When Joe Rogers first read Martin Luther King Jr.'s words in public, something strange happened.

As president of the Congress of Afro-American Students at Colorado State University, Rogers was no newcomer to public speaking. He had participated in several public debates as an undergraduate, had introduced Jesse Jackson at a campus appearance, had even served as the school's homecoming king.

The burning feeling in his stomach and chest was something completely different.

During planning sessions for a 1985 King memorial at the Fort Collins school, Rogers had reluctantly agreed to read a ten-minute excerpt from King's "I have a dream" speech.

Of Colorado State's almost 20,000 students, only some 200 were black. Rogers' attempt at oratory would be his contribution to the memorial.

He found a tape of the speech and began to learn it. Rogers had studied King's life but not the specifics of his speeches.

"I became intrigued by it," he recalls. "Intrigued by the words, intrigued by the rhythm, the powerful vision, the notion of dreaming.

"That theme is used in so many speeches by political leaders and religious leaders, the notion of expanding your life through your dreams."

Born and raised in the Midwest, Rogers at first couldn't approximate King's Southern diction and delivery. As the day of the performance approached, Rogers dug into the role. "I remember walking to class, or on the bicycle, practicing, rehearsing the speech in preparation for the program," he says. "I just plain didn't want to make a fool of myself."

On speech day, Rogers did his best to re-create the mood. Several of his fellow black students, pretending to be bodyguards, accompanied Rogers to the podium.

Rogers began his presentation by explaining the context of the famous speech, which King delivered at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a huge crowd of civil-rights workers marching on Washington, D.C. The world was watching America's capital that day in 1963, expecting a riot that never materialized. Joe Rogers wasn't even born when King delivered his most famous speech. But, 22 years later, Rogers captured the spirit in front of his Colorado State University audience. He picked up "I have a dream" about midway through King's text and concluded with this quote from a Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last! Thank God almighty, we're free at last!"

"As soon as I finished," Rogers recalls, "there was silence--for a moment, a fraction of a second, it seemed like an eternity to me. All of a sudden there was a standing ovation. Folks were crying. I didn't understand it. I walked offstage rather casually. I didn't stand to acknowledge the applause."

As the applause grew, a strange, uncomfortable feeling filled Rogers' body. "I remember a burning sensation," he says. "I was in a lot of pain, my stomach, my whole chest was burning."

Rogers doesn't give this overwhelming physical sensation any metaphysical meaning. And it hasn't happened to him again, even though he's performed the speech several times. "It may have been the excitement of the moment," he says. "Who knows? I don't make any claims to what it was." But something happens when Rogers delivers the speech. People who have seen the presentation say it's uncanny. "King is in the room," they say. He'll be in the Great Hall of Arizona State University's College of Law this year. Rogers is scheduled to perform at 7 p.m. on January 24 as part of ASU's King Day celebration.

A 1989 graduate of ASU's law school, Rogers, now 26, works as a commercial-litigation specialist with the Denver law firm of Davis, Graham, and Stubbs.

Rogers has expanded his show. He now performs a greatest-hits medley of King's best-known speeches. He's played high schools and colleges. He says he can even tailor King's message to fit whatever audience he sees. For an upcoming talk in front of a teachers' conference in Colorado, Rogers will concentrate less on the civil-rights content of King's utterances, and hit hard the motivational angles. ASU will commemorate King's life with a weeklong series of seminars, programs and performances, starting January 21. This is ASU's sixth King Day celebration, and each year it has expanded. This year's $20,000 budget will cover performances by, among others, veteran civil-rights politician Julian Bond and folk singer Odetta.

Rogers' speech is sponsored in part by the ASU Black Law Students Association. Co-headliners of the show will be ASU president Lattie Coor and the First New Life Baptist Church choir. The ASU law students' first King Day celebration was somewhat less grand. Back in '86, Rogers wheeled out a birthday cake. Paul Bender, then dean of the law school, said a few words. Then Rogers gave his speech.

"I want to keep it very lively, fun, energetic," Rogers says. "It's easy to be solemn when you think about civil rights, all the pain folks had to endure. I want a celebration. This is a holiday. Let's celebrate.

"We've always had the birthday cake. I hope they do that this year."

"Folks were crying. I didn't understand it. I walked offstage rather casually.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dave Walker