"I have a dream" and the rest of the 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.