It was just over 150 years ago that Abraham Lincoln visited the site of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles to help dedicate a cemetery for soldiers who had perished in the fighting.
“Four score and seven years ago,” his brief address began, “our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Gettysburg Address is recited annually at various places around the country, including at a tiny boys school in Putney, Vt., not far from where filmmaker Ken Burns lives. Memorizing the speech can be a daunting challenge for the students, who struggle with learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD and dysgraphia. But the boys persevere.
“I was so moved, I mean tears just ran down my cheeks, and I said, ‘Somebody should make a film of this,’ ” Burns told Scott Shafer in an interview for “KQED Newsroom.”
That inspiration turned into a 90-minute documentary, “The Address,” slated to air on PBS this spring. The film weaves together the context and importance of Lincoln’s speech with the stories of the boys at the Greenwood School as they embark on their annual mission.
“Some can memorize it right away but are scared. Some take forever to do it because of certain issues with reading or memorization,” Burns said. “They bring meaning to it, and it’s so expressive and moving.”
Burns was so taken with the kids in Putney that he set out to do more than make a film: He embarked on his own mission to encourage everyone in the United States to learn and recite the Gettysburg Address. At the website dedicated to that mission, learntheaddress.org, you will find the speech read by President Obama, former President George W. Bush, singer Taylor Swift, comic/pundit Stephen Colbert and thousands of Americans who have uploaded their own YouTube videos.
In his speech, Lincoln noted the horrors of the Civil War and called on his fellow citizens to rededicate themselves to the nation’s founding principles of freedom and equality. To Burns, this message rings true today in a society that divides itself by political philosophy, geography or demographic categories.
“We often do best as a country when we’ve got our oars in the water at the same time, pulling in the same direction,” Burns said. “And we don’t do this now. … We’re red state or we’re blue state. We’re male or female. We’re gay or straight, young or old, black or white, North or South, East or West. We always want to make a distinction about the other. But what if we realize what we share?”
Also airing on PBS later this year is a Burns documentary about the intertwined lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In the interview, Shafer asked the filmmaker if California Gov. Jerry Brown and his father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, might make for an interesting documentary.
“Absolutely. You know, if I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of topics in American history,” Burns said. “You think about the way about which the Brown family has superimposed their lives and struggles and paralleled the life and struggles of California. It’d be a terrific film.”
Scott Shafer reported on this story for “KQED Newsroom,” which is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here. ” The Address” is scheduled to air on April 15 at 9 p.m.