Empowerment Risk and Reinvention Posted on May 26, 2018 by Susan Sparks

The Power of Words

Last Sunday I was honored to receive the John Haber Award for the Arts from the University of North Carolina. I was the twentieth recipient. The first recipient, comedian Lewis Black, was in attendance to give the award. Below is an excerpt from my ceremony comments. I hope you enjoy them.

While I got a great education at UNC, I can’t remember specific classes or professors . . . except one: rhetoric. Yeah, yeah, I know what you are thinking: “Wow, now THAT sounds interesting.” But the fact is it wasn’t just interesting—it changed my life.

I entered the course my first semester of sophomore year in 1985. Our teacher, a vibrant, charismatic young Associate Professor named Robbie Cox, taught us—a bunch of privileged white southern kids—the basic principles of argument and persuasion. Somewhere in the middle of the semester, he introduced an unexpected source. He asked us to read the text of Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. Most of us had heard clips of it (the speech had been given twenty years prior), but never actually read it.

We spent the next several weeks analyzing his masterpiece. We examined how Dr. King anticipated and debunked opposing arguments, how he used logic, statistics, data and emotion to reach the broadest possible audience, and how he carefully crafted and layered his arguments so as to lead to only one conclusion. We also studied his use of tools like alliteration (“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation”) and repetition (“Let freedom ring,” and “I have a dream today”) to engage and persuade his listeners.

Finally, the day came when our professor showed us the film of the full speech. We watched the grainy black and white images of Dr. King mesmerizing the massive crowd gathered on the Washington Mall, and of listeners wiping away tears. We heard his powerful ringing voice delivering the words we had studied so carefully. When the film was done, Dr. Cox stopped the projector, pointed at the frozen image of the crowds on the Mall, and said, “that—that my friends, is the power of words.”

I left class that day knowing my calling: Like Dr. King, I wanted to learn to wield the power of words (written and spoken) to change the trajectory of people’s thoughts and opinions, to lift people up, to bring hope.

I’ve spent the last thirty years doing just that. I’ve studied words through a law degree, a Master of Divinity, and years of comedy training. But while I’m still learning, the goal remains the same: to use words to bring hope and joy where there may be none.

And please understand, this is not just my calling, it’s our calling. It’s a calling that we can all claim . . . because words—our words—can change the world.