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Fewer things have changed the course of history more in the 20th century than the great modern political speeches – oratories that moved nations and people alike to action. The great speech makers became icons in their era, in part for their abilities to bring about great change with words alone.
The power of words is great, and the orators with speeches and declarations over the last several decades has been many. However, a few modern political speeches stood above the rest, to declare to the world that those fighting the good fight will not go quietly into the night.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - "I Have Been to the Mountain Top"
Martin Luther King Jr. gave a great number of powerful speeches over the course of his lifetime. They moved people to smash the institutionalized racism that had run society for countless generations before.
Of all of Dr. King's speeches, however, none are more moving than the "I Have Been to the Mountain Top" speech. Of all modern political speeches, it remains at once beautiful and haunting.
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The message of the speech is that the world will be better, that, in the coming years, racial equality will be achieved, and greatness will spread from sea to sea.
But it is worth mentioning the sense of incoming doom even Dr. King felt when giving his speech. It is clear he knows something is coming.
And, indeed, the day following this speech, James Earl Ray murdered Martin Luther King.
Margaret Thatcher - "The Lady's Not for Turning"
Margaret Thatcher remains a controversial figure. Her viewpoints and policies had resulted in various issues in the economy that her political enemies either pointed out or implored her to consider when developing future plans and policies.
Margaret Thatcher's response came in the form of a single political speech at the dawn of the 80s, one that set the tone for the policies and institutions Thatcher put front and center throughout her reign.
But I prefer to believe that certain lessons have been learned from experience, that we are coming, slowly, painfully, to an autumn of understanding. And I hope that it will be followed by a winter of common sense. If it is not, we shall not be—diverted from our course.
To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the 'U-turn', I have only one thing to say: 'You turn [U-turn] if you want to. The lady's not for turning.'
Thatcher stood by her policies, even if she was attacked for them, even when countless people pushed ideas and policies they believed would be far better for the United Kingdom.
Malcolm X - "The Ballot or The Bullet"
Malcolm X remains a highly controversial figure even years after his assassination. For many underprivileged people of color, Malcolm X offered a vision of validation. He stood as a figure of inspiration who validated the (valid) anger and hate fostered by countless people of color.
Malcolm X, in this famous speech, encouraged African-Americans to go out and vote. Voting, he felt, would help change the policies of government, and were instrumental in progressing the position of people of color in America. However, that isn't why this remains one of the most important modern political speeches.
We've got to change our own minds about each other. We have to see each other with new eyes. We have to see each other as brothers and sisters. We have to come together with warmth so we can develop unity and harmony that's necessary to get this problem solved ourselves.
Malcolm X offers a vision of a people united in order to solve the problems being dealt upon them by a privileged group. However, what made a lot of white people terrified was this particular part of the speech.
It's time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we're supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don't cast a ballot, it's going to end up in a situation where we're going to have to cast a bullet. It's either a ballot or a bullet.
He encouraged black people to vote for politicians who held their interests at heart (in this case, Lyndon Johnson for President). But he also established that, should they fail, they'd have to fight for their rights.
While Malcolm X used this as a means to show the peaceful solutions to the racist laws oppressing them to avoid violence, many white people took elements of the speech out of context to brand Malcolm X as a terrorist or iconoclast.
John F. Kennedy - Inaugural Address
Many politicians have good inaugural addresses that led to a genuine sense of affirmation, as if to say "Yes, this is my president." And every American president makes one.
John F. Kennedy has proven to be a controversial figure, but even his critics admit that Kennedy's inaugural address established a sense of hope and national pride in a time of great stress. The Cold War had left America frightened. At any moment, the atomic bombs could fall and wipe everything away in a mushroom cloud.
And so he gave one of the most vital modern political speeches.
JFK had this to say upon assuming the most powerful seat in the country.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
JFK's inaugural address was short, but the essence can be boiled down into that one statement. The Kennedy Administration told Americans that the country did not need to defend and support the people, but, rather, that the government was defended and supported by the people.
It was this sentiment that spurred many in the coming years to fight for equality, not waiting for the government to change, but taking the change into their own hands.
Whether JFK intended this or not is anyone's guess.
Lyndon B. Johnson - Voting Rights
Lyndon B. Johnson proved to be a very unpopular president, historically. He sat in the Oval Office during the most unpopular war in American history, and, very often, his presidency has been dismissed with Vietnam.
But Lyndon B. Johnson did much for civil rights. In 1965, following the horror in Selma, Lyndon B. Johnson passed a number of executive orders dismantling countless racist institutions for the good of the American people.
In one modern political speech, all of Lyndon B. Johnson's domestic policies became clear.
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.
Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome…
For all of Johnson's faults, he believed in his Great Society. It is said that, once Vietnam fell apart around him, he said "I have lost the Great Society," meaning that all he strived for on the domestic front had fallen apart.
Robert F. Kennedy - On the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Robert Kennedy landed in Indianapolis, and learned of the passing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was going to speech before a rally in order to push his case for the United States Presidency. While many expected Kennedy to make a grand case for being president, few expected Kennedy to speak his own eulogy for Dr. King.
What followed was one of the great modern political speeches of our day.
In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black--considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible--you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization--black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
Of all of Kennedy's speeches, it claimed that we must be together. Through unity, we can overcome all obstacles – through the struggle against an oppressive, hateful world that will take beauty and destroy it.
God knows that message would be as important now as it was then.
It stands to mention that, weeks after giving this speech, Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy.
Ronald Reagan - Tribute to the Challenger Astronauts
Families sat to watch the Challenger rocket launch on January 28, 1986. Aboard the spaceship was a school teacher named Christa McAuliffe.
And everyone watched the ship explode in the atmosphere.
President Ronald Reagan had to give a speech. A catastrophe had left his people broken and horrified. His tribute to the Challenger astronauts proved one of the greatest speeches given during his presidency.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
Very rarely do presidents address children. The president often dismisses their feelings and concerns, even if they do not mean it, by neglecting to ever mention them. In this great speech, however, Reagan spoke to the confused and frightened kids who just watched a teacher burn up in the sky. Regardless of all Reagan's flaws as a president, that is worth noting.
He went on to conclude his speech by stating:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."
In the name of exploration, countless souls died. For that reason, President Reagan gave one of the great modern political speeches. Arguably, his most important and powerful speech.
John F. Kennedy - "I am a Berliner"
The Berlin Wall left many of those trapped in East Germany cut off from the rest of the world. The Berlin Wall divided democratic West Germany from communist East Germany. Many souls were trapped.
President John F. Kennedy made one of his greatest speeches in Berlin, aimed toward West Berlin and West Germany, but, indeed, it applied to all souls across the Iron Curtain.
Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum ["I am a Roman citizen"]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner!"... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner!"
In one powerful speech, America showed support to those facing the cold guns of communism and fear. Berliners, standing in the war front between democracy and communism, had much to fear.
It took one modern political speech to offer those souls a shred of hope in the face of unrelenting terror.
Martin Luther King Jr. - "I Have a Dream"
None of the modern political speeches in the world outshine this one.
Marching his way through Washington D.C. with countless supporters behind him, Martin Luther King Jr. shared with his followers – and, indeed, all of America – the visions the Civil Rights Movement had for the rest of the world.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
While this speech has overshadowed almost everything else Dr. King said over the course of his lifetime, it, for so many people, broke down the barriers of prejudice – for both Dr. King's generation, and the generations to follow.
While many took offense to the prospect of a free nation under God, many, many more remember this great modern political speech every day of their lives.
Franklin D. Roosevelt - Inaugural Address
In the height of the Great Depression, one president emerged who promised to bring America out from the depths. One president stood at America's side against the bombardment of foreign powers upon its shores. One man saw America rise up from the rubble and assume a position as a world power once more.
And President Franklin D. Roosevelt started his presidency with one of the greatest modern political speeches of all time.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
The fear that held Americans down in the face of the Great Depression, of the Red Terror across the Pacific, of the rising power of Nazis in Germany – all abated for a moment by President Roosevelt's offer to logic and coherency.
And, thus, Roosevelt started the longest presidency in American history.