100 of the greatest speeches of the 20th century
100 greatest speeches of the 20th century
The 20th century was one of the most varied, hopeful, and tumultuous in world history. From the Gilded Age to the beginning of the Internet Age—with plenty of stops along the way—it was a century punctuated by conflicts including two World Wars, the Cold War, the War in Vietnam, and the development of nuclear warfare. At the same time, the 20th century was characterized by a push for equality: Women in the United States received the right to vote after decades of activism, while the civil rights movement here ended the era of Jim Crow, inspired marginalized groups to take action, and introduced this country to great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Hundreds of people have used their voices along the way to heal, inspire, and enact change with speeches that helped to define these poignant moments in world history. Stacker has curated a list of 100 of the greatest speeches from the 20th century, drawing from research into great American speeches as determined by 137 scholars of American public address, as well as other historical sources. What follows is a gallery of speeches from around the U.S. and the world dealing with the most pressing issues of the day. Not all images show the speech event itself, but do feature the people who gave them.
Read on to discover which American author accepted his Nobel prize under protest and whether an American president accidentally called himself a jelly donut in German.
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#100. Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning”
Delivered Jan. 20, 1993, in Washington D.C.
Maya Angelou, a longtime supporter of the Clinton family, became the second poet (after Robert Frost in 1961), and the first African American poet, to read at a presidential inauguration. She delivered “On the Pulse of Morning” directly after President Bill Clinton gave his first address, a poem that spanned the entire history of America and ended with a hopeful “Good morning.” She won the Best Spoken Word Grammy for her performance, and a new audience was introduced to her previous work with the recognition she’d gained from the performance.
#99. Robert M. La Follette’s “Free Speech in Wartime”
Delivered Oct. 6, 1917, in Washington D.C.
Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette was one of just six Senators to oppose U.S. entry into World War I and, after war was declared, an antiwar speech he gave was misleadingly portrayed in the media. As Senators threatened to expel him from the legislative body, he launched a lengthy filibuster that concluded with his rousing defense of “Free Speech in Wartime.” He decisively stated that free speech during times of war was not only necessary, but that “the first step toward the prevention of war and the establishment of peace, permanent peace, is to give the people who must bear the brunt of war's awful burden more to say about it.” Not everyone in the Senate was convinced, and La Follette was under investigation for treason until the end of the war.
#98. Yasser Arafat’s “Gun and Olive Branch”
Delivered Nov. 13, 1974, at the UN General Assembly, New York City, N.Y.
A divisive historical figure at the center of one of the most controversial conflicts, Yasser Arafat served as the Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization for nearly half a century. In 1974, he became the first non-voting member to speak in front of a plenary session of the United Nations. He declared, "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." His “olive branch” appeal to peace in the long-running conflict affected the audience, slightly boosted public support for the Palestinians, and PLO was granted observer status in the international body.
#97. Audre Lorde’s “Uses of Anger” keynote address
Delivered June 1981, in Storrs, Conn.
Well-known as a poet, writer, feminist, and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde wasn’t afraid to critique the second-wave feminism movement for its disregard for the different ways women of color, particularly black women, suffered under the patriarchy. “Uses of Anger” was her keynote speech at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, but in it, Lorde doesn’t only express rage at men and the white feminists who silence those marginalized voices. She also declares, “And I am not free as long as one person of color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you.” Here and throughout she echoes the language of more inclusive intersectional feminism but also portends the modern solidarity movements between minority groups we see today.
#96. Charles de Gaulle’s “Appeal of June 18”
Broadcast June 18, 19, and 22, 1940, via BBC radio
By 1940, things weren’t looking great for Allied powers fighting in Europe, and in June 1940, France, one of the last remaining military powers on the continent, fell to the Nazi army. Escaping the country before a complete Nazi takeover, General Charles de Gaulle declared himself the leader of Free France (based in London), and broadcast several messages calling for resistance in his home country. He knew that “the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die,” and ultimately he was proved correct four years later when France was liberated from the Nazi party. He would later become President of the French Republic.
#95. Margaret Sanger’s “The Children’s Era”
Delivered March 30, 1925, in New York City, N.Y.
The founder of what today is Planned Parenthood, and one of America’s most famous birth control advocates, has both the reason and experience to be concerned with the plight of the country’s children. In this speech at the Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference, Margaret Sanger uses the powerful imagery of turning the world into “a beautiful garden of children.” This garden, she suggests, must be cultivated from a fetus’ conception and lays out several criteria she thinks parents should be forced to meet before having children—echoing several eugenicist talking points popular before World War II.
#94. George C. Marshall’s “Marshall Plan”
Delivered June 5, 1947, at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Following World War II, the European continent was in shambles, and after failing to negotiate German reconstruction with the Soviet Union, the United States decided it couldn’t wait for the USSR to get involved before stepping in. Secretary of State George Marshall doesn’t necessarily outline the specifics of the plan that today bears his name, instead calling on European leaders to accept U.S. help to rebuild (and of course, stop the spread of Communism). American journalists were kept as far away from the speech as possible because the Truman administration feared Americans wouldn’t like the plan. But it was delivered and later accepted by Europe.
#93. Corazon Aquino’s “Speech Before the Joint Session of the United States Congress”
Delivered: Sept. 18, 1986, in Washington D.C.
Corazon Aquino transformed from a self-described “plain housewife” to the presidency of the Philippines after the assassination of her husband Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. He was outspoken about the dictatorial rule of President Ferdinand Marcos, and Corazon took up the mantle, becoming the face of the People Power Revolution that ultimately ousted Marcos and elevated Aquino to the presidency. In this speech, the newly installed president eloquently recalls her journey thus far and reaffirms her commitment to bringing democracy and prosperity to the Filipino people.
#92. Jimmy Carter’s “Energy and National Goals: Address to the Nation”
Delivered: July 15, 1979, in Washington D.C.
Energy policy is one of the signature domestic achievements of the Carter administration, reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and improving nuclear power in the U.S. However, President Carter’s address on energy policy ended up being about more than those policies. Energy is the jumping-off point for those who have lost faith in government—who feel hopeless and fragmented. He tells these frightened people to “have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation,” and that his energy policy is a start in the right direction for healing the nation.
#91. Eva Perón’s “Renunciation of the Vice Presidency of Argentina”
Delivered Aug. 31, 1951, on Argentine radio
Immortalized by the people of Argentina, a Broadway musical, and a movie starring Madonna, Eva “Evita” Perón climbed from a childhood of poverty to First Lady when her husband Juan Perón became president in 1946 with the help of her campaigning. She was active as First Lady, helping women earn the right to vote, furthering her husband’s Perónist movement, and meeting with the poor. She became something of a celebrity in the country, and in 1951 she announced her candidacy for the vice presidency alongside her husband, to the delight of the poor and working-class citizens she dedicated her time to. Their joy was short-lived; cancer left Perón unable to run for office, as she announces in this speech.
#90. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s “Statement at the Smith Act Trial”
Delivered April 24, 1952, in New York City, N.Y.
The Smith Act Trial swept up huge numbers of Communist Party members and put them on trial for allegedly trying to overthrow the U.S. government. American Communist Party leader and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, was one of those. She represented herself, made an impassioned statement to the court about her communist beliefs, and argued that she was not, as a communist, advocating for the fall of the government. Despite her remarks, she was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison.
#89. Ronald Reagan’s “Speech on the Challenger Disaster”
Delivered: Jan. 28, 1986, via TV broadcast
The explosion of the Challenger Shuttle just seconds after took off into the sky left seven people dead, including a civilian school teacher, on the same day that President Reagan was to give the State of the Union. Instead, he called in a young speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, to write a new speech that would help the nation process the tragedy they had seen broadcast on live TV. Reagan’s speech is lauded even today for its careful balance between honoring the dead while reminding listeners of the importance of exploring the vast and unknown reaches of space, a quest for exploration for which the Challenger astronauts died.
#88. Elizabeth Glaser’s “Address at the 1992 Democratic National Convention”
Delivered July 14, 1992, in New York City
Elizabeth Glaser contracted HIV early in the AIDS epidemic after receiving a contaminated transfusion while giving birth; she passed it on to both her children either through breastmilk or in utero. After her daughter passed away at age seven from AIDS, Glasner and two friends started the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and this activism led to her invitation to speak at the DNC in 1992. There, she described the issue as “not politics” but a “crisis of caring” that led the Republican administration to fail to tackle the AIDS crisis, and she called out Democrats as well to do better. She passed away from complications of the disease two years later.
#87. Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man with the Muckrake”
Delivered April 14, 1906, in Washington D.C.
Investigative journalism was booming in the first decade of the 20th century, as Progressive Era muckraking writers continued to publicize injustices to the country. These journalists had one powerful enemy: President Theodore Roosevelt, as he disliked writers who focused on bad things at the exclusion of all the good that was happening. His speech didn’t call for these journalists to stop their practices of uncovering corrupt businessmen but reminded writers that their work affects public outlook and opinion, so only focusing on the worst moments could have a negative impact on the fabric of the nation.
#86. Richard Nixon’s “The Great Silent Majority”
Delivered Nov. 3, 1969, in Washington D.C.
Richard Nixon was sworn into office in January 1969 after a wave of anti-Vietnam protests across the country left opposition to the war at a peak. Eleven months after he took office, Nixon gave an Oval Office speech that made clear he believed those protesting the war didn’t demonstrate what most Americans actually thought about Vietnam—their opinions were just louder. He called on “the great silent majority of Americans” watching to support him in his decision. It was a gamble, but it paid off as Nixon’s approval ratings shot up overnight and popularized the use of the term “silent majority,” which is still used in politics today.
#85. John F. Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”
Delivered June 26, 1963, in West Berlin, Germany
Huge crowds thronged around the stage where President John F. Kennedy threw away the speech written by his advisers designed not to offend the Soviet Union and instead read one he’d written himself. The president demonstrated his solidarity with the citizens of the divided city by declaring, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or essentially, “I’m a citizen of Berlin in spirit.” (For those who may be wondering, it’s a popular myth, but JFK did not accidentally call himself a jelly donut when he called himself a Berliner.) Those who saw the speech in West Berlin, as well as those who watched it around the globe, were inspired.
#84. Rachel Carson’s “A New Chapter in Silent Spring”
Delivered Jan. 8, 1963, in New York City, N.Y.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, environmentalism sprang up as a social justice organization inspired by the civil rights movement. A seminal text was Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which detailed the effects of the harmful pesticide DDT. In a speech to the Garden Club of America after her book’s publication, Carson discusses the importance of raising public awareness of environmental issues, the next steps for those against pesticides, and new environmental dangers emerging on the horizon.
#83. Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace”
Delivered Dec. 8, 1953, at the UN General Assembly, New York City, N.Y.
The development of nuclear warfare gave the Cold War higher stakes and led to fears of a potential nuclear holocaust should something go wrong. In his “Atoms for Peace” speech before the UN, Eisenhower admitted that he needed to speak in a “new language...the language of atomic warfare,” and for the first time let the public know what the atomic age actually meant. Ultimately, the speech demonstrated the need for nuclear disarmament due to its destructive power; at the same time, the huge danger offered the U.S. an excuse to continue the arms race with the USSR after the Soviets refused to disarm.
#82. Eugene V. Debs’ “Statement to the Court”
Delivered Sept. 18, 1918, in Girard, Kan.
Eugene V. Debs ran for president five times as a candidate for the Socialist Party but ran his final campaign in 1920 from a prison cell. Debs made an enemy of President Woodrow Wilson for his repeated speeches denouncing U.S. entry into World War I and was arrested on 10 charges of sedition. At his trial, Debs was granted permission to testify on his own behalf; the two-hour speech is remembered for its beautiful passages that moved even people who did not support him, such as in his concluding call for listeners everywhere to “take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.” He was sentenced to a decade in prison but only served a few years before his sentence was commuted.
#81. Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience”
Delivered June 1, 1950, in Washington D.C.
Joseph Welch ultimately took down Joseph McCarthy during a 1953 trial investigating communism in the Army, but he was far from the first person to attempt to end the Senator’s red-scare fearmongering. Senator Margaret Chase of Maine took aim at him from the Senate to the House floor four months after he became a national figure, with a speech that endorsed “the right to criticize, the right to hold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest, [and] the right of independent thought” as fundamental to American democracy. She was joined by six other moderate Republican Senators in her rebuke, and some publications praised her for taking a stand while others dismissed her concerns. It wasn’t until 1954 that the rest of the Senate took her side and formally censured McCarthy.
#80. Gloria Steinem’s “Testimony Before Senate Hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment”
Delivered May 6, 1970, in Washington D.C.
While Shirley Chisholm’s speech on the Equal Rights Amendment emphasized all the change its passage would bring, Gloria Steinem—a feminist, activist, and journalist—focused on the sex-based myths that she saw as the root of these problems. Among other myths she took down during her testimony, Steinem cited science that proves men aren’t biologically superior to women, points out that discrimination keeps women and African Americans from pursuing their dreams as fully as possible, and noted that men, women, and children all benefit when women are treated more equally in the family.
#79. Barbara Bush’s “Choices and Change” commencement address
Delivered June 1, 1990, at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass.
Unlike most commencement addresses, all three major news networks interrupted their coverage to carry First Lady Barbara Bush’s speech to Wellesley College live. Students were unhappy after Bush had replaced author Alice Walker after she withdrew as the speaker, but the First Lady silenced even her most fervent protestors when she showed up with the First Lady of the USSR, Raisa Gorbachev. The speech itself addressed student criticism head-on and exhorted all students, no matter their goals, to prioritize relationships above all.
#78. Lyndon B. Johnson’s “The Great Society”
Delivered May 22, 1964, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.
This speech launched President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious domestic policy agenda and outlined exactly what he meant by a “Great Society.” He defined it as “[demanding] an end to poverty and racial injustice,” a place where all children can be educated, and “a challenge constantly renewed.” Though the rhetoric in the speech is so sweeping it seems impossible to live up to, Johnson’s list of accomplishments is long. He signed the Civil Rights Act, integrated schools, started Medicare, gave federal aid to K-12 schools and created federally backed college loans.
#77. Ronald Reagan’s “Address at the U.S. Ranger Monument on the 40th Anniversary of D-Day”
Delivered June 6, 1984, in Pointe du Hoc, France
The title of Ronald Reagan’s eloquent D-Day memorial address provides a bland package for the stirring—and at times chilling—speech he gave in honor of the storming of Normandy four decades prior. Reagan spoke of the Rangers that climbed the cliffs, remarking that "when one...fell, another would take his place.” The focus, however, did not remain on how the men who died there passed away, but rather on the convictions that drove them; speaking directly to the men who died, Reagan praised them: “You all knew that some things are worth dying for...democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.”
#76. Emma Goldman’s “Address to the Jury”
Delivered July 9, 1917, in New York City, N.Y.
A Russian-born feminist and anarchist, Emma Goldman went around the country delivering speeches supporting free speech, birth control, women’s rights, labor’s right to organize, and other progressive causes. In 1917, she and fellow radical Alexander Berkman were arrested for organizing the anti-war No Conscription League because it encouraged men not to register for a draft. At her trial, Goldman invoked the First Amendment, and like many other free speech advocates at the time, pointed out that “if America has entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America” by safeguarding free speech protections. The jury was not convinced, and both were found guilty.
#75. Edward Kennedy’s “Eulogy for Robert F. Kennedy”
Delivered June 8, 1968, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, N.Y.
Within a decade, Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy lost both his brothers to assassination, first President John F. Kennedy in 1963, then Robert “Bobby” Kennedy in 1968, whom he eulogized three days later. His heart-wrenching speech pulled together the past, present, and future, deftly weaving together Bobby’s writings, the grief of his family and the nation over his brother’s death, and his own vision for the future.
#74. Mario Savio’s “Bodies Upon the Gears”
Delivered Dec. 2, 1964, in Berkeley, Calif.
Mario Savio was a student leader during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which worked to end the school’s restriction on students’ political speech. Known for his fiery speeches, Savio delivered his most famous one during a sit-in at Sprout Hall, advocating for civil disobedience: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! ... And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels...and you've got to make it stop.” This inspired hundreds to occupy an administrative building overnight, and they continue to inspire countercultural and anti-government movements around the world.
#73. Jesse Jackson’s “1984 Democratic National Convention”
Delivered July 18, 1984, in San Francisco, Calif.
Perhaps one of the biggest shifts in 20th-century politics was the “great reversal” of each political party’s key constituencies: White Southerners became overwhelmingly Republican while black voters abandoned the party of Lincoln in favor of the Democratic presidents who worked to pass civil rights legislation. In the ‘80s, Democrats thought they should pivot back to the whites who’d abandoned the party, but civil rights leader Jesse Jackson’s 1984 DNC address proposed an alternative: build a “rainbow coalition” that “makes room” for diversity, including black, Latino, young, Native American, environmentalist, activist, union, and LGBTQ+ voters. The strategy seems to have worked, if the diversity of the candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination is any indication.
#72. John L. Lewis, “Labor and the Nation”
Delivered Sept. 2, 1937, in Washington D.C.
Powerful unions like the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations—whose founding president was John L. Lewis—emerged in the 1920s and ‘30s. Lewis’ speech lays out the long, occasionally bloody history of unions that brought them to this point and argues that the labor movement’s fight for “peace with justice” shouldn’t be seen as communist and should be supported by the people. It seems his speech fell on deaf ears, as unions were significantly weakened in the 1970s and have been on the decline since.
#71. Margaret Sanger’s “The Morality of Birth Control”
Delivered Nov. 18, 1921, at Park Theatre, New York
Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was one of the most outspoken advocates for every man and woman’s right to access birth control and take control of their own family planning. In this speech, she argues that it is not immoral, as some claim, but rather that it’s moral for children to be desired and that motherhood should “be the function of dignity and choice.” (She also argues that disabled and impoverished people might not be fit parents, echoing eugenicist ideas of the time, but her fundamental argument is a woman’s right to choose.) Open access to birth control for married and unmarried couples wouldn’t be realized until the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision established a constitutional right to privacy over reproductive choices.
#70. Shirley Chisholm, “For the Equal Rights Amendment”
Delivered Aug. 10, 1970, in Washington D.C.
Versions of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would enshrine women’s equality into the Constitution, have been proposed since women earned the right to vote, but it didn’t take off until the second-wave feminist movement began to push for its passage. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress, delivered an eloquent defense of the ERA in the face of arguments that its passage would do nothing to change sexist attitudes. It passed the Senate two years later but was never ratified by enough states—just one more state needs to do so for it to become law.
#69. Edward Kennedy’s “Faith, Truth, and Tolerance in America”
Delivered Oct. 3, 1983, at Liberty Baptist College, Lynchburg, Va.
Polls from the 2018 midterms stuck to a trend that’s been evident for decades: White Christians, particularly evangelical Protestants, overwhelmingly vote Republican. The rise of the evangelical or “religious” right in the 1970s, and America’s increasing polarization, led to this point, but Senator Edward Kennedy’s address at the evangelical Liberty University suggested it didn’t have to be this way. The devoutly Catholic Kennedy argued that no one’s “convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society,” leading to a robust separation of church and state. The connection between Americans is not, he suggests, a shared faith but rather “individual freedom and mutual respect.”
#68. Mary Church Terrell’s "What It Means to Be Colored in the Capital of the United States"
Delivered Oct. 10, 1906, in Washington D.C.
A trailblazer half a century before the full force of the civil rights movement, Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African American women to earn a college degree. She spent her life working in the D.C. education system and the fight for black women’s rights. Her hallmark speech detailed the discrimination and racism she and other African Americans experienced in the nation’s capital and called on white listeners to realize the impact this oppression has on the future of black people living in D.C. and across the country.
#67. Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat”
Delivered May 13, 1940, at the House of Commons, London, England
Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as British Prime Minister following Chamberlain’s failed attempts to prevent war with Nazi Germany through appeasement. Churchill wasn’t an immediately obvious choice as his successor, as his reputation left him with few friends in Parliament, but he was the only man with enough experience willing to take on the job in the middle of a war. In his first speech to Parliament, he offered only his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat...to wage war against [the] monstrous tyranny” that was Nazi Germany. The sentiment won him the support of skeptics in Parliament and was the first in a trio of speeches that unified the country in the early years of the war.
#66. Wilma Mankiller’s “On Rebuilding the Cherokee Nation”
Delivered April 2, 1993, in Sweet Briar, Va.
An activist from her early days, Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to be Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation after decades of community organizing. In her speech at Sweet Briar, Mankiller infuses her story with wry humor and keen insight while at the same time, with gravity, narrating the history of the Cherokee tribe and the deadly removals they faced at the hands of the U.S. government. Mankiller emphasizes trying to rebuild the community that endured within the Cherokee Nation despite all the removals. This theme was made all the more powerful when you remember that Native American children were separated from their communities and forced into assimilationist boarding schools up through the 1970s.
#65. Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds”
Delivered from 1900 to 1925, in multiple locations across the U.S.
The American Dream and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” school of thought were popularized in the Gilded Age, creating an ideology of success that proposes any person in the country can succeed, no matter their circumstance, as long as they work hard. Russell Conwell, a former minister, ushered this school of thought into the 20th century with the “Acres of Diamonds” speech, which claims it is “your duty to get rich,” and, in general, that impoverished people are unsympathetic because it was their own shortcomings that got them there.
#64. Ellen DeGeneres’ “Vigil for Matthew Shepard”
Delivered Oct. 14, 1998, in Washington D.C.
In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out, as did the character on her sitcom (becoming the first LGBTQ+ lead on a TV show), paving the way for more LGBTQ+ representation in Hollywood. The following year, Matthew Shepard’s murder sent shock waves through the LGBTQ+ community, evident in the angry, tearful speech DeGeneres gave at a celebrity vigil. She called out the hypocrisy of the church and framed Shepard’s murder as “a wake-up call” for straight allies “to help us end the hate” and “raise your children with love and non-judgment.” Already emerging as a spokesperson for LGBTQ+ rights, she gave voice to the rage and heartbreak many in the community, and across the nation, felt in the wake of the brutal anti-gay hate crime.
#63. Harry Truman’s “Statement by the President Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima”
Delivered Aug. 6, 1945, via radio address
On Aug. 6, 1945, modern warfare changed forever when the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. In a radio address to the nation announcing both the development of atomic-bomb technology and the attack, President Harry Truman announced “let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war” using the atomic bomb. Three days later, a bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, decisively ending the war in the Pacific.
#62. Harold Ickes' “What Is an American?”
Delivered May 1941, in Central Park, New York City, N.Y.
In this speech, Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior during the Roosevelt Administration, asks a question that we’re still grappling with in one way or another today. Here, Ickes answers the question to advocate for American involvement in World War II, bemoaning the loss of America’s “vaunted idealism”. He characterizes an American as someone who “loves justice,” “will fight for his freedom” and “in whose heart is engraved the immortal second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.” Ickes appeals to these ideals to establish the necessity of fighting the Nazi threat to democracy; however, the bombing of Pearl Harbor a few months later is ultimately what pulled the U.S. into the war.
#61. Golda Meir’s “Speech That Made Possible a Jewish State”
Delivered Jan. 2, 1948, in Chicago, Ill.
As the fight between Israelis and Palestinians intensified over the land to form the Jewish state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (who would become Israel’s first Prime Minister) sent Golda Meir (who would become the third) to America to ask for money to finance the fighting from the American Jewish community. The speech, first delivered in Chicago, then across the U.S., appealed to a sense of unity within the community, suggesting that “if you were in Palestine and we were in the United States,” the American Jewish community would do the same thing they did. She then asked for between $25 and $30 million to continue the fight; she returned home with $50 million to finance the effort.
#60. Rigoberta Menchú’s “Nobel Peace Prize Lecture”
Delivered Dec. 10, 1992, in Oslo, Norway
Rigoberta Menchú is a fierce advocate for the rights of indigenous people, stemming from racism she’s experienced in her home country and the violence that caused her to flee her home. She told her story that resulted in the book, "I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala," which shaped her into a spokeswoman for indigenous rights in the Western Hemisphere. She makes her universal message clear in her Nobel Lecture, in which she declares her prize “constitutes a sign of hope in the struggle of the indigenous people in the entire Continent.”
#59. Robert F. Kennedy’s “On the Death of Martin Luther King”
Delivered April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, Ind.
Brother to John F. Kennedy and candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, Robert F. Kennedy was at a campaign stop in Indiana when news came that Martin Luther King had been shot while marching with striking sanitation workers. His death would lead to marches and protests across the country but when RFK announced the death in Indianapolis, no violence broke out. Instead, in this short and powerful speech, Kennedy empathizes with those hurt by King’s death, connecting it with his own brother’s murder, and calls for unity and compassion in honor of King’s legacy.
#58. Indira Gandhi’s “What Educated Women Can Do”
Delivered Nov. 23, 1973, in New Delhi, India
Daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the world’s longest-serving female PM, Indira Gandhi had the kind of education that most Indian girls would never dream of receiving, especially in the 1930s and 40s. However, her own story doesn’t figure into her famous speech on women’s education, instead focusing on the need for more scientifically educated people, both men and women, so the country could achieve great things and become truly modern.
#57. Tony Blair’s “Address to the Irish Parliament”
Delivered Nov. 26, 1998, in Dublin, Ireland
The relationship between Britain and Ireland had been characterized by centuries of colonialism and violence, culminating in the partition of Ireland and later the Troubles, decades of intense violence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The two sides had made peace with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s address to the Irish Parliament a few months later marked the first time a British PM addressed an Irish parliament and affirmed that healing had begun and more could be accomplished by both nations when “our voices speak in harmony.”
#56. Richard Nixon’s “Checkers”
Delivered Sept. 23, 1952, via television broadcast
This speech, delivered when Nixon was a candidate for Vice President, might be named after the Nixon family dog, but the actual subject proves slightly less adorable. In it, Nixon used a television broadcast to directly answer accusations that he’d used political contributions to pay for personal expenses. He denied the allegations, laid out his financial history and proved his political intelligence by turning the question to the Democrats, asking their candidate to do the same. But what about Checkers the dog? Apparently, she was the only political contribution the Nixon’s kept.
#55. Nelson Mandela’s “Free at Last”
Delivered May 2, 1994, in Pretoria, South Africa
Decades earlier, Nelson Mandela made a name for himself for his anti-apartheid speech while on trial in Pretoria; now, after 27 years in prison, apartheid had officially ended and Mandela had become South Africa’s first democratically elected president. “Free at last” is a reference to a Dr. Martin Luther King speech, showing how closely connected the anti-apartheid and civil rights movement were, though the two leaders never met. The speech emphasizes both the joy of the moment and continued work needed to build “a better life for all South Africans.”
#54. Nikita Khrushchev’s “The Cult of the Individual”
Delivered Dec. 5, 1956, in Moscow, Russia
Very few men in the Soviet Union dared insult or question Joseph Stalin, a man who ordered the deaths of millions of his own people, including political rivals. It wasn’t until after his death that his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was willing to say that elevating an individual and worshiping a cult of personality went against the kind of communism that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin espoused—the communism that formed the foundation of the Soviet Union’s political philosophy. Khrushchev’s denunciation of his predecessor shocked the world and offered the first thorough account of Stalin’s crimes, but his motivations for giving the speech remain unclear.
#53. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “First Inaugural Address”
Delivered March 4, 1933, in Washington D.C.
President Franklin Roosevelt is lauded for guiding the United States through the thick of World War II, but upon first taking office, he was facing down a different kind of war: the one against the Great Depression. When FDR assumed office, the Depression was at its peak, with almost a quarter of the working population unemployed. His inauguration address emphasizes the enormous scale of the project it would take to rebuild the nation; still, he famously invigorated everyone listening by declaring that “ the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
#52. Betty Friedan’s “Farewell to the National Organization of Women”
Delivered Mar. 20, 1970, in Chicago, Ill.
Betty Friedan’s best-selling book, “The Feminine Mystique,” got women talking about “the problem with no name” and is often credited with helping spark second-wave feminism. Her voice continued to have power even as she stepped down as president from the National Organization of Women. That day, she called for a general women’s strike to be held on Aug. 26, 1970. Despite skepticism from media outlets, thousands of women heeded Friedan’s call and took to the street that day—a physical manifestation of the feminist movement’s enduring power.
#51. Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots”
Delivered on Nov. 10, 1963, in Detroit, Mich.
The divisions between the civil rights movement become obvious in “Message to the Grassroots,” which contrasted the “Negro revolution” which was nonviolent and ineffectual, and the “black revolution,” which was necessarily violent and had proved itself effective across Africa. This stands alongside the powerful but historically flawed distinction he makes between the self-hating “house slaves” loyal their white owners and “field slaves” as illustrative of X’s criticism of black activists whom he thought were too eager to acquiesce to the white people whose oppression the movement was trying to overcome.
#50. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence”
Delivered on April 4, 1967, in New York City, N.Y.
Though today Martin Luther King is revered by nearly all Americans as a powerful spokesman for equal rights and integration, not every political opinion was popular among the American public. Exactly one year before he was assassinated, King spoke out against the Vietnam War. He accused America of ignoring conflicts at home in favor of war abroad, pointing out the “cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” Delivered several years before popular opinion on the war changed, King lost many of the powerful allies in government and media due to this speech.
#49. Bill Clinton’s “Oklahoma Bombing Memorial Prayer Service Address”
Delivered April 23, 1992, in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Before President Bill Clinton became the nation’s “consoler-in-chief” during Columbine, he had to face a nation mourning the 168 people killed in the Oklahoma City Bombing by two domestic terrorists angry about the FBI raid in Waco, Texas. The speech he gave at the memorial service reminded those who had lost loved ones that they “have not lost everything” because they “have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes” to heal from the tragedy. The sentiment struck a chord with the American public, evident in the boosting of Clinton’s poll numbers after the speech.
#48. Nora Ephron’s “Commencement Address to the Wellesley Class of 1996”
Delivered June 3, 1996, in Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass.
Commencement speeches are usually uplifting addresses to graduating seniors looking to inspire them before they begin the next chapter of their lives. Journalist, filmmaker, and writer Nora Ephron returned to her alma mater, Wellesley College, to discuss all the ways the world had changed for the better since she graduated but also offered a note of warning for the grads. “Don't underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back,” she remarked, listing off current events that reminded the Wellesley graduates that feminism was still urgently needed at the close of the 20th century.
#47. Barbara C. Jordan’s “Statement on the Articles of Impeachment”
Delivered: July 25, 1974, in Washington D.C.
As a newly minted State Senator in Texas, Barbara Jordan won over segregationists to pass an equal rights amendment in the state and became a hugely popular political figure in her state. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1973 just as the Watergate investigation was heating up, and there she gave a rousing political speech subtly advocating for the president’s impeachment. Grounding her argument in the Constitution, she called on her fellow House members to use “reason, and not passion” to “guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision” as she just adeptly demonstrated.
#46. General Douglas MacArthur’s “Farewell Address to Congress”
Delivered April 19, 1951, in Washington D.C.
President Harry Truman and five-star general Douglas MacArthur had a combative relationship, which heated up after the President relieved him of command of UN forces in the Korean War for insubordination. General MacArthur’s speech before a joint session of Congress questioned Truman’s decision not to take on China in the war, commenting that “War's very object is victory, not prolonged indecision.” He received 50 standing ovations during the address while Truman’s approval rating plummeted after firing a popular general and World War II hero.
#45. Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” lectures
Delivered October 20 and 26, 1928, at Cambridge University, Cambridge, England
English author Virginia Woolf’s lectures at the women’s college at Cambridge are not remembered as stirring works of oratory, but rather as a book. “A Room of One’s Own” is a foundational piece of feminist literary theory adapted from this pair of lectures that examines the different types of marginalization women have faced throughout history and the impact on their creative productivity. Among other things, she posits that in order for women to write literature, they need a “room of one’s own” or a private space and financial independence in order to write well—a revolutionary claim in late-1920s Europe.
#44. Joseph Welch’s “Have You No Sense of Decency?” testimony
Delivered June 9, 1953, in Washington D.C.
Though not technically a speech, the exchange between Senator Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Welch, a lawyer hired by the U.S. Army, proved to be the final blow in the Wisconsin Senator’s fall from grace. McCarthy had been conducting trials of suspected Communists since 1950 and everyone was beginning to tire of his methods. A heated back-and-forth erupted between the two men when McCarthy questioned whether one of the lawyers at Welch’s firm had Communist ties, leading Welch to ask heatedly McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” With these famous lines, Senator McCarthy saw the last of his power evaporate and died three years later.
#43. Carrie Chapman Catt’s “The Crisis”
Delivered Sept. 7, 1916, in Atlantic City, N.J.
Carrie Chapman Catt was a leading figure in the late stages of the American women’s suffrage movement, founding the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance and serving as president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association during the final push to pass the 19th Amendment. In “The Crisis,” Catt outlines her plan to make pushing for a federal amendment to the Constitution NAWSA’s priority. At the same time, she tied their fight for the vote to World War I in Europe and the broader fight for women’s rights around the world. Ultimately, her instinct to focus on federal legislation instead of working state-by-state proved correct; white women gained the right to vote just three years after this address.
#42. Lyndon B. Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome”
Delivered March 15, 1965, in Washington D.C.
One of the most stirring pieces of American rhetoric was written by a hungover speechwriter in just eight hours, after President Lyndon B. Johnson decided he wanted to address Congress about the “Bloody Sunday” attacks against protestors in Selma, Ala. In it, Johnson called on all of America to join him in the cause of civil rights. He appealed specifically to white Americans, noting that “it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” The speech was interrupted for applause 40 times and brought civil rights activists to tears. And overcome they did; five months later, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
#41. Geraldine Ferraro’s “Vice Presidential Nomination Acceptance Address”
Delivered July 19, 1984, in San Francisco, Calif.
In her concession speech in 2016, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton noted that women have yet to shatter the “highest and hardest glass ceiling” of the American presidency or vice presidency. Very few have come close, the first being Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s VP pick in the 1984 campaign. In her acceptance speech, Ferraro demonstrates her adeptness as a politician, weaving critiques of the Reagan administration together with her career as an avid activist for women’s rights. Though they would ultimately lose to the Republicans, Ferraro cemented her place as a prominent voice in the Democratic party and a trailblazer for women in politics.
#40. Richard Nixon’s “Resignation Address to the Nation”
Delivered: Aug. 8, 1974, from Washington D.C.
The case against President Richard Nixon had been growing for years as more details about the Watergate scandal emerged. By August 1974, The Supreme Court ordered the release of tapes he made in the Oval Office, articles of impeachment were being drawn up, and Nixon had lost the support of members of his own party. Rather than suffer the shame of being the first president to be removed from office, Nixon opted to be the first president to resign in a speech highlighting his successes and the work that would need to be continued by his successor.
#39. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation”
Delivered Dec. 8, 1941, via radio broadcast
World War II had been raging since 1939 across the Atlantic but America’s historic reluctance to enter global conflict barred President Franklin Roosevelt from taking the direct action he wanted to support U.S. allies in Europe. That changed after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, killing thousands of Americans. The next day, FDR took to the radio to report what had happened on this “date which will live in infamy” and called on Congress to declare war on Japan, which they did shortly after.
#38. Huey P. Long’s “Share the Wealth”
Delivered Feb. 23, 1934, via radio broadcast
Also called the “Every Man a King” speech, Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long addressed the nation and laid out his radical plan to redistribute wealth between the richest and poorest Americans by capping fortunes and guaranteeing a basic income, among other radical policy proposals. This was a break from the Democratic Party’s New Deal policies, which Long felt did not address wealth discrepancies that he believed caused the Great Depression. His embrace of radio to speak directly to the people won him many supporters to his cause; though he was assassinated the following year.
#37. Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”
Delivered Jan. 8, 1918, in Washington D.C.
Woodrow Wilson and many others who lived through World War I wanted the deadly global conflict to be “the war to end all wars.” The idealistic, progressive Wilson turned this desire into his Fourteen Points for world peace, which he later laid out before Congress after other combatants failed to articulate their aims in the war. Cornerstones of Wilson’s peace plan included self-determination, free trade, open seas, and a League of Nations to enforce peace around the world—a plan that was ultimately hampered by Congress’ refusal to join the League.
#36. Margaret Thatcher’s “The Lady’s Not for Turning”
Delivered Oct. 10, 1980, in Brighton, England
Margaret Thatcher took over as Prime Minister and leader of the Tory Party at a time when conservatism was becoming politically popular in much of the Western world (Ronald Reagan would be elected a month after this speech was given). In it, Thatcher lays out her opposition to changing the conservative economic policies she’d instituted, one that focuses on curbing inflation and removing economic regulations. It’s most famous line, “'You turn [U-turn the economy] if you want to. The lady's not for turning!” fed into her formidable reputation as the Iron Lady of British politics.
#35. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Left-Handed Commencement Address”
Delivered in 1983, at Mills College, Oakland, Calif.
Feminist science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin wasn’t shy about interrogating the complexities of gender in her work, featuring everything from strong female characters to genderfluid aliens. Her famous commencement address is shaped around some of her concerns regarding gender, pointing out that “women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society,” and that language itself is centered around men. Citing many famous feminists and women leaders of the era, Le Guin’s speech provides a powerful call to action for women (and men) to “grow human souls” and work toward gender equality in their own lives.
#34. Harold Macmillan’s “Wind of Change”
Delivered Feb. 3, 1960, in Cape Town, South Africa
The list of countries that have never been invaded by the British is shorter than the list of those that have, but by 1960, the British Empire no longer stretched around the world. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan signaled this by visiting several British colonies in southern Africa before giving a speech to the South African Parliament announcing that England would no longer stand in the way of colonies wishing to become independent. In his opinion, the emergence of these new nations were the result of “the wind of change...blowing through this continent,” and there was nothing Parliament could do to stop them.
#33. Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation
Delivered Dec. 25, 1991, in Moscow, Russia
The fall of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War, the conflict which defined almost every aspect of the post-World War II era. The Cold War didn’t end with nuclear holocaust, as many had feared during the conflict’s peak, but rather the resignation of executive President Mikhail Gorbachev after several Soviet bloc countries broke away from the USSR behind his back. In the speech he warned that though the country had acquired freedom, “we haven't learned to use freedom yet,” so it was important to tread carefully—a warning that has a new salience as the country slides back into authoritarian rule under President Vladimir Putin.
#32. Frank James’ “Suppressed Speech”
Delivered Nov. 1970, in Plymouth, Mass.
Wampanoag elder Frank James was invited to speak at a celebration at Plymouth in honor of the 350th Thanksgiving. Organizers objected to his portrayal of the Puritan Pilgrims and white settlers as people who “sought to tame the ‘savage’ and convert him,” but James had refused to read the more PR-friendly speech they gave him. James instead held a protest nearby that has since become the annual Day of Mourning, in which indigenous Americans come to protest and speak out about their experiences.
#31. Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny”
Delivered Aug. 14–15, 1947, in New Delhi, India
The struggle against the British Empire on the Indian subcontinent finally came to a triumphant finish with Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech just before midnight on the eve of India’s independence. He honors Gandhi as the leader of the movement, as well as the victory they achieved. He also alludes to the Partition that split India and Pakistan into two countries, as well as the sectarian divides between Hindus and Muslims—problems that still plague the country today.
#30. Sacheen Littlefeather’s speech at the 1972 Academy Award ceremony
Delivered March 27, 1973, in Los Angeles, Calif.
Marlon Brando shocked the Academy Awards when he refused his Oscar for mobster classic “The Godfather.” Instead, he sent indigenous activist Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse the award and give her a platform to protest the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood, and more importantly, bring attention to the standoff between federal agents and Native Americans at Wounded Knee that was under a media blackout. Littlefeather delivered a shortened version of his message amid boos; The New York Times later printed Brando’s letter in its entirety, and the media blackout at Wounded Knee was lifted.
#29. Bill Clinton’s “Presidential Address to Columbine High School”
Delivered May 20, 1999, at Dakota Ridge High School, Littleton, Colo.
One of the most difficult jobs of the U.S. President is to act as “consoler-in-chief” when tragedy strikes the nation. President Bill Clinton found himself in that position—and, in the eyes of many, set the standard for future American leaders—after the shooting at Columbine High School left 12 students and one teacher dead. In the speech given a month after the tragedy, Clinton traveled to Colorado to offer support to grieving families and try to come to terms with an event that “pierced the soul of America.”
#28. Eleanor Roosevelt’s “On the Adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights”
Delivered Dec. 9, 1948, in Paris, France
Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated her life to human rights around the world, serving as the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission after World War II. In that position, she pushed for creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lays out 30 articles affirming “that man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature and through common effort to raise the level of human dignity.”
#27. Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power”
Delivered Oct. 29, 1966, in Berkeley, Calif.
Stokely Carmichael firmly believed in nonviolent protest in the early days of the civil rights movement, but as the years wore on, he became convinced that “black power for black people” was needed to jump-start the next phase of the civil rights project. Black power, later adopted by groups like the Black Panther Party, required a sense of solidarity between black people and the election of black representatives. As his speech demonstrates, this wasn’t an inherently violent concept, but rather questions the notion of nonviolence because, as Carmichael points out, “white people beat up black people every day—don’t nobody talk about nonviolence.”
#26. Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Freedom from Fear”
Delivered Jan. 1 1990, in Myanmar (formerly Burma)
Daughter of the founder of the modern Burmese military and a key figure in Burmese independence, Aung San Suu Kyi followed in her father’s footsteps to become a leader in the push for democratic government in the country. The military placed her under house arrest on-and-off for over 20 years while she continued to push for democracy, including in this speech, which calls for “a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.” She ascended to governmental power in 2010 with global praise and hope for change, but the recent ethnic cleansing of a minority group in the country threatens her legacy as an advocate for freedom.
#25. Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death”
Delivered Nov. 13, 1913, in Hartford, Conn.
The early decades of the 1900s brought new energy and activism to the push for women’s suffrage in England, just as it did in the United States and Canada. Emmeline Pankhurst delivered this speech on a fundraising tour of the U.S. after a long period of hunger striking and arrests, using imagery from the American Revolution and other powerful metaphors to justify militant tactics adopted by her group in the push for the vote.
#24. Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s “Speech to the UN Summit in Rio”
Delivered in 1992, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Twelve-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki became “The Girl Who Silenced the World for Five Minutes” after she stunned the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development with a plea for older generations to work to improve the environment. Her demand that “If [adults] don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!” echoes those of modern child climate activists like Greta Thunberg, who has led a worldwide movement of school strikes pushing for action on the climate crisis.
#23. Nellie McClung’s “Should Men Vote?”
Delivered Jan. 29, 1914, in Winnipeg, Canada
The Canadian women’s suffrage movement was kicked into high gear when prominent activist Nellie McClung turned a rejection of the request for the vote into a piece of theater. Drawing on humor and showmanship, she presented a mock trial of men asking women legislators for suffrage, arguing that “manhood suffrage has not been a success in the unhappy countries where it has been tried,” among other satirical moments. McClung later campaigned against the party that previously denied her the right to vote, finally winning suffrage for white Manitoban women in 1916.
#22. Ronald Reagan’s “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate”
Delivered June 12, 1987, in West Berlin, Germany
It might be hard to believe, but, coming just a few short years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan’s cry of “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” didn’t make much of a splash when he first gave his speech. It didn’t reach its status as a famous piece of American political rhetoric until the wall actually began to come down in 1989. While some scholars claim it helped Reagan build support for his plans to work with the Soviet Union, others believe the Wall’s destruction had far more to do with reforms going on inside the USSR.
#21. William Faulkner’s Nobel lecture
Delivered Jan. 10, 1950, in Stockholm, Sweden
Author of stories rooted in the American South, William Faulkner’s Nobel lecture (for a prize he didn’t even want!) spoke to deeply American concerns. He addresses the difficulty in creating art in an age of anxiety over atomic destruction, noting that until a writer relearns their craft under this condition, “he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man.” He ends the address rejecting this possibility, offering a surprisingly hopeful view in an age characterized by fear of a nuclear holocaust.
#20. John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address
Delivered Jan. 20, 1961, in Washington D.C.
One line from President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address has endured in the American imagination for nearly half a century: “My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” However, Kennedy’s call to public service has overshadowed the fact that most of the speech focused on global issues. As Kennedy was elected near the height of tensions in the Cold War, he felt the need to address both the Soviet Union and allies abroad to reassure them of his competency and desire for global peace.
#19. Lou Gehrig’s “Farewell to Baseball Address”
Delivered July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, N.Y.
The crowd at Yankee Stadium sat silent as Lou “The Iron Horse” Gehrig addressed his retirement from baseball after being diagnosed with a disease that would later be named after him. Declaring himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” he spoke briefly of the “awful lot [of things] to live for,” including his fans, his teammates, and his family members. Following the address, he received a two-minute standing ovation and was showered with gifts and praise.
#18. Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”
Delivered: June 4, 1940, in London, England
In the first five weeks after he took over as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill gave three major speeches addressing the worsening war in France. The second of these dealt with the intensifying situation in France. Implying that battle might come to Britain, he declared that “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets” and never surrender. Parliament praised the rousing address, but the public didn’t hear it in Churchill’s own words until after the war had ended and caused public pessimism after it was read by broadcasters.
#17. Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India”
Delivered Aug. 8, 1942, in Bombay (now Mumbai), India
Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi became the face of Indian independence as he organized the “Quit India” movement, which, as he laid out in the speech to fellow leaders, would coerce the British to voluntarily leave India using nonviolent protest. His fellow leaders agreed, passing a resolution to that effect, but thousands of arrests followed and Gandhi’s speech was suppressed. Underground presses published his speech, and his call to “either free India or die in the attempt” became a rallying point for the movement.
#16. Nelson Mandela’s “I am prepared to die”
Delivered April 20, 1964, in Pretoria, South Africa
The address Nelson Mandela gave instead of testimony at his trial for alleged sabotage became the defining speech of the anti-apartheid movement—and of his legacy as an advocate for equality in South Africa. In it, he argues that his cause is correct and explains his views, before launching into his famous conclusion, in which he states a free and equal state is “an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela was sentenced to life in prison but did not die there, instead continuing his advocacy from prison before his release 27 years later.
#15. William Jennings Bryan’s “Against Imperialism”
Delivered Aug. 8, 1900, in Indianapolis, Ind.
Perennial presidential candidate (but never winner) William Jennings Bryan advocated against American imperialism shortly after U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War allowed the country to begin building an empire. He appealed to American ideals, pointing out the lack of “full citizenship” offered to Puerto Ricans and Filipinos, and decried the “gun-powder gospel” that argued imperial wars should be fought due to Christianity. Unfortunately, his status as perennial presidential loser continued into the early 1900s and none of his proposed reforms were taken into consideration.
#14. Dolores Huerta’s speech at the NFWA march and rally
Delivered April 10, 1966, in Sacramento, Calif.
Dolores Huerta worked alongside César Chávez to establish the National Farm Workers Association and direct the Delano grape strike, where she quickly emerged as a leading feminist figure. Her speech at the NFWA march illustrates her dedication and zeal, exclaiming “La huelga [the strike] and la causa is our cry, and everyone must listen. Viva la huelga!” Huerta’s success with the Delano strike led to continued labor organizing and support for feminist causes, activities which she continues today.
#13. Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Solitude of Latin America”
Delivered Dec. 8, 1982, in Stockholm, Sweden
Gabriel García Márquez, storied Colombian author whose books “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Love in the Time of Cholera” helped fuel the Latin American literature boom, used his Nobel acceptance speech to make a political statement. In it, he spoke of Latin America’s isolation in the world, despite decades of imperialism and outside influence in the region. However, with the same magical realism for which his writing was famous, he envisioned “a new and sweeping utopia of life...where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”
#12. Ryan White’s “Testimony before the President’s Commission on AIDS”
Delivered: March 3, 1988, in Washington D.C.
Born with a rare blood disorder, Ryan White became infected with HIV as a young child because of the factor 8 used for his treatment, which was collected using untested, anonymous blood donors. After his diagnosis in 1984, White attempted to return to school but faced huge stigma and attempts to bar him from the classroom, experiences which formed the basis of his testimony before the commission. This speech, and the court battles over his schooling, led to his becoming a leading HIV/AIDS activist, dispelling myths about the disease for the American public before his death in 1990 at 18.
#11. Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference”
Delivered April 12, 1999, in Washington D.C.
Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel survived the Holocaust as a teenager, losing his family in the process. The experience fueled his lifelong activism; he became an educator about the Holocaust and advocate of victims of other atrocities, such as apartheid in South Africa and genocides around the world. His “Perils of Indifference” speech criticized those who ignored the horrors of the Holocaust and reminded listeners that “indifference is not a response” and “in denying [victims] their humanity we betray our own.”
#10. Anita Hill’s Opening Statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee
Delivered Oct. 11, 1991, in Washington D.C.
Anita Hill’s testimony at the Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas, alleging that he sexually harassed her, proved to be a powerful and occasionally painful day in Washington D.C. Hill, a black woman, shared her experience staring down a Senate Judiciary Committee composed entirely of white men, who have since admitted to mishandling Hill’s testimony. Thomas was confirmed to the bench despite Hill’s allegations, but her testimony in part spurred record-breaking numbers of women to run for elected office and is seen by some as a precursor to the modern #MeToo movement.
#9. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”
Delivered Sept. 5, 1995, in Beijing, China
Advisors to then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton advised her to soften her rhetoric in her speech at the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women, but Clinton refused, seizing the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the abuse of women in China and around the world. Though she is not the first person to declare “human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all,” she popularized use of the phrase on that day, in a speech that defined Clinton’s career apart from her husband’s. Since then, it’s become a rallying cry in the fight for women’s rights and became a focal point in Clinton’s 2016 bid for president.
#8. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address
Delivered Jan. 6, 1941, in Washington D.C.
Delivered just under a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union emphasized the value of democracy in a world embroiled in a devastating war. It’s most famous for FDR’s declaration of the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want (meaning economic security), and freedom from fear (meaning global disarmament and prevention of wars).
#7. César Chávez’s “The Mexican American and the Church”
Delivered: March 10, 1968, in Delano, Calif.
César Chávez is an iconic figure in movements for labor rights and Latino rights due to his organization and leadership of the National Farm Workers Association (alongside colleague Dolores Huerta), particularly during the five-year Delano grape strike. Chávez adopted historical tactics of nonviolence and resistance, such as fasting; after breaking a 25-day fast, the religious Chávez spoke at a conference about the relationship between Mexican Americans and the church, calling on the ministry to use their “tremendous spiritual and economic power” to support the striking farm workers. His work with the NFWA formed a cornerstone of the Chicano Movement that pushed for Mexican American rights in the 1960s and beyond.
#6. Harvey Milk’s “Hope Speech”
Delivered June 25, 1978, in San Francisco, Calif.
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, used his “Hope Speech” as his stump speech during his 1977 run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; he expanded on it for its final delivery at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade the following year. The rousing speech emphasizes the importance of electing LGBTQ+ leaders so that young LGBTQ+ people across the country surrounded by homophobia can have those to look up to and regain their hope. Milk’s life was cut short when he was assassinated only months later, but he continued to inspire hope as a martyr for the LGBTQ+ movement.
#5. Malcom X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet”
Delivered April 12, 1964, at King Solomon Baptist Church, Detroit, Mich. (also delivered nine days earlier in Cleveland)
Malcolm X stands alongside Martin Luther King as one of the leading figures of the civil rights movement, but X’s advocacy for black nationalism and defeating racism by “any means necessary” often conflicted with King’s support for integration and nonviolent protest. “The Ballot or the Bullet,” considered by many to be one of Malcolm X’s best orations, urges African Americans to exercise their power at the ballot box in the 1964 election and select leaders who will pass civil rights legislation and care about issues affecting black communities.
#4. Dennis Shepard’s “Statement to the Court”
Delivered Nov. 4, 1999, in Laramie, Wyo.
Matthew Shepard, a young gay man attending college in Laramie, Wyo., was beaten to death in an apparent hate crime in October 1998. His father gave an emotional impact statement to the court (since excerpted in several movies and plays about the crime), emphasizing the effect of his son’s life and death on his family and the world. After their son’s death, Dennis Shepard and his wife, Judy, helped to fulfill the promise he made “to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again” by advocating for the passage of hate crime legislation that became the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
#3. Sylvia Rivera’s “Y’all Better Quiet Down”
Delivered in 1973, at Washington Square Park, New York City, N.Y.
On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, and the riots that resulted jumpstarted the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. Sylvia Rivera participated in the riots that day (she’s said to have thrown one of the first bottles at police) and began a storied career as an activist. Rivera, a transgender Puerto Rican woman, wasn’t afraid to call out what she saw as shortcomings in the movement; she delivered her “Y’all Better Quiet Down” to the crowd at the Christopher Street Liberation Rally, decrying white, middle-class gay men and lesbians for ignoring transgender people and other marginalized voices in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
#2. John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon”
Delivered Sept. 12, 1962, at Rice Stadium, Houston, Texas
In 1962, the U.S. and Soviet Union were in the thick of the Space Race, and the U.S. government was fighting over how much money to put into the project to put a man on the moon. With this speech, President Kennedy put an end to the squabbling; he laid out why it was important for the U.S. to lead the way to the stars and famously declared, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." This speech inspired the American people, and the Apollo mission was made a priority, leading to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969.
#1. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”
Delivered Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington D.C.
While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, gospel singer (and King’s close friend) Mahalia Jackson spurred him to go off-script, calling out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!" He did, and today, King’s dream that his four children “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is one of the most lauded pieces of American rhetoric. It cemented King’s place as the face of the civil rights movement, for which he’s still celebrated today. Pictured here is Martin Luther King (center) leading the "March on Washington" the day he gave the speech.