Fifth Graders Revisit King's 'Dream' Speech At The Lincoln Memorial

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    Fifth-grade students recite King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
    LA Johnson/NPR
  • They look out over a crowd of class-mates, parents, tourists, and cameras, waiting to speak.
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    They look out over a crowd of class-mates, parents, tourists, and cameras, waiting to speak.
    LA Johnson/NPR
  • Each child memorized one small phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech. They're standing in the order that they will deliver their line.
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    Each child memorized one small phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech. They’re standing in the order that they will deliver their line.
    LA Johnson/NPR
  • After speaking (or, more often, shouting) their lines, the students run back to congratulatory teachers.
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    After speaking (or, more often, shouting) their lines, the students run back to congratulatory teachers.
    LA Johnson/NPR
  • After the speech, the whole class sings three Civil-Rights-inspired songs together, including "We Shall Overcome."
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    After the speech, the whole class sings three Civil-Rights-inspired songs together, including “We Shall Overcome.”
    LA Johnson/NPR

On Friday, the fifth graders from Watkins Elementary School in Washington, D.C., gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to recite Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I have a Dream” speech. Each student delivered one line at a small lectern, and then the class sang songs from the Civil Rights era. This is the fourteenth year of the celebration.

Listen to a clip here:

Listen to fifth graders reciting “I Have A Dream”

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Mechanical Failure Led Boats To Iranian Waters, U.S. Says In New Account

Two riverine command boats like this one were taken into custody by Iran, along with 10 U.S. sailors.

Two riverine command boats like this one were taken into custody by Iran, along with 10 U.S. sailors. MC2 Ecklund/U.S. Navy hide caption

toggle caption MC2 Ecklund/U.S. Navy

The United States Central Command is releasing new details about how two American Riverine Command Boats with 10 American sailors ended up in Iranian waters last week.

According to the account released by CENTCOM on Monday, one of the boats’ diesel engines began to have trouble while it traveled from Kuwait to Bahrain. The crew began troubleshooting and the second boat also stopped.

Iranian authorities had said that a “broken navigation system” had led the boats into Iranian waters, but this account contradicts that.

“This stop occurred in Iranian territorial waters, although it’s not clear the crew was aware of their exact location,” CENTCOM said in a press release. “While the [U.S. boats] were stopped and the crew was attempting to evaluate the mechanical issue, Iranian boats approached the vessels.”

The two sides traded words but not fire. Armed Iranian military personnel boarded the two American vessels while other Iranians kept watch behind machine guns mounted on their vessels.

At gunpoint, the Americans were taken to a small port facility on Farsi Island.

In a video released by Iranian state television, an American sailor is seen apologizing for the incursion. After about 15 hours of detention, the sailors were released.

CENTCOM says there are no indications that the sailors were physically harmed by Iran and an inventory of the boats found that no weapons were missing but two SIM cards “appear to have been removed from two handheld satellite phones.”

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Tiny Desk Contest

Submit Your Video

When you enter the 2016 Tiny Desk Contest, you join a nationwide community of music-makers and creators. Submit your video now!

Here’s what you do:
  • Create a new video that shows you playing one song you’ve written.
  • Do it the way you’d perform a Tiny Desk Concert: at a desk. (Any desk!)
  • Upload your video to YouTube.
  • Fill out our entry form now through Feb. 2, 2016.
The winner will:
  • Play a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR in Washington, D.C.
  • Appear at a taping of NPR’s Ask Me Another.
  • Tour the United States with NPR and Lagunitas.
Keep these things in mind:
  • We’re looking for undiscovered talent; you can’t have a current recording contract.
  • You must be at least 21 years old and live in the U.S. to enter.
  • Check our Official Rules for all the requirements. Take this quiz to see if you’re eligible.

Questions? Contact us.

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When Ancestry Search Led To Escaped Slave: 'All I Could Do Was Weep'

Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave

When she was in fifth grade, Regina Mason received a school assignment that would change her life: to connect with her country of origin. That night, she went home and asked her mother where they were from.

“She told me about her grandfather who was a former slave,” Mason tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “And that blew me away, because I’m thinking, ‘Slavery was like biblical times. It wasn’t just a few generations removed.’ “

But for Mason, slavery was a few generations removed. She would later learn that her great-great-great-grandfather, a man named William Grimes, had been a runaway slave, and that he had authored what is now considered to be the first fugitive slave narrative.

“William Grimes’ narrative is precedent-setting,” Mason says. “[It] was published in 1825, and this was years before the abolitionist movement picked up slave narrative as a propaganda tool to end slavery. It sort of unwittingly paved the way for the American slave narrative to follow.”

Grimes’ original narrative tells the story of his 30 years spent in captivity, followed by his escape in 1814 from Savannah, Ga. He describes how his former owner discovered his whereabouts after the escape and forced him to give up his house in exchange for his freedom. (An updated version, published in 1855, includes a chapter about Grimes’ later life in poverty.)

Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave was again republished in 2008 by Oxford University Press. The latest edition was edited by Mason and William Andrews, a scholar of early African-American autobiography.

Mason hopes the latest edition of her ancestor’s story helps keep alive the memory and stories of the millions of people who were enslaved in America. “So often we’re told, ‘Forget about slavery. That happened so long ago. Get over it,’ ” she says. “But when you do a genealogy search … to find these people, to understand how they lived and how they died and how oppressed they were, the reality hits you.”


Interview Highlights

On learning from her mother that her ancestors had been slaves

She talked about Grandpa Fuller, who was a mulatto slave. And I inquired about his parentage and she told me that his father, from what she knew, was a plantation owner, and his mother was an enslaved black woman. …

And I’m asking, “Well, that’s weird. Did his father own him?” … I mean, how do you explain … to children that slavery existed in freedom-loving America, No. 1; and No. 2, how do you explain to a child about an enslaved heritage shrouded in miscegenation? It’s not an easy thing to do.

On finding Grimes’ name listed in an old family Bible, confirming that he was her ancestor

There were pages tucked inside the Bible that had birth records, death records, marriage records. And I think the earliest inscription went to the late 1700s. But as I reviewed these records, there were names — and many of them familiar, and there were many unknown. And I remember skimming this one page in there; this name William Grimes jumped out at me with the death record of Aug. 21, 1865. And I just completely lost it. … And all I could do was weep.

It was amazing to see such old records where the pages had separated from the original spine of the book, where they were so discolored, fragile, blotted and stained. I mean it was a true testimony of a legacy in this country, and to connect myself to it made me realize how deep our roots went in America.

On how the story of her enslaved ancestors fits in with Martin Luther King Jr.’s message

What comes to mind for me is this: Dr. King’s dream, “I Have a Dream.” And he talks about how he would love to see the day when the descendants of slave owners and those that were enslaved come together and talk about it. He talks about sitting down at the table of brotherhood and all of us, in my mind, sharing, with empathy, each other’s struggle. And then understanding in the struggle what our commonalities are and how we can move forward in building the true ideal of America.

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Actor Idris Elba To British Politicians: More Diversity Needed In Media

Idris Elba arrives at the Governors Awards at the Dolby Ballroom on Nov. 14, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Idris Elba arrives at the Governors Awards at the Dolby Ballroom on Nov. 14, 2015, in Los Angeles. Jordan Strauss/Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP hide caption

toggle caption Jordan Strauss/Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Idris Elba is expected to make a speech about a lack of diversity on British television before members of Parliament and senior TV executives on Monday, according to The Guardian.

Elba gained popularity after his breakout role as Stringer Bell on HBO’s The Wire, won a Golden Globe award for his lead role on the BBC series Luther and is a current Screen Actor’s Guild Award nominee for his stint as Commandant in Beasts of No Nation.

The London native is expected to point to his own experience having to move to the U.S. to land roles before being able to get a lead role in his home country, according to The Guardian, which has excerpts of his speech.

“I knew I wasn’t going to land a lead role. I knew there wasn’t enough imagination in the industry for me to be seen as a lead. In other words, if I wanted to star in a British drama like Luther, then I’d have to go to a country like America. And the other thing was, because I never saw myself on TV, I stopped watching TV. Instead I decided to just go out and become TV.”

Elba will tell the audience that without going to the U.S., he would have remained the “best friend” and “cop sidekick,” adding:

“But when you don’t reflect the real world, too much talent gets trashed. Thrown on the scrapheap. Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t. And talent can’t reach opportunity.”

Elba is not the first British actor of color to make these observations, late last year David Oyelowo, who starred as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, told The Guardian he also felt “pushed out of the U.K. because of the glass ceiling” that prevented actors of color from landing lead roles in his home country.

“I could see that actors, my peers, those who had a similar trajectory to me were going on to do movies, to play leads. I started to feel I was going to go round in circles. Nice TV, back to the theatre, nice TV … but I wasn’t going to be James McAvoy, I wasn’t going to be Benedict Cumberbatch.’

Sophie Okonedo, who snagged a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for Hotel Rwanda in 2004, and won a Tony award for A Raisin in the Sun, told the publication in 2014 she was “still struggling [in the U.K.] in a way that my white counterparts at the same level wouldn’t have quite the same struggle. People who started with me would have their own series by now, and I’m still fighting to get the second lead or whatever. I think I’m at a certain level and have a good range, so why isn’t my inbox of English scripts busting at the seams in the same way as my American one is? There’s something amiss there.”

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WATCH: SpaceX Rocket Explodes Trying To Land On A Barge

Members of the media setup remote cameras for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Saturday.

Members of the media setup remote cameras for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Saturday. Bill Ingalls/AP hide caption

toggle caption Bill Ingalls/AP

Space is hard.

We were reminded of that yesterday when SpaceX tried to land a Falcon 9 rocket on a barge in the Pacific.

If you remember, SpaceX made history when another Falcon 9 successfully launched a satellite into orbit and then navigated back down to Earth landing safely on solid ground.

SpaceX had tried once before to land a rocket on a platform in the ocean but that failed pretty spectacularly.

Today, the Falcon 9 delivered a satellite into orbit and it came super close to sticking the landing on water. Here’s video:

A video posted by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on Jan 17, 2016 at 7:07pm PST

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explained what happened and added a bit of humor:

Definitely harder to land on a ship. Similar to an aircraft carrier vs land: much smaller target area, that’s also translating & rotating.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016

However, that was not what prevented it being good. Touchdown speed was ok, but a leg lockout didn’t latch, so it tipped over after landing.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016

Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time! Won’t be last RUD, but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing. pic.twitter.com/w007TccANJ

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016

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Feathers Fly Over Turkey Who Was A Passenger On A Delta Flight

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A photo shows a turkey peering through the seats with an arm around it. Presumably that of the human who needed a therapy pet. USA Today reports there are many questions surrounding the flying turkey.

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Republicans' White, Working Class Trap: A Growing Reliance

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, foreground, greets supporters after a rally last week in Iowa.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, foreground, greets supporters after a rally last week in Iowa. Jae C. Hong/AP hide caption

toggle caption Jae C. Hong/AP

Plenty of politicos and pundits have rationalized Donald Trump’s political ascent as the result of his enormous popularity among white, working-class voters.

No doubt, Trump is well liked by many college-educated Republicans, but, his real strength is among those without a bachelor’s degree. In that demographic, most polls show the business-mogul-turned-GOP-presidential-candidate is trouncing his Republican rivals.

In fact, the main reason Trump is leading national polls is because he dominates the white, non-college world.

So, that got us thinking — how powerful are white, non-college voters? And, what role do they play in the GOP of today versus the GOP of yesterday?

Reliably Republican — And Shrinking

In 1980, whites without a college degree made up almost two-thirds of the electorate (65 percent). Back then, both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter relied heavily on white, working-class voters — 60 percent of Carter voters were whites without a college degree, compared to 70 percent of Reagan voters. Keep in mind, Reagan won that election in a landslide.

Jump ahead a few decades, dig through exit polls, and you’ll find a very different political landscape.

“The electorate as a whole has gotten both more highly educated and also more diverse,” explained Jocelyn Kiley, a researcher who focuses on U.S. politics at the Pew Research Center, who helped us dig through the data.

In the 2012 generational election, half of Mitt Romney’s supporters were whites without a college degree, compared to about a quarter of Obama voters. And, yet, Romney still lost the presidency — and by an Electoral College landslide.

That’s because white, blue-collar voters are a shrinking share of the voting pool.

At the same time, as their population shrinks, they’ve also become more faithfully Republican.

“My contention is that what Reagan did was he brought a new group of people into the Republican party, and that has grown and has become more significant,” explained Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “It is less establishment; it is more what I call downscale, blue-collar non-establishment.”

Another way to think about this is that while white, working-class voters are now only about a third of the overall electorate, they’re about half of the Republican electorate.

“They remain an important part of the GOP base,” Kiley said. “And, it’s a large part of why there’s been so much attention to them in the Republican primary.”

Working-class voters are still a bedrock of the GOP in two states candidates really want to win — Iowa and New Hampshire. They made up nearly half of Republicans in the 2012 Iowa caucus and 45 percent of voters in the 2012 New Hampshire primary.

And, so while mathematically, a candidate can no longer win a general election with their support alone, it’s also nearly impossible for a Republican presidential candidate to win a GOP primary without them. The road to the GOP nomination travels through many white-working class neighborhoods. And that’s one reason it’s been difficult for the party to expand its base.

New factor — The hyper educated and the educational divide

White voters without college degrees are an important component of the GOP coalition, but an over reliance on them can also be a crutch when hyper-educated and non-white populations are growing — and becoming increasingly Democratic.

In general, whites tend to vote Republican more than people of color across educational backgrounds. In 2012, just over half of Obama voters were white, while 89 percent of Romney voters were. So, even among white college graduates, Republicans do better than Democrats, with one caveat — people with post-graduate degrees.

“Post-graduates today are overwhelmingly Democratic or lean Democratic in their partisan identification, to much a greater extent than they were 20 years ago,” said Kiley, who traced data back to 1988.

In recent years, the correlation between party ID and educational attainment has grown. Essentially, the education gap has morphed into an education gulf. White women with advanced degrees are now one of the most faithful Democratic subgroups. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 62 percent are Democratic or lean Democratic.

In the 2012 election, there was a 30-point margin between how whites with a post-grad degree voted compared to whites with no college degrees.

But, a GOP voter today is more likely to be white and working class than a Democratic voter — and they still hold more political power than hyper-educated white voters. So the candidate who can connect with them has an edge in the GOP primary — even though it might hurt them in a general election.

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Clinton Finds Herself In A Real Debate As First Voter Tests Loom

In the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses, candidate Hillary Clinton and her fellow democratic candidates took on a more aggressive tone Sunday night in Charleston, S.C.

In the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses, candidate Hillary Clinton and her fellow democratic candidates took on a more aggressive tone Sunday night in Charleston, S.C. Andrew Burton /Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Andrew Burton /Getty Images

Hillary Clinton encountered rougher seas Sunday night in her latest meeting with her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. Both Sen. Bernard Sanders and former Gov. Martin O’Malley questioned her veracity and intensified their criticism of her policy positions and campaign financing.

This was the last time these candidates will debate before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. But the mood of this meeting was more portentous than those of their previous three debates, if only because Iowa no longer looks like an easy win for Clinton. She has seen almost all her polling advantage vanish in that state. She also continues to trail in polls in New Hampshire, which will hold a primary on Feb. 8.

The Sunday night debate was held in Charleston, S.C., which will hold its Democratic primary on Feb. 27. The event was co-sponsored by NBC, YouTube and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.

O’Malley was included despite his rather humble standing in national polling (an average of roughly 2 percent support among Democrats) because he did reach the 5 percent in Iowa. By the rules for inclusion, that was sufficient.

All three candidates paid tribute to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by citing King’s influence on their lives. Issues of specific interest to African-Americans surfaced often through the nearly two-hour event.

All three candidates talked of inequities in the criminal justice system affecting black men in particular. Sanders generally agreed on these points and also said any death in police custody should automatically trigger an investigation by the Justice Department. Asked why he was trailing Clinton by more than 2-1 among black Democrats, Sanders replied with a recitation of how well he was doing in other polls and how far he had come.

African-Americans, he said, would come along once they got to know him and his issues. Among those issues was his repeated critique of Wall Street banks and of the campaign finance system, which he said perpetuated income inequality and other distortions of the nation’s economic life.

“When the African-American community becomes familiar with my congressional record,” said Sanders, “and with our agenda, and with our views on the economy, and criminal justice — just as the general population has become more supportive, so will the African-American community, so will the Latino community.”

Clinton, when asked what issue she wanted to talk about but had not been asked about, cited the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich., an older industrial city with a largely African-American population. A recent decision to use river water there has led to widespread lead poisoning, including nearly all the city’s younger children.

Sanders began the debate on the defensive regarding his past stands on gun rights and immunity for gun makers.

“He voted for immunity from gun makers and sellers which the N.R.A. said was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years,” said Clinton. “He voted to let guns go onto Amtrak, guns go into national parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives.”

Said Sanders in reply, “I think Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous,” adding that he only had “a D-minus rating from the NRA” so he couldn’t be that good a friend.

Sanders then took the fight to Clinton on a number of other issues — especially the regulation of Wall Street, her ties to Wall Street banks, including $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.

Clinton at several points defended her stands by linked them to President Obama’s — an ironic tactic given her bitter fight with him over the 2008 nomination.

“The comments that Sen. Sanders has made,” said Clinton, “[they] don’t just affect me, I can take that, but he’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of the great recession.”

And she did not leave it there.

“Sen. Sanders called [Obama] weak, disappointing,” Clinton said. “He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama.”

She highlighted her work with Obama on foreign policy as his secretary of state (2009-2013) and argued for maintaining and defending Obamacare rather than reaching for a Sanders-style revision of the system that she said would “force the country back into another contentious debate.”

Sanders said he would be replacing existing government programs and private insurance with what Franklin D. Roosevelt had wanted: “health care for every man, woman and child as a right.”

To finance the government as the new “single payer” for health care, Sanders would raise taxes substantially on higher incomes in the U.S., imposing rates of over 50 percent on the incomes of the wealthiest. Capital gains would also be taxed at the same rate as wages and other forms of income. The payroll tax that now covers Social Security and Medicare would also be enlarged and extended to more income that is currently exempt, were Sanders to prevail.

“It’s one thing to say I’m raising taxes,” said Sanders. “It’s another thing to say that we are doing away with private health insurance premiums. So if I save you $10,000 in private health insurance and you pay a little bit more in taxes in total, there are huge savings in what your family is spending.”

Foreign affairs came up at several points but did not dominate the evening as in some of the Republican debates. The candidates noted that several individuals with dual American-Iranian citizenship who faced prison terms in Iran had been released over the weekend after 14 months of negotiations between the two countries.

The U.S. has also just lifted sanctions on that country pursuant to the larger agreement negotiated and completed in 2015. Those arrangements, and the easing of legal cases brought by the Justice Department against several Iranians, had been roundly criticized by several Republican candidates for president on Sunday.

Clinton in particular praised her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, for his efforts to free The Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and the other detainees and for negotiating the recent nuclear agreement with Tehran.

Much of the social media attention paid to the debate focused on the more aggressive tone and approach taken by all three contestants. Sanders had been urged to drive home his contrasts with Clinton to close the sale in Iowa and New Hampshire. He was expected to do in part because the Clinton campaign had sharpened its own attacks on him in recent days.

Chelsea Clinton had accused him of trying to “dismantle” the existing health care system, and a SuperPAC run by a Clinton ally had run an ad asking whether Sanders, now 74, is healthy and vigorous enough to serve four or eight years in the Oval Office.

The heightened tension also reflected the relatively unsettled state of the race. After months of seeming the clear favorite and likely nominee, Clinton has seen her national approval ratings fall in the past month. And while Sanders has not risen to a corresponding degree in national polls, he has improved his standing in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

A resident of Vermont for nearly half a century, Sanders has always had a certain appeal to Democrats, especially the more liberal ones, in neighboring New Hampshire. But his ascent in Iowa, where he began with far less name recognition, has raised eyebrows throughout the political world. It was in Iowa that Barack Obama began his string of upset victories over Clinton in 2008, when she had once been thought nearly as inevitable as she seemed last fall.

Hillary Clinton maintains in some national polls of Democrats and those who lean toward the Democrats. The latest reading by the respected tandem of NBC and The Wall Street Journal most recently found her ahead of Sanders by 25 points countrywide. But last week a CBS News New York Times poll had her national edge at just 7 points.

All agree that in Iowa and New Hampshire the race is too close to call. Clinton has a lead of four points when all Iowa polls are averaged, while Sanders has a six-point advantage by the same measure in New Hampshire. Sanders found a moment to crow about this:

“As Secretary Clinton well knows, when this campaign began she was 50 points ahead of me. We were all of three percentage points. Guess what? In Iowa, New Hampshire, the race is very, very close. Maybe we’re ahead [in] New Hampshire.”

Clinton seems comfortably ahead in the next two states that also test party sentiment in February, Nevada and South Carolina. But such leads have melted away in the past when a frontrunner has failed to win in Iowa or New Hampshire.

In 2008, the last time the Democrats had a contested nomination, Clinton saw her early polling dominance challenged when Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, gained a solid win in Iowa. Even though Clinton recovered to win in New Hampshire the following week, her support declined in South Carolina and Nevada. This enabled Obama to gain the upper hand, fight her to a draw on the big primary day (Super Tuesday) and then outlast her through the spring.

Could that happen to Clinton again this year? It seems less likely, as Sanders lacks Obama’s natural advantage among African-Americans and other minority voters in South Carolina and elsewhere. So even if he wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, he might still struggle in the later February states. Thereafter, as the contest move to other Southern states on March 1, black voters will continue to represent a larger portion of the Democratic turnout.

O’Malley could also be a factor in the Iowa contest, which is conducted as an open caucus at the precinct level. At these events, caucus participants hold a preliminary vote, and candidates whose support falls short of a viability threshold are dropped. Their supporters are then free to support others in the final vote. So in those precincts where O’Malley has backers, but not even to qualify for the final vote, the second-choice preference of those backers could prove critically important. A similar dynamic has made a difference to the outcome in the Iowa caucuses in some recent cycles — notably 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

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Superlatives Notwithstanding, Even 'The Force' Has Its Limits

Spoiler alert. The Force Awakens is far from being the biggest film of all time.

Spoiler alert. The Force Awakens is far from being the biggest film of all time. David James/LucasFilm hide caption

toggle caption David James/LucasFilm

Biggest, fastest, highest, most…it’s hard to talk about The Force Awakens without superlatives. No question the Force is strong with this one at the box office. But would it surprise you to learn that despite all the records it’s been setting, The Force Awakens is only the third biggest Star Wars movie in terms of attendance? Or as cute as that adorable soccer ball with personality BB-8 is, just as many millions of people have gone “awwwww” at the puppies in 101 Dalmatians?

The Force Awakens is big, make no mistake, but biggest?…not by a long shot. In attendance, according to boxofficemojo.com, it hasn’t even cracked the top ten yet if you include the re-releases of older films. And it’s had nothing like the same social impact. Lots of people talk about “adjusting for inflation” when they compare box office figures, but forget about dollars. I’m talking butts-in-seats. Charlton Heston put more butts-in-seats when he raced chariots in Ben Hur. And a couple of years earlier, he had put many, many more butts in seats when he parted the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments.

That was the 1950s, when the population of the U.S. was about half what it is now. So it was much tougher to rack up attendance numbers over a hundred million. Not to mention that Heston’s biblical epics played downtown for months in exclusive, reserved-seat engagements before they ventured out to the places people actually lived. It was considered downright modern in the 1960s when movies opened right off the bat in the suburbs. When I went to Clark University, there were two — count ’em, TWO — movie screens anywhere near our campus in Worcester, Massachussets, and for very nearly my entire freshman year — and believe me, I remember this — one of them was playing Doctor Zhivago. The other was playing Sound of Music.

YouTube

Different world, obviously. But note that both of those films, even without the advantage of playing in thousands of multiplexes (which hadn’t been invented yet) were seen by tens of millions more people than have seen The Force Awakens so far. So were two films that scared baby boomers silly a decade later — Jaws and The Exorcist.

Even after all that, when the original Star Wars came along, it opened on fewer than 50 screens nationwide. But it was such a huge hit, that on its way to becoming the second-most-attended film in U.S. history, it really did change the film industry — the way movies were released, and merchandised. It re-wrote the rules. That’s not going to happen with The Force Awakens, which is just going to sell a lot of toys and make the Disney organization a pile of cash. It is going to do that reeeeeally fast. That’s the big change this time. In 1977 the original Star Wars stayed in theaters all summer churning out practically the same numbers every weekend. This one’s dropping 30 to 40 percent each week. It’s still huge — approaching 100 million admissions — but it’s going to play itself out a lot faster. Which means, if I can do a little crystal-ball gazing, that it will not — not even with a couple of re-releases in a few years — match the granddaddy of all blockbusters.

Gone with the Wind has sold more than 200 million tickets — most of them back when there were far fewer people on the planet.

Gone with the Wind has sold more than 200 million tickets — most of them back when there were far fewer people on the planet. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Gone With the Wind has sold more than 200 million tickets in its many releases. And it sold most of them back when there were far fewer people on the planet. In 1939, the city fathers of Atlanta welcomed Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh to Gone with the Wind’s world premiere with a parade that reportedly attracted 1.5 million spectators. For the record, the population of Atlanta back then, was barely one fifth of that. Disney, by comparison, threw a block-party for a few thousand invited guests when it premiered The Force Awakens. Might want to keep that in mind as the media reports on the history-making return of the Star Wars franchise.

History, it seems, is also a Force to be reckoned with. May the hype be with you.

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