50 essential civil rights speeches
Activists, athletes, actors, and preachers with sometimes-fiery presentation skills are just a few of the people who’ve communicated the message of civil rights to the masses.
When many people think of civil rights, the path to equality for the Black community comes to mind, but oration has been part of other civil rights movements too, including those trying to secure equality for women, those who are older, and LGBTA+ people.
Almost everyone knows the names and the works of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Barack Obama, but one presenter who focuses on intersectionality includes a telling test in her speech, that shows how visibility for some can be almost nonexistent. And one of the key players of the civil rights movement of the ‘60s was sometimes silenced because he was Black and gay.
Being incendiary was natural for some of these speakers, while others toed the line between creating change and avoiding offending more-conservative elements of the movement. Some of the speeches are from 50+ years in the past, but several are from historic events in 2020, ranging from Black Lives Matter marches to the 2020 March on Washington, featuring powerful orators ranging from one of “The Squad” to MLK’s granddaughter. Reform of the criminal justice system is a topic addressed in these speeches, across many decades. The list features speeches by activists ranging from professionals with doctorates to a grade-school student.
Many of the speakers had a lifetime commitment to human rights, but one tried to silence an activist lobbying for voting rights, before later signing off on major civil rights legislation. Several fought for freedom for more than one oppressed group.
Keep reading to discover 50 essential civil rights speeches.
You may also like: 'I Have a Dream' and the rest of the greatest speeches of the 20th century
Martin Luther King Jr.’s 'Montgomery Bus Boycott' speech
Four days after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed thousands of people who were part of the subsequent boycott of the Montgomery bus system. He talked about the long-time intimidation of Black bus riders, and the importance of continuing the protest.
Malcolm X’s White Liberals and Conservatives'
Malcolm X talked in 1963 about the power of the vote to change the race problem, noting that only 3 million “Negro integration-seekers” in the “Black bourgeoisie” vote, but 8 million don’t. He proposed that both white liberals and conservatives use civil rights “in this crooked game of power politics” to garner power.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' speech
The civil rights leader penned this speech in 1963 while jailed for continuing to protest the treatment of Black people. King talked about the interconnectedness of humanity, reminding us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere—we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
John F. Kennedy’s 'Civil Rights Address'
After National Guard assistance was required in 1963 to allow two Black students onto the University of Alabama campus, President John F. Kennedy reminded the nation that Americans of any color should be able to attend public schools, receive equal service, register to vote, and “enjoy the privileges of being American,” framing those rights as a moral issue. The stats he quoted to prove that this was not the case have changed over time, but many show that equality has not yet been achieved.
John Lewis’ '1963 March on Washington' speech
Before representing Georgia in Congress, John Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizing with other civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis drafted his March on Washington speech in response to the Civil Rights Bill of 1963, stating that “we cannot be patient” for jobs and freedom and that “we are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s 'I Have a Dream' speech
The civil rights icon called for an end to racism in front of more than 250,00 people in 1963. King talked about the lack of progress at that time, but almost 60 years later, the police brutality decried in this speech still exists, visible in the deaths of unarmed Black citizens and the protests that followed.
Malcolm X’s 'By Any Means Necessary'
The Nation of Islam activist spoke in 1964 about the creation of a Black nationalist party and/or army, based on the successes of African brothers in gaining “more independence, more recognition, more respect as human beings.” His new Organization of African Unity would hasten the “complete independence of people of African descent…by any means necessary,” starting in Harlem.
Malcolm X’s 'The Ballot or the Bullet' speech
Malcolm X continued his incendiary tone in 1964 with his speech about “The Ballot or the Bullet,” where he advocated for voting but doesn’t rule out more violent reactions. He noted that Black people are “fed up,” “disenchanted,” and “disillusioned,” creating an explosive environment.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s 'Taking it to the Mountain'
Former sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer talked in 1964 about traveling 26 miles to register to vote to become “first-class citizens,” being met by police, and ultimately being evicted for her efforts. She asked, in the speech, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hook?”
Lorraine Hansberry’s 'The Black Revolution and the White Backlash' speech
Not far off the mark from the commentary of Malcolm X, Hansberry mentioned the “problem about white liberals,” who don’t understand the impatience of Black people who’ve been “kicked in the face so often.” Her 1964 speech noted that the solution is to get them to “stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”