In August 1963, Billie Jean Brown knew that Martin Luther King Jr. had just delivered a powerful, momentous address.
Her then-employer, Motown Records, recorded King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 57 years ago today at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., releasing it later that year on an album titled “The Great March on Washington.”
But even then, Brown says, she wouldn’t have predicted the enduring – and growing – import the speech would take on as years passed. The racial climate in 1963 America certainly didn’t point that way. Brown herself had watched as Motown’s artists “suffered enough” just being on the road down South.
“I understood the significance, and I thought that Black people through the years should recall it,” she said of King’s speech. “But that it would be part of American history and folklore in the next century? No. I’m not going to lie.”
Now, in a testament to the abiding impact of King’s stirring call for equality and tolerance, Motown is releasing “I Have a Dream” as a digital single for the first time, available on streaming services starting today.
Motown’s recording of the famed speech is the most high-fidelity in existence, benefiting from direct microphones, top-end audio gear and professional engineers, unlike versions captured by broadcasters taping that day in the field.
“I saw Motown much like the world (King) was fighting for – people of all races and religions, working together harmoniously for a common goal,” Gordy said in a statement this week. “He told me we were on the same path – he was trying to bring intellectual and political integration to America while Motown music was already bringing social and emotional integration. Our music, he said, was helping him carry out his mission.”
The digital single follows the spring reissue of “The Great March on Washington” album originally released by Motown in 1963, which also featured the words of Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph, Walter Reuther and other speakers at the event.
The single and album are part of a wider Motown campaign honoring the 1963 march, including the video release of Coretta Scott King’s long-archived 1970 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” (Motown parent company Universal Music recently acquired rights to the Sullivan catalog, and launched a YouTube channel in June.)
Motown is also highlighting a speech delivered at the March on Washington by then-student activist John Lewis, the iconic
congressman who died in July.
This week’s MLK-related activity is part of a broader Universal campaign, “Use Your Voice,” launched last week, which aims to “capture and amplify conversations and activism of all kinds through Nov. 3″ – Election Day.
And it’s the latest in a long association between Motown and King’s legacy, sparked when label founder Berry Gordy spearheaded recordings of the civil rights leader’s speeches in 1963.
Motown’s new ‘March on Washington Playlist’:
Ahead of the March on Washington, Gordy and Motown got a trial run in their own neck of the woods. That June, King led more than 100,000 Detroiters in a march down Woodward Avenue to Cobo Hall, an event organized in part by the Rev. C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha.
King’s speech in Detroit was a precursor to his more famous August address, including the “I have a dream” line. Indeed, in Washington, King introduced that portion of his talk by saying, “I still have a dream.”
The Detroit speech appeared on an album titled “Great March to Freedom.”
Gordy “was an admirer of Dr. King, looking at all that was happening, and trying to figure out, ‘How can we be a part of that?’ ” said Coraleen Rawls, collections manager at the Motown Museum. “He believes in the tenets of Dr. King.”
In his discussions with Gordy about release arrangements for the two albums, King insisted his royalty shares be directed to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he served as president. He wanted to avoid any perception of personal gain.
“I understood, admiring his vision,” Gordy wrote in his 1994 autobiography. “He made it clear – it was not only important to stand up and fight for what …