It’s Day 2 of the Sojourn Social Justice Journey I’m on with the 8th graders and today’s lesson was the 1963 March on Washington. Always something new to learn. After first looking at the whole program— 11 speakers, 3 prayers, 3 songs—we came to King’s speech, the climax of the event. We read the speech and analyzed its content, with attention to the string of juxtapositions, the literary devices that elevated the talk to a work of art that both informed and inspired. The whole landscape of justice and its absence laid out in poetic images and stark contradictions:
• Great beacon light of hope/ Flames of withering injustice.
• Joyous daybreak/ Long night of captivity
• Lonely island of poverty/ Vast ocean of material prosperity
• Fierce urgency of now/ Tranquilizing drug of gradualism
• Dark and desolate valley of segregation/ Sunlit path of racial justice
• Quicksands of racial injustice/ Solid rock of brotherhood.
• Heat of oppression. Oasis of freedom.
• Jangling dischords/ Beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
Compare that to the current: “We’re gonna make America great again! America is going to be great. Again. And we’re gonna make it great.” Etc.
How far we have fallen. Exalted language is not the only barometer of intelligence and moral virtue. But it’s a good start. Anything worthwhile requires an effort that defies gravity, a moving upward into higher realms and poetic language is a climb up to our greater possibilities. The feelings we get in the presence of such exalted speech are markedly different than what we feel from a rant, a commercial, a string of clichés, a torrent of expletives. One of our students shared that she was inspired by the speech to improve her vocabulary so that she could access the full impact of Dr. King’s words.
If you look at the images above, it’s less vocabulary than the artful combination of words to create powerful images that resonate. There are references to the natural world—sunlight, daybreak, ocean, island, mountain, valley, etc.—that connect with human emotion and qualities of the psyche. We can feel the quicksand that drags us down, hear the symphony that lifts us up and we are drawn into Dr. King’s visionary world with all our senses. He also makes subtle and overt literary references—to the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Shakespeare, the Bible, a song and spiritual, drawing from a cultural literacy that is the mark of a man who has made the effort to study and work and read and write and use his schooling to uplift and inspire.
And not just Dr. King, but also Clarence Jones who actually wrote the whole first half of the speech (and came to visit our school recently, so sadly when I was gone!). And in fact, all the speakers that day were notable for their eloquence in speech married to their commitment to action and their deep heartfelt feeling.
As I said, eloquence alone is not sufficient if it’s not tied to the body and heart and moral character. It’s such a pleasure to be in the company of these models of the truly educated Americans—that long list of notable activists from the Civil Rights Era—and to feel the kids responding with their own emerging eloquence.
It gives meaning to today’s most overused cliché: “Awesome!”