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Beth Underwood: Forever grateful that high school drama team brought Dr. King’s speech to life


As you know, Monday marked this year’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — and whenever I think about Dr. King, I’m reminded of my high school days.

When I was in high school, I was an active member of the Speech and Drama Team. For reasons that escape me, my freshman year strong suit was Analysis of Public Address or APA.

I’m guessing the other slots — the fun speech and drama things like improv and duo acting — had already been filled by the older students. Consequently, the freshmen were relegated to take what was left. At least I hope that was the case. Surely I didn’t decide to compete in APA of my own free will.

But I digress.

The purpose of APA was to pick a speech, memorize it, and present it/analyze it with as much gusto, pizazz and emotional heartstring-tugging as possible. There may have been other requirements, too. I don’t remember, and it doesn’t matter.

My subject was a speech given by Joseph, chief of the Nez Perce Indians. Here’s the short version of how his speech came into being.

When the federal government ordered the Nez Perce tribe to a reservation in the fall of 1877, Chief Joseph refused to comply. Instead, he led the tribe on a thousand-mile trek toward Canada. Their journey found them in constant battle with the U.S. Army. Ultimately, Chief Joseph and his tribe were trapped by the army about 50 miles from the Canadian border. Surrounded — and having lost nearly half of his tribe to that point — Chief Joseph surrendered in a poignant, dare I say heartbreaking address, which has since been titled, “I will fight no more, forever.”

Heck, the title alone is a pretty good indication that things don’t end well for the Nez Perce.

Ordinarily, one would think such a speech would be a first-place trophy magnet, especially when presented with the great oratory skills I learned from my speech coach. But the century that separated Chief Joseph from mid-1970s APA competitions had softened Chief Joseph’s plight in the eyes of the public and dimmed a nation’s sympathies.

Another competitor, however, routinely knocked the socks off the judges. Unlike my own speech, which was roughly a hundred years old, her speech belonged to the 20th century. In fact, it had been delivered only thirteen or so years prior to our days in high school. It was relatable and timely — and always presented with that gusto, pizazz and heartstring-pulling I referred to earlier.

Her subject? Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. And boy, could she make that speech sing. Her presentation was so good that, had Dr. King been alive to hear it, he’d have hired her as director of public relations.

Needless to say, this girl took first place every time she competed — the day I earned bragging rights to the big prize was a day she wasn’t there.

Sure, it got old watching her take the top award at one competition after another. She earned it, though. Looking back, I think we all knew the speech was something special — and her powerful delivery caused us to process Dr. King’s words more intimately than a teenager normally would.

I don’t remember any of the other speeches given that year. Nor do I recall the names or faces of any other competitors. But I do remember a young girl who brought Dr. King’s dream to life. And for that, I am grateful.

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Beth Underwood is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. She shares stories of everyday life that entertain, inspire, and encourage others. Her books include Gravity, a narrative nonfiction account of a small group of Tennessee National Guardsmen, and Talk Bourbon to Me, a lighthearted look at Kentucky’s native spirit. Drop her a line at beth@bethwrightunderwood.com, or visit her website at bethwrightunderwood.com.


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