Friday, February 15, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Josephine Baker at the March on Washington

I'd heard for many years that no women speakers were included at the March on Washington in 1963, the event that concluded with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. But in fact, there was a sole woman speaker: Josephine Baker, the singer and entertainer who lived as a American expatriate in France and enjoyed huge success in the 1920s. And on this day, the 250,000 people on the national mall formed her biggest live audience ever.

By the time of the march, Baker was 57 and still living in France. She flew to Washington for the March and appeared for her remarks wearing her uniform from the French Resistance in World War II, a symbol of her lifelong activism. She was a risky and controversial choice. Baker was notorious in her day for her body-revealing costumes, but she also broke color lines, becoming the first African-American woman to star in a movie and the first to integrate a concert hall in the U.S. Perhaps because of this, Baker kept her remarks simple and explained who she was, directly:
When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away.    Eventually I ran far away. It was to a place called France. Many of you have been there, and many have not. But I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen, in that country I never feared.  It was like a fairyland place...Now I know that all you children don’t know who Josephine Baker is, but you ask Grandma and Grandpa and they will tell you. You know what they will say. “Why, she was a devil.”  
Then she brought it home, as it were, putting herself in the shoes of her American audience, and referencing her lifelong willingness to speak out against injustice: 
You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ‘cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Play to the locals: In this case, that meant the U.S. as a whole. Baker stressed her American roots and experiences to connect with this massive audience.
  • Be yourself: Baker, despite the controversy and notoriety swirling around her, uses her remarks to show us she is comfortable in her shoes--and to reveal many sides of herself. She wears a uniform instead of the costumes for which she was better known, talks about being an older woman but encouraging children, and gives a straightforward and simple account of her activism that anyone in the audience could follow and appreciate. It's authentic, and it works.
  • Use the immediate: Baker's conclusion used that irresistible line, "I've just been handed a note..." In this case, she shared that the President of the United States had invited her to visit him at the White House. She said to the crowd: "I am greatly honored.  But I must tell you that a colored woman—or, as you say it here in America, a black woman—is not going there. It is a woman.  It is Josephine Baker." 
You can read the speech here, and this Washington  Post article shares some of the correspondence between Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr. about the speech. What do you think of this famous speech?

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