#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.2018 All rights reserved.