Two Last Great Speeches

Journalist Chris Matthews of MSNBC moderated a three-member panel March 5 that compared President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the speech Martin Luther King, Jr., gave on the night before his death.

The panel met at Washington National Cathedral on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s address, as still another round of snow loomed in the forecast.

The discussion was co-hosted by Ford’s Theatre, the site of Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday of 1865 (April 14) by actor John Wilkes Booth. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., by James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Although separated by centuries, both speeches were seminal in the country’s march to civil rights. Both men gave their speeches shortly before their deaths. And both men “talked right into the face of their enemies,” Matthews said.

The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of Washington, said that King delivered his final Sunday sermon at Washington National Cathedral.

“This is a place to mourn, to celebrate, and to consider critical issues of our day,” she said, noting the statues of King and Lincoln that stand within the cathedral’s stone walls.

In comments to TLC after the program, the bishop said she gives thanks that the cathedral can be a place for reflection on important moments in history and how their “echoes and resonance” relate to events of today. In reflecting on what came before, “We have this theological connection to history,” she said.

The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the cathedral, noted that President Obama has called for a national conversation on race. “America’s history on race is coming back,” and this polarizing issue needs to be addressed looking to Lincoln and King for guidance, he said.

“The legacy of slavery is still deeply part of our national problem,” one that will never completely go away, the dean said.

In comments to TLC he said of slavery, “It’s such a profound wound in our culture, such an ugly thing; it’s always going to be there. … We can be in recovery from it. We can be healed but we can’t be cured.”

Nadia Duncan, a student docent at Ford’s Theatre, performed an excerpt from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, delivered on March 4, 1865:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln was haunted by the price of “this terrible war,” which had been running for four years, said panelist Douglas L. Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. Lincoln had been convinced that he would not be re-elected as president, Wilson said.

Although Lincoln was not an overtly religious man, he believed in God and in a moral universe. “We will never know what would have happened if Lincoln had lived,” said Paul R. Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre. “But we can’t help but wonder.”

Paige Telesford, an alumna of the Youth Leaders Ensemble, Theatre performed an excerpt from King’s mountaintop speech:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. … Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

King never set out to be a civil-rights activist, said panelist Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University: “He was a social-gospel minister who got distracted by civil rights.”

King was concerned about slums, poverty, and economic hardships. “He was a prophet; the biblical prophets were not popular in their time,” Carson said. “He was ready for death; he had always been ready for that.”

The mountaintop speech has “meaning that goes beyond the meaning of what most people expect,” he said, expressing a transcendent quality of hope and goodness on Earth that has elements of the Exodus.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was plainly spoken by a politician with a factual beginning that “starts out almost like a shareholder’s report,” Dean Hall said, while King’s speech was the expansive work of a visionary preacher, with a storyteller’s drama.

Despite their differences, both men were theological speakers in their own way, Hall said.

“We live in a time of declining political oratory,” he said, too often marked by public speeches that are “phony and formulaic.”

Image: Washington National Cathedral at Dusk by Bjohnston024 (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Peggy Eastman

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