Friday, June 21, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Essie Washington-Williams: "I feel completely free"

She waited until she was in her late seventies to speak in public about it, and even though the facts were known by many, she'd kept them secret even from members of her own family at different times during her life.

But when Essie Washington-Williams stepped to the microphone to say that she was the daughter of a black domestic worker and U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, a white segregationist and campaigner against civil rights, the news was a shock to listeners. For starters, Thurmond had never publicly acknowledged her, though he supported her financially and met with her many times. She waited until six months after his death to step to the microphones and tell her story.

"My name is Essie Mae Washington-Williams," she begins, and much of her statement is just as plain a recounting of the facts of her life: where she was born, where she eventually went to live, and how her life progressed through school and marriage and raising her own family. This speech rivets precisely because of the simplicity of the tale: It needs no rhetorical flourishes to make it dramatic, already possessing mystery, drama and surprise aplenty, along with a firm knowledge of its place in history. She said:
There are many stories like Sally Hemings' and mine. The unfortunate measure is that not everyone knows these stories that helped to make America what it is today.
"I feel as if a tremendous weight has been lifted," she concluded. "I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last, I feel completely free."

This is an unusual speech, but I still think you can learn from it:
  • Share the "why" of your statement--what's your motivation? Particularly when you have a
    difficult message to deliver, but really in any speech, we want to know what's prompting your remarks. When the issue is controversial, we might well question your motives and guess wrong. "My children deserve the right to know from whom, where and what they have come,” she said.“I am committed in teaching them and helping them to learn about their past. It is their right to know and understand the rich history of their ancestry, black and white.” In this case, explaining her motives answered the questions on many minds: Why had she waited so long to speak, and why now?
  • Keep it simple: When the facts are dramatic, keep the language clear and simple. If the secret is about you, use "I" statements--no one can speak for you in this matter. This was a tale that needed no extra window-dressing. In fact, an over-the-top array of adjectives and adverbs would have turned it into a parody. Straightforward speaking made this tale more gripping, not less.
  • Acknowledge open secrets: On the surface, this is a speech about a secret, but Washington-Williams goes further to reveal that in fact, this wasn't a secret to everyone. In retelling her interactions with the senator and his staff, she said, "All of those on his staff knew exactly who I was," making clear the open-secret aspects of her life as well as their willingness to participate in keeping that secret. The revelation adds a layer of complexity to this announcement, and lets her right two wrongs.
Washington-Williams died earlier this year at age 87, but before her death, wrote about her experiences
Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. You can see her statement below. What do you think of this famous speech?

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