Three Great American Speeches

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I’m reading James Carroll’s memoir: An American Requiem which won the National Book Award in 1996. Sometimes when a friend passes along a book found in the “used bin” at 2nd Hand Books, it’s a keeper.

Carroll grew up in Washington, D.C. during the 1950s. His father was a high muckety-muck in national security, but also a failed priest. Carroll set out to put that failure to rights. This was during the great Catholic upheaval of Pope John the 23rd when ancient obeisances and doctrines were questioned and thrown open to fresh air.

As Carroll charts his own growth from homage to church and father toward self-deter-mination, he pauses to record the effect on him of the March on Washington, culminating in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Across the plain-spoken prose of Carroll’s account, King’s words resound with passion and rhythmic power:

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horror of police brutality; we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging…We cannot be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Whites Only’…No! No! We are not satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.'” Then come the more famous lines beginning “I have a dream.”

The import of Carroll’s account, at this point, is the ultimate weakness of any human being. Soon he and his father will be engaged in their private war over Vietnam. But before that, they argue about King: the elder Carroll is part of a secret “bugging” of King’s hotel rooms and telephones. King has had associations with a “known Communist,” but what the bug reveals will be King’s sexual indiscretions.

Reading King’s words again, I’m struck by their power–rhetorical and personal, lived and referential. This is a speech, as Carroll suggests, closer to sermon than to secular address. It draws on Biblical strategies and includes direct quotes from the Bible’s grand sweeping language. King’s words lift an obvious secular abuse toward a Sermon on the Mount.

It’s one of three great American works of the literary and political imagination: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. There well may be others, but this morning, I’m able to quote the openings of “Fourscore and seven years ago”…”(Lincoln) and “When in the course of human events…” (Jefferson). This morning I relish the resounding claims of these three speeches, claims for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and “Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

I’m only an accidental historian, made so in the beginning by opposition to my own father’s pounding of African-American rights during the same era as Carroll recalls. His threat of Commie take-over on the coat tails of Civil Rights agitation struck me as ludicrous. His threat that African-Americans eating at lunch counters and sitting in the front of the bus would plunge us into world war struck me as weak, an inflation of danger in order to disguise what was ultimately his personal dislike of black people. The fact that he/we knew no black people, that we were outsiders from the North also under constant suspicion of being “red”–these facts were plain to me even then, in the early 1960s. Reading Carroll’s book, I glimpse how in a few minor ways, I might have been wrong. But in the main, I was right: my father’s trumping the Commie threat was a way of beefing up his petty resistance to a great wave marching toward social justice.

None of the three great spokesmen for social justice were entirely free of blemish: King’s I’ve mentioned. Jefferson had a long liason with one his slaves, Sally Hemmings, which he refused to reveal–to do so would have cost him his prominence. Lincoln was prone to extraordinary depression, which often debilitated him. Yet, their words mark this country’s greatest goal: social justice for all. This morning, in the midst of contention between political parties, when it seems we as a nation will sink even further into some of our greatest sins, I am happy to recall those clarion calls to justice, equality, sacrifice and welcome.

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