Kennedy, King and the Power of Words

BY Gwen Ifill  January 21, 2011 at 2:00 PM EDT

I am not such a fan of celebrating anniversaries for their own sake. Much of what we say on such occasions is rote – if not trite – and the true meaning of observance is easily lost.

But there were two occasions this week (while we in Washington were all on the lookout for post-Tucson lapses in civility) that made me rethink. Both cases involved taking the words of famous men and allowing others to speak them.

You may have been watching the PBS NewsHour on Jan. 17, the 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. That morning, we had debated bringing on a historian to talk about the day. Thank goodness one of our producers, Anne Davenport, quietly had a better idea.

Anne was cleaning out her junk e-mail one day when she came across a government press release that she was at first prepared to ignore. On closer inspection, she saw that it was announcing that a group of fourth graders from Washington’s Watkins Elementary School would observe the King holiday by memorizing and reciting Dr. King’s most famous speech – the “I Have A Dream” address delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington.

Perhaps it is because Anne is the mother of a fourth grader that she recognized gold when she saw it. Look what she found.

The power of this segment came in the voices of public school children born long after King was assassinated. They were not merely reciting the speech. They were hurling the words into the cold January air as if their little lives depended on it. Even when we can’t see their faces above the microphone, we can sense they feel the words they are delivering.

Their delivery was so fresh and engaging that I had a little trouble keeping it together at the anchor desk afterward. Yes, we heard them talk about being judged by the content of character versus the color of skin.

But we also heard them repeat King’s words about America’s un-cashed promissory note on race. A black girl said: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” A white girl followed: “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

In much the same way, John F. Kennedy’s words from his most famous speech, delivered at his 1961 inauguration, were also repurposed this week.

I was honored to be included in a video produced by Harvard’s Kennedy School which invited more than three dozen people – ranging from Congressman John Lewis and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Gen. Colin Powell and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown – to repeat the words to camera.

You can watch it here.

Like King’s “Dream” speech, Kennedy’s inaugural address is best remembered for his exhortation that we should ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country.

But heard in full and through the mouths of others 50 years later, we realize the speech was more than a call to domestic action. He was also talking about renewal and change and the survival and success of liberty.

In both instances, it’s like hearing the words of these two eloquent men for the first time. In my lifetime, both inspired. In my lifetime, both were assassinated. In my lifetime, their words endured.

“So let’s begin anew, remembering on both sides, that civility is not a sign of weakness,” Kennedy said. “And sincerity is always subject to proof.”

Fifty years later, it still resonates.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the Washington Week website, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.