior sanctuary and the digital animation of audience and speaker.

  • Newspaper archives of King’s “A Creative Protest” speech and rally at White Rock Baptist Church covered in the U.S. press.

  • Interviews, conversations, and exhibitions of project assets with and for the White Rock Baptist Church community including: the current pastor, the deacons, long time members; interviews and consultations with Ms. Virginia Williams, one of the Royal Seven (the seven young people who staged a 1957 sit-in at Durham’s Royal Ice Cream Parlor).

  • The Counter Histories documentaries, and conversations with Kate Medley, a documentarian of food culture based in Durham, NC who directs the Counter History series, supported by the Southern Foodways Alliance.

  • Video documentaries detailing the development, community engagement, and impact of the vMLK Project.

  • Archival video footage used as source material to develop animation of the King avatar body movements and gestures.

  • The project’s format and design is that of a digital project utilizing web tools, a gaming platform, and digitally rendered immersive audio and visual models to engage the public in humanities content. This content is made available to students, citizens, and scholars through the interactive components of the official project website, through the immersive 3D audio visual experience at the 2016 IMLS National Medal award-winning Hunt Library, and at other public venues and events.

Project Formats:

  • Online audio experiences - Four professional recordings/sound mixes provide distinct listening experiences of the speech and are helpful for audiences to begin to understand how an individual’s position in the room and physical relation to the speaker impacts one’s experience of a speech. Listeners compare different listening points and the way the spatial dynamics of a room impact their experience of this public address

  • Multimedia archive - Artifacts important to the location of the speech, as well as artifacts that inform a narrative of how the speech served as a response to a particular rhetorical problem along with interviews and written response indicating what the experience of the project means to members of the public. The archive also includes scholarly and pedagogical materials regarding the uses and experiences of the vMLK project.

  • Game-based simulation of the speech - Provides an avatar driven virtual reality experience in an online environment. The game-based experience allows audiences to navigate the “Fill Up the Jails” speech within a rich audio, spatial, and visual environment.

  • VR simulation of the speech - Made available through a computer and an Oculus Rift (or Oculus Go) headset, which enables viewers, when they put it on to explore the sanctuary simply by moving their heads and bodies. It can also be made available to audiences via Viewfinder headsets equipped with iphones and headphones.

  • 270 degree visual experience - Places visitors into the interior of the original White Rock Baptist Church Sanctuary, where King gave the ‘Fill Up the Jails” speech in February 1960, through the use of digitally manipulated archival photographs of the historic event.

  • Surround sound, 7 Channel, AC3 5.1 sound mix - Provides a differentiated listening experience based on where audience members are standing, sitting, and walking in the “sanctuary” as recreated in the Teaching and Visualization Lab. When presented with the 270 degree visual experience, visitors have an embodied experience of the speech with others, together in the room, re-creating the original experience.

  • Visual and Digital Video exhibition - A set of slides and a digital video that show and describe the various phases, the historical and scholarly background of the project and provide interpretive frameworks for audiences.

As indicated above, each component of the project, no matter the platform, interacts with and complements the others to deepen visitors’ experience and their knowledge of civil rights history in North Carolina in relation to the history and impact of the larger movement, of the scope of civic and political engagement, and of the potentially transformative and affective aspects of public address.


Please describe any costs incurred for this project, and (if relevant) how you secured funding for these costs.

Major costs are associated with the following items and are listed with the funding sources that were secured for each:

  • Recreation Event -- NC Humanities Council Small Grant program

  • Public Exhibitions including:

    • 55th Anniversary of the Speech event -- Internal college research grant (FRPD)

    • Experiencing King at NC State -- College of Humanities and Social Sciences Lightning Rod Event fund

    • ACCelerate Festival at the Smithsonian -- NC State Provost and College funding

    • 60th Anniversary of the Speech exhibition -- NEH Digital Project for the Public Production Grant

  • Website Development, User testing -- NC Humanities Council Large Grant Program

  • COM 110 Exhibitions -- NC State Libraries funding

  • Virtual MLK Project Workshop -- NEH Digital Projects for the Public Production Grant


Please give an overview of the workflow or process you followed to execute this project, including time estimates where possible.

The vMLK Project entails multiple phases, several of which have already been completed with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the North Carolina Humanities Council, the NC State Libraries, and the NC State University College of Humanities and Social Sciences Research Office. Prototypes under development over the past three years, including 3D renderings of the sanctuary, 7-channel sound mixes, a gaming simulation, and installations have been tested by the media production team and evaluated by community partners, visitors to Hunt Library, and other publics.

Initial Phase: On June 8, 2014 working with the Durham community, the White Rock Congregation, and voice actor Marvin Blanks (noted as the “Orator of the Century”), the vMLK team from NC State re-created the speech in the current White Rock sanctuary for a public audience.

Prototype Phase I: On January 9, 2015, the vMLK team launched the project website -- -- featuring four audio experiences of the speech as well as a multi-media archive, additional research materials, and resources for educators. The launch of the website and the vMLK project were featured in a front page story in the Sunday, January 18, 2015 edition of the News and Observer and on WRAL local news as well as through various NC State media outlets. Additionally, a museum quality visual and audio exhibition was launched in February 2015 in celebration of the 55th anniversary of the speech.

Prototype Phase II: Development of immersive prototypes (game simulation, collective listening experience and digital video documentary of the project) for the Experiencing King at NC State public event, September 16-17, 2016, at Hunt Library. Development and testing of pedagogical materials and assessment/evaluation instruments.

Prototype Phase III: Development of all six components for exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Production Phase: The goals of the production phase of the vMLK project are:

  1. Produce a permanently available public exhibition at NC State's Hunt Library where visitors can come on a regular basis to experience the project. The goal would be to have this in place for a festival exhibition on the 60th anniversary of King's 1960 "A Creative Protest" speech.

  2. Produce a traveling version of the public exhibition that could be exhibited at other libraries, universities and museums.

  3. Produce the website so that it contains versions of all 6 of the project components along with curriculum guides, pedagogical materials and a guided tour option of the site for the general public.walls of the lab) as they listen to the speech from various positions around the digitally rendered sanctuary, and the production of the gaming simulation experience and multi-media archive for distribution via the website.

Challenges & Opportunities

What, if anything, changed between beginning your project and its current/final form?

The scope of the project assets expanded to include gaming and VR experiences. The scope of the project exhibitions expanded beyond North Carolina. The scope of the pedagogical materials/resources expanded beyond Public Speaking to other communication and design courses and to K-12 resources.

Is there anything specific you wish you had known when beginning your project that might help other people to know?

The funding resources for digital humanities has increased quite dramatically, especially if/when the project has a strong pedagogical outlet/demand/use as well as a strong public appeal/use. The biggest hurdle continues to be related to finding ways to demonstrate a DH project’s viability and quality as scholarly output.

Community engagement requires an ongoing commitment to/with community partners and must include inviting these partners to assess the project at various points along the way.

Next Steps

Do you have any plans to follow up on this project or work on something similar in the future?

Based on the NEH funded workshop we held in September 2019, our goal is to provide advice, resources, documentation, and process recommendations for students and scholars doing similar work.

Moving forward the project is collaborating with the Mellon funded Immersive Scholars program through the NC State Libraries.

Publications & Presentations


Gallagher, V. J., Renner, M., & Glover, R. (2020). Digital Technologies and Civic Engagement: Achieving Situated Learning Outcomes in the Public Speaking Classroom. Communication Education.

Gallagher, Victoria J., Zagacki, K., and Swift, J. “From ‘Dead Wrong’ to Civil Rights History: The Durham ‘Royal Seven,’ Martin Luther King’s 1960 ‘Fill Up the Jails’ Speech, and the Rhetoric of Visibility,” in O’Rourke, S. and Pace, Lesli K. (Eds.) Like a Fire: The Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Sit­ Ins. University of South Carolina Press (In Press).

Ranade, N. (Spring 2020). Review for the vMLK Website. Kairos.


60th Anniversary of the Speech Exhibit, Hunt Library, February 2020

RIT’s MAGIC Center Exhibition, February 2019.

ACCelerate Festival at the Smithsonian, October 2017.

NC State Friends and Family Weekend, October 2017.

Experiencing King at NC State, Sept. 2016.

55th Anniversary of the Speech Exhibit at Hunt Library, February 2015.

Public Presentations:

Gallagher, Victoria J. and Pettiway, Keon, “The vMLK Project: Crafting a Necessary [Digital] Space to Explore Black History and Civic Transformation.” Invited Public Lecture given at Rochester Institute of Technology, February 2019.

Gallagher, Victoria J., “The vMLK Project: Crafting a Necessary Digital Space to Explore Rhetorical Leadership and Civic Transformation.” Invited Public Lecture given for the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Rhetorical Leadership Lecture Series, October 2018.

Gallagher, Victoria J., “The Paradoxes, Perils, and Promises of the Humanities in the 21st Century.” Invited Public Lecture given for the University of Alabama’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Hidden Humanities Series, April 2017.

Gallagher, Victoria J., “The vMLK Project: Crafting a Necessary [Digital] Space to Explore Rhetoric and Civic Transformation.” Invited Public Lecture for DePaul University’s “Writing and Rhetoric without Borders Series” and President’s Free Speech Series, February 2017.

Gallagher, Victoria J. and Pettiway, Keon, “The vMLK Project: Crafting a Necessary [Digital] Space to Explore the Intersectionality of Rhetoric, Race, and Civic Transformation.” Featured Speakers and Project for the Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media Symposium titled, “The ReMix: Multimedia and Intersectionality in Culture, Communication and the Academy.” March 2017.

Gallagher, Victoria J., “The vMLK Project Experiences.” Presentation of the vMLK project for the Southern Colloquium on Rhetoric Seminar titled, “Rhetoric’s Energies.” Fall 2016.

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