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At the outset, let me stipulate that 99.999 percent – or more – of all the words uttered by politicians are thoroughly forgettable, and that they usually are forgotten nearly as soon as they are spoken.
But occasionally – very, very occasionally – a politician says something that is not only remembered, but actually changes history.
In short, words matter.
On this 50th anniversary of Dr. M.L. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” it is worth reflecting on his words, and on other historic words by politicians that have changed history.
First Dr. King’s speech. It is a little-known fact that the “I have a dream” passages were not in the original text of the speech that King planned to give. In the months and even years prior to the speech, King had used the “I have a dream” language so often that several of his aides thought that it was old, tired and hackneyed language and it was dropped from the draft speech.
King had a great deal of anxiety about his speech and he and his staff were tinkering with it up until the last moment.
As he began to speak, the early portion of the speech was not moving the crowd as King had hoped. And then, from behind King on the platform, came the unmistakable voice of singer Mahaila Jackson.
“Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin. Tell ‘em about the dream,” she said. And indeed he did. He put aside his prepared speech and – as they say – the rest is history.
Though King had often used the dream passages to many largely black audiences in local civil rights meetings, the largely white national TV audience had never heard the message.
In a few very clear words, King articulated what the massive, complex and difficult civil rights struggle was all about. Everyone – black and white – from that day forth understood The Dream. Many did not accept the message and continued to resist, but that day King articulated to the country what the whole civil rights movement was all about.
His words changed history.
But it was not history immediately. Washington Post Publisher Philip Graham famously said that “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” But if one read Graham’s own paper the day after the speech there was no history there about King’s speech. In fact, Dr. King’s name does not even appear on the front page of the paper.
As The Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser pointed out last week, “The words ‘I have a dream’ appeared in only one [story], a wrap-up of the day’s rhetoric on Page A15 — in the fifth paragraph. We also printed brief excerpts from the speeches, but the three paragraphs chosen from King’s speech did not include ‘I have a dream.’”
It was the marchers themselves, with a later assist from oft-run TV film clips, which made King’s speech so historic. The marchers and other civil rights actors around the county picked up King’s words and repeated them tens of thousands of times – and thus protestors all across the country were infused with the specific words, the message and the dream that powered the movement.
Another of the other great speeches in the history of our Republic was delivered by the man behind Dr. King on that day – Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address.
Like King’s speech, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was initially overlooked. At the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln was not the keynote speaker and was added to the program at the last moment almost as an afterthought. The main speaker was noted orator Edward Everett, who spoke for more than two hours. Lincoln followed Everett and spoke for two minutes, delivering just 10 sentences, or 278 words.
The audience’s response to Lincoln’s speech that day was largely silence. Lincoln himself thought that that it had been a flop.
His words changed history.
Two other observations about the speeches at the 50th Anniversary events at the Lincoln Memorial. First, Bill Clinton. Throughout his career, Clinton has made some very good speeches but they have been more about “explaining” than inspiring. He has a unique talent for describing in just a phrase or two a complicated policy or political position: “Abortions should be safe, legal and rare…The era of Big Government is over…. We will change welfare as we know it.”
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last week, Clinton brilliantly summarized the Democratic criticism of the Republicans position on both Voter ID and gun control in one phrase, “But a great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon.”
The last observation is about President Barack Obama. He is a great orator…some would say the greatest of the last 50 years. He has made some great speeches and delivered some good lines. But as yet he has not given us the phrase that defines his vision and his presidency.
In his inaugural address, John Kennedy said “Ask not…” and we all know the rest because it defined him and the spirit of his presidency, inspired a generation to service – and still endures and inspires today.
Ironically, we are still waiting for President Obama’s defining words.
So words do matter.
They have the ability to inspire a movement, motivate a generation and change the world.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats