Ken Burns, who brought new levels of interest and art to American documentaries on subjects from the Civil War to baseball, is starting a movement that has attracted all five living presidents.
He is encouraging people to memorize Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as a reminder of who we as Americans are and as a springboard for a more civil public conversation. Burns is inviting people to video themselves reciting the address and post it on a website he has created.
So far, Georgians hold the lead among states, with 52 videoed submissions by people ranging from former president Jimmy Carter to two-year-old Lincoln Bixler, the son of a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff member.
The AJC caught up with Ken Burns Wednesday, the day after the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's delivery of his most famous speech, to ask three questions about his Quixotic quest.
Q: Why did you choose the Gettysburg Address rather than any other famous American speech, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech?
A: I have been working on a documentary in the last year about a tiny school in Putney, Vermont, the Greenwood School who host boys with learning differentiations....Each year after they come back from Thanksgiving, they are asked to memorize and then recite the Gettysburg Address. I was asked to be a judge about 10 years ago and just wept openly about the courage these boys...it's a short speech, it's 272 words, but it's a minefield for these boys with their differentiations....It's the most import speech in American history...It's doubling down on the Constitution...Abraham Lincoln wrote that and delivered it out of the carnage of that battle and war....it is incredibly inspirational.
Q: What do you hope this movement engenders?
A: We suffer from too much pluribus (Latin for "many") and not enough unum ("one," from the Seal of the U.S., E PLURIBUS UNUM, "Out of many, one"). We are always making distinctions, red states and blue states, white and black, rich and poor, East and West, and we forget what we share in common...I just thought, won't it be great if we could get whole bunch of people from all sides...all the living presidents, Bill O'Reilly and Rachel Maddow, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, [Rep.] Nancy Pelosi and [Sen.] Marco Rubio to memorize this speech and video themselves reading it and upload it to the website.
What has been great in the week and one day since we launched the campaign is that you can see the mashup of some of folks reading the Gettysburg Address...Georgia has has given us more responses than any other state. I am hoping its going to continue to swell as we go through the holiday and into the new year. By April 15 of next year (when his documentary on the school broadcasts) I hope to have had thousands upon thousands of Americans participating.
I hope to use this to help us come together around our history where we can all can agree and coalesce and have civil discourse.
Q; How will you measure the success of this movement?
A: I think its already overwhelmingly successful....(He helped recruit notable people)...and now we are getting so called ordinary people uploading their own versions. The U.S. soccer team did a mashup of the entire team. Stephen Colbert did a version that takes a lot of the pompousness out of it. It's already a huge success. I hope we look back on it in years to come and say we contributed to the largest mass memorization in history.
(c)2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Distributed by MCT Information Services
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