Dane Walter’s video documentary (above) on the making of one of the ‘Unspoken Speech’ videos.
Fifty years ago this month, John F. Kennedy traveled in his motorcade through the streets of downtown Dallas, heading to the Dallas Trade Mart to deliver a 1 p.m. speech.
Then his limo entered Dealey Plaza – and the president never made it to the Trade Mart. He never delivered the speech.
But two British expats in Dallas are determined that JFK’s planned address – which has come to be known as “the Unspoken Speech” – lives on through Dallasites.
Over the past year, Cliff Simms and Peter Wood have created seven videos featuring Dallas residents who deliver highlights of Kennedy’s speech, word by word. Some hold up signs featuring his words. Others sing.
Since January, KERA has followed Simms and Wood as they create “a tribute to JFK from the citizens of Dallas.” The videos have gained the British men international attention. Newspapers in Europe have interviewed them.
The videos will be shown publicly in Dallas later this month.
Dallas has been going through a kind of citywide spiritual exercise as it, once again, tries to figure out a way to commemorate something awful. This city has rarely done well when it comes to either history or self-reflection. So perhaps it’s not surprising that two British outsiders — with little money and no official sanction — have been contributing some of the more emotionally resonant memorial artworks for the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.
“How does the city pay tribute to the president in a unique manner?” Simms said.
(This is the last of seven “Unspoken Speech” videos, featuring the South Dallas Concert Choir singing the final lines that Kennedy was to deliver.)
“The Lord keep the city”
In the Unspoken Speech, Kennedy defends his record of building up American missile and submarine forces against hawkish critics who derided him as weak in the face of the Soviets and Cuba. But he also argued that strength without responsibility — or without what he called the “righteousness of our cause” — is worthless.
Kennedy ended with a line from Psalm 127 in the King James Bible: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” — meaning that unless the Lord is looking out for you, your guards are useless.
One of the Unspoken Speech videos features ordinary Dallasites holding up placards with Kennedy’s words on them. Another video was taped inside what had been Lee Harvey Oswald’s jail cell. A third was shot inside a bus with Dallas civil rights protestor Clarence Broadnax.
The final video was shot on a recent evening featuring the South Dallas Concert Choir. The singers offered a moving a capella performance of the last lines of JFK’s address.
Gathering in prayer
Their voices have a gorgeous slow, fading echo, coming off the polished floors, glass storefronts and concrete walls of the atrium.
They sang in front of a lit candle on the floor of the Dallas Trade Mart, now called the Dallas Market Center, just 30 feet from where Kennedy would have stood on a podium and delivered what’s known as the Unspoken Speech.
“And that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men,’” the choir sang. “That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”
The video ends with an image from inside the Dallas Trade Mart in 1963, showing people who had gathered to hear the president speak.
Instead, upon hearing the news of Kennedy being shot, they gathered in prayer.
(This is the first of seven “Unspoken Speech” videos, featuring Dallasites holding signs that feature Kennedy’s words.)
KERA Radio story:
More on the Unspoken Speech
JFK’s Unspoken Speech has been getting renewed attention:
- It’ll be included in The New Frontier, readings of Kennedy’s speeches done by members of the Undermain Theatre on Nov. 9 at the Dallas Museum of Art.
- On Nov. 22, during the official 50th anniversary ceremony in Dealey Plaza, a plaque will be unveiled that includes lines from the Unspoken Seech.
- Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, a Dallas composer and classical music critic for TheaterJones, has created a dramatic cantata based on the speech, with a libretto by Suzanne Calvin. The chamber group, the Hall Ensemble, will perform it in Fort Worth next May with three singers, including mezzo Virginia Dupuy.
- On Nov. 22, Wood and Simms will screen their seven Unspoken Speech videos at the Continental Lofts Gallery.
Here are the seven Unspoken Speech videos:
Excerpts of President Kennedy’s Unspoken Speech:
- “There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable.”
- “We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this Nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.”
- “Above all, words alone are not enough. The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence. If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.”
- “There is no longer any doubt about the strength and skill of American science, American industry, American education, and the American free enterprise system. In short, our national space effort represents a great gain in, and a great resource of, our national strength — and both Texas and Texans are contributing greatly to this strength.”
- “Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live.”
- “Our adversaries have not abandoned their ambitions, our dangers have not diminished, our vigilance cannot be relaxed. But now we have the military, the scientific, and the economic strength to do whatever must be done for the preservation and promotion of freedom. That strength will never be used in pursuit of aggressive ambitions — it will always be used in pursuit of peace. It will never be used to promote provocations — it will always be used to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes.”
- “We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”
Want to know more?
Read “the Unspoken Speech,” the address that Kennedy was supposed to give at the Trade Mart.
Read more about the Unspoken Speech project from KERA: