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From the editor: Chosen words

 


They are just words, assembled and stacked with some sort of purpose in mind.

Their power when wielded by the right person, however, turns into something forceful. We know what the likes of Shakespeare, Fitzgerald and the great literary artists could make of words—even if the last time we encountered their work was in high school or while watching a Leonardo Di Caprio film.

A couple decades ago, while talking with some of the folks responsible for telling future teachers how to conduct themselves in the classroom and—more importantly—how to encourage students to learn, I was told in no uncertain terms that mere words amounted to passive learning. These professors of education insisted lectures involved little more than one person dumping a parcel of words on a group of young people, who sat listlessly in response. For a more active classroom, they claimed, students should sit in groups and come up with answers as a team.

Yeah.

Well, I grew up in a swirl of words that not only defined a generation, but also inspired young people to action.

The era began with a challenge. “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” John F. Kennedy told those gathered to hear his inaugural address. Toward the end, he stirred the crowd with the memorable line “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” In between, his call to aid the poor around the world, capped by “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich,” spurred thousands of people to join the Peace Corps and fan out across the globe.

After setting a goal for the space program and nation of reaching the moon, the president spoke to a crowd at Rice University in Texas. “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it,” he told the crowd. “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Compare those words to the modern politician or the education professor afraid to tell future teachers of the power of words. They choose the easy way out.

Bobby Kennedy gave what many said was one of the greatest talks of the 1960s. He stood on an Indianapolis stage in 1968 after being informed that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis. He was also told the largely African-American crowd was not aware of the day’s news. He scrapped his prepared pile of words and put together a new speech, off the top of his head, while first informing the audience.

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act toward all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” he said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

Those words—and the ones that followed, emphasizing the need for understanding in this divided county—engaged the crowd to such an extent that, while other cities around the country erupted in riots and flames, Indianapolis remained quiet. Bobby Kennedy had urged the people to go home and pray for King’s family and the entire country.

How well we remember the words of King.

On the Washington Mall, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, he gave the famous “I have a dream” speech. Just words, mind you, but somehow memorable.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” he said.

A few moments later, he hammered America where it counted—and still counts: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

That should scare a lot of people, from Justin Bieber to most of Congress. Not much hope for Dennis Rodman.

Of course, Rodman did entertain us with a rambling address, although I would hardly refer to it as memorable. But that’s an aside.

Five years later King arrived in Memphis to support sanitation workers in a battle with the city over their rights to equal treatment. He had called out America for the things it swept under the national rug. Bull Conner, in charge of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, encouraged violent crackdowns against civil rights volunteers. In his spare time he was an announcer for the minor league baseball team in that city. When a ball was hit into the segregated section occupied by blacks, he would say “it’s into the coal bin.”

Clearly King was a problem for some people. And he understood his role, mentioning the death threats.

“Well I don’t know what will happen now,” he said. “But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

Yeah—just words. According to some people, hearing such a speech is just a passive act. But those of us who grew up with words that measured and tested this country,  that called people to action, that inspired or angered a population know better.

If Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us anything, it is that words can change an entire people.

 

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