Friday, January 7, 2011

Famous Speech Fridays: Coretta Scott King's "10 Commandments on Vietnam"

(Editor's note: I asked readers what they'd like to see more or less of on the blog in 2011, and reader Jennie Poppenger suggested "Famous Speech Fridays - famous women who have given exceptional speeches and excerpts of them."  That's a big challenge--52 famous speeches by women--but I'm going to give it a try, with a twist. I'll be looking for speeches by women that include words about women, so you'll get not just good examples but words to inspire you. I think women's speeches about women's issues are among the most powerful, and we need more of them, given the short history of women and public speaking. We'll get started this week with a speech Coretta Scott King gave just weeks after her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.)

Many people forget that  the American civil rights movement was closely tied to protests against the war in Vietnam--but that was a central cause for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his effort to preach against violence of all sorts. Just a few weeks after his death, his widow, Coretta Scott King, went to New York's Central Park to speak to a rally where he had been scheduled to speak. Here are the qualities that made me notice this famous speech:
  •  She established herself as the respectful messenger:  King's death shocked the nation, and a few weeks later, those feelings were still strong.  Any speech delivered on behalf of someone who died before he could speak is a challenge for a substitute speaker, as we've noted about a more recent speech Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered for her late husband. So before she read the core of the speech, the 10 commandments of Vietnam, she began with a few paragraphs to establish her mission to deliver his message, noting from the start: "I come to New York today with a strong feeling that my dearly beloved husband, who was snatched suddenly from our midst slightly more than three weeks ago now, would have wanted me to be present today....had he been here, I am sure he would have lifted your hearts and spirits to new levels of understanding in his customary fashion."
  • She used personal detail about her husband and the speech to draw the listener in:  We've talked about using details in your storytelling, so readers can picture and remember what your words are describing. In this case, Mrs. King drew the listeners into a bit of her private world early in the speech: "I would like to share with you some notes taken from my husband's pockets upon his death. He carried these scraps of paper upon which he scribbled notes for his many speeches. Among these notes was one set which he never delivered. Perhaps they were his early thoughts for the message he was to give to you today." That use of detail helped listeners to picture those scraps of paper and imagine they were hearing something intimate and private. A memorable touch.
  • She gave the audience a role to play:  Mrs. King asked the audience to do two things. One was to comfort her in her grief by carrying on the work of her husband.  The second was to join a march on Washington. Having a call to action for your audience is a smart component of any speech or presentation, whether you want them to march or make a business decision.
  • She spoke to inspire women:  Mrs. King devoted the latter part of the speech to speak directly to women, and it's important to note that, in 1968, women--and even women in the civil rights movement--were decidedly second-class citizens in most settings.  Here's part of what she said: "The woman power of this nation can be the power which makes us whole and heals the rotten community, now so shattered by war and poverty and racism. I have great faith in the power of women who will dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to the task of remaking our society. I believe that the women of this nation and of the world are the best and last hope for a world of peace and brotherhood."  She followed this by reading a poem by Langston Hughes, written in a black mother's voice. Devoting this much time to speaking woman-to-woman made the speech, ultimately, her own.
By this point, Mrs. King was an accomplished speaker in her own right. Her biography on the King Center website notes that speaking was a lifelong pursuit for her, from her student days as a valedictorian:
Mrs. King traveled throughout the world speaking out on behalf of racial and economic justice, women's and children's rights, gay and lesbian dignity, religious freedom, the needs of the poor and homeless, full-employment, health care, educational opportunities, nuclear disarmament and ecological sanity....During Dr. King's career, Mrs. King devoted most of her time to raising their four children....From the earliest days, however, she balanced mothering and movement work, speaking before church, civic, college, fraternal and peace groups.
Thanks to American Rhetoric, a wonderful treasure-trove of speeches, you can hear the audio of Mrs. King's speech here and read the transcript of it here--it's worth a listen to the audio to hear how commanding and strong her voice is.  And below, a five-minute excerpt of a live reenactment of the speech is on video:

If you have a great woman's speech that includes some words about women for "Famous Speech Fridays," please email it to me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz. (Photo by the Chicago Urban League, from the University of Illinois at Chicago library archives on Flickr.)

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