Back in January, we broke the story about Peter Wood and Cliff Simms, two British marketing guys in Dallas who wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination by delivering the ‘Unspoken Speech,’ the speech President Kennedy never delivered on November 22, 1963. Today, Wood and Simms posted the seventh and final video excerpt online, featuring an a capella performance by the South Dallas Concert Choir. Included above is a “making of” video documentary by Art & Seek’s Dane Walters; below are all seven of the Unspoken Speech videos, in order.
- KERA Radio story:
- Expanded online story:
On a recent evening in the empty Dallas Market Center — also known as the Dallas Trade Mart — the South Dallas Concert Choir sounds as though they’re singing in some soaring cathedral in Europe. Their voices have a long, slow, fading echo, coming off the polished floors, glass storefronts and concrete walls of the Market Center atrium. This is where President Kennedy was being driven fifty years ago — and was shot to death. In fact, the Concert Choir is standing about 30 feet from where Kennedy would have stood on a podium and delivered what’s known as the Unspoken Speech.
The South Dallas Concert Choir is a non-profit, non-denominational group, based out of the South Dallas Cultural Center. The 20-year-old group is dedicated to singing, not gospel music, but the older form that fed into gospel, what’s known as the Negro spiritual. That doesn’t mean the SDCC sings only historic, period music; they sing new music as well, provided it’s in the a capella style.
They’re singing at the Market Center because last year, two British emigres in Dallas, Peter Wood and Cliff Simms, had an idea to mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. They’re in advertising, and they decided that, with the help of volunteers, they’d videotape seven eloquent paragraphs they excerpted from the Unspoken Speech. When we caught up with them in August for a radio story, they’d created the first video with 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 later shot inside a bus with Dallas civil rights protestor Clarence Broadnax. And as the videos went up online, they started getting national, then international attention. Wood and Sims were recently interviewed by the Daily Telegraph in London and Le Monde in Paris.
Basically, Dallas has been going through a kind of city-wide 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 recent, British immigrants — 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. Not all of the videos are successful to the same degree, but the first and the last are undeniably moving and simply done.
Standing in the atrium, Cliff Sims says, with a touch of relief in his voice, “Hopefully, in another four hours, we should have finished filming for the entire project. So with a bit of luck, fingers crossed, who knows? We may have this finished a little under a year, from start to finish.”
This last video has been a scramble. Wood and Sims knew they wanted to finish with a singing group, but they hadn’t planned on using the inside of the Market Center. Wood knew someone, though — someone who knew someone who sent back word that the atrium would be available — for two nights, only. So Wood and Simms had less than three weeks to find a local chorus – a church choir, a gospel group, somebody who was free on a moment’s notice and could rehearse and record the last paragraph of the speech.
They eventually contacted the South Dallas Concert Choir. Christie Thomas, president of the group, responded immediately. She says, “To think that I would be a part of [the Unspoken Speech project] when I wasn’t even alive when he was assassinated was a very, very emotional thing for me. It helped me to understand what was going on during that period, and how he wanted to uplift all people.”
Cliff Simms (in green jacket), Peter Wood, director Roger Peters and soundman Gary Parks with the South Dallas Concert Choir. All photos by Jerome Weeks
Whether it’s been from the influence of Wood and Sims’ project or not, the Unspoken Speech itself 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 November 9th at the Dallas Museum of Art. Gregory Sullivan Isaacs is a Dallas composer and the classical music critic for TheaterJones. He’s created a dramatic cantata based on the speech, with a libretto by Suzanne Calvin. The chamber group, the Hall Ensemble, will premiere it in Fort Worth next May. And on the 50th anniversary itself, during the official ceremony in Dealey Plaza, a plaque will be unveiled that includes lines from the Unspoken Speech.
In the Unspoken Speech, Kennedy defends his record of building up our military, defending it against those hawkish critics who derided him as weak in the face of the Soviets and Cuba. So there’s a lot in the speech about submarines and missiles. Which is why Wood and Sims excerpted these seven parts as more ‘universal’ and still timely. These are the parts where Kennedy argues about America’s equal rights and justice — when truly practiced — representing our real beacon to the rest of the world. Our science, our free enterprise are our real national strengths. But he also declares that strength without responsibility or without what he calls the “righteousness of our cause” is worthless. He ends with a line from Psalm 127 in the King James version: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” Meaning, unless the Lord is looking out for you, your guards are useless.
On the floor of the Trade Mart, when the South Dallas Cultural Choir finishes that last phrase, the echoes seem to extend back to the past, forward to the future.
Kennedy’s words still resonate.