The spoken word has always been powerful. From the time of ancient Greece, when orators would stand on a stage and plead cases in packed amphitheaters, speeches have held a special place in society. Words possess power — they can inspire, motivate, and change the course of history.
Throughout the centuries, there have been many great speeches that have changed the world and made a great impact on the people who heard them. Here are 20 of the greatest speeches in history.
- 1. “We choose to go to the moon” by John F. Kennedy
- 2. “The Ballot or the Bullet” by Malcolm X
- 3. “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.
- 4. “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” by Hillary Rodham Clinton
- 5. “Statement to the Court” by Dennis Shepard
- 6. “Y’all Better Quiet Down” by Sylvia Rivera
- 7. “Quit India” by Mahatma Gandhi
- 8. “I am prepared to die” by Nelson Mandela
- 9. “Hope Speech” by Harvey Milk
- 10. “The Mexican American and the Church” by César Chávez
- 11. “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” by Winston Churchill
- 12. “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln
- 13. “Ain’t I A Woman?” by Sojourner Truth
- 14. “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
- 15. “Nobel Lecture” by Mother Teresa
- 16. “Freedom or Death” by Emmeline Pankhurst
- 17. “Duties of American Citizenship” by Theodore Roosevelt
- 18. “Farewell to Baseball Address” by Lou Gehrig
- 19. “Their Finest Hour” by Winston Churchill
- 20. “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate” by Ronald Reagan
- Final Thoughts
1. “We choose to go to the moon” by John F. Kennedy
Rice Stadium, Houston, Texas (1962)
The Space Race was at its peak in 1962, with the U.S. and Soviet Union vying to be the first nation to put a human on the moon. The U.S. government struggled with how much money it should invest into the project. By stressing both the urgency and importance of Americans’ choices, he gave the speech a sense of destiny.
Although there was some public criticism of the cost and value of the Apollo Moon landing effort at the time, Kennedy’s speech continues to resonate with people even today. His goal was eventually realized in 1969 with the successful completion of the Apollo 11 mission.
2. “The Ballot or the Bullet” by Malcolm X
Cory Methodist Church, Cleveland, Ohio (1964)
While Malcolm X always advocated for African Americans to vote, he also noted that if the government continued impeding their equality, then taking up arms might become necessary. He stated that although President Johnson and the Democratic Party expressed support for the civil rights bill, they had not translated this into meaningful legislative action.
According to Malcolm, African Americans have become “politically mature” and understand that they might be the decisive factor in the upcoming elections by remaining independent and unaligned and choosing candidates who would pay attention to their demands. Additionally, he intended his distinctive use of imagery and language to cover up his notions of civilization and history in creative ways to help his audience understand the challenges and be inspired to take action.
3. “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.
Washington, D.C., Civil Rights March (1963)
King demanded the abolition of racism in the US and the protection of economic and civil rights in his speech. The talk, which was made in front of almost 250,000 civil and human rights supporters in Washington, D.C., is regarded as one of the most notable speeches in American history.
King uses a prophetic tone while speaking, speaking with a sense of urgency and catastrophe. The speech received praise in the days that followed the event, and it was largely regarded by onlookers at the time as the pinnacle of the March. He was also regarded as “Man of the Year” by Time Magazine in the same year.
4. “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” by Hillary Rodham Clinton
United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China (1995)
In a sizable conference hall, Clinton delivered this speech. She advocated against behaviors that mistreat women both globally and within China in it. She expressed her conviction that the problems faced by women and girls are frequently either overlooked or “silenced,” and as a result, go unaddressed, while also criticizing governments, organizations, and specific individuals.
Dowry killings and the one-child policy of China are two topics that are brought up in the speech. A few of the conference’s female delegates clapped and banged tables while she talked. The address was not open to Chinese citizens, and Chinese radio and television did not broadcast it. It became such a phenomenal speech that inspired women and girls globally, as it was one of the first times a First Lady directly engaged in women’s rights.
5. “Statement to the Court” by Dennis Shepard
Laramie Courtroom, Wyoming (1999)
Mr. Shepard first gave this moving address at Aaron McKinney’s trial about his son and the reasons why they chose to forgive their son’s killer. Shepard’s son was savagely killed in 1998, and the case sparked public outcry against hate crimes specifically targeting the LGBTQ+ community.
During the sentencing, Shepard took the stand and read his victim impact statement. In it, he not only asked for forgiveness but also showed compassion and empathy for McKinney. Shepard has since become an advocate for LGBTQ rights, and his son’s murder has been cited as a key motivating factor in the passing of hate crime legislation in the US.
6. “Y’all Better Quiet Down” by Sylvia Rivera
Washington Square Park, New York City (1973)
The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, was stormed by police in 1969, and the ensuing riots ignited the current LGBTQ+ rights movement. Sylvia Rivera took part in the protests during the fourth-year anniversary of the Stonewall Inn incident. She was verbally heckled and booed off the stage while she was giving her iconic speech.
Rivera was a Puerto Rican transwoman and Rivera remained backstage following the speech, chatting with audience members about his experience at the Stonewall uprising. Her legacy as a revolutionary figure in the LGBTQ+ rights movement has been cemented by this speech.
7. “Quit India” by Mahatma Gandhi
Bombay, India (1942)
The speech was delivered in favor of Indian independence and the abolition of British colonial control. With the help of the “Quit India” movement, which he outlined in a speech to fellow leaders, Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi became the symbol of Indian independence. The movement’s goal was to use nonviolent resistance to force the British to willingly leave India.
The speech of Gandhi was silenced. His address was disseminated via underground printers, and the movement took inspiration from his exhortation to “either free India or die in the attempt.” One of the most important aspects of the campaign for Indian independence has been evaluated as Britain’s response to it. The Quit India Movement’s actions in 1942 succeeded in persuading the British to leave India without establishing different measures of ongoing British authority.
8. “I am prepared to die” by Nelson Mandela
Pretoria, South Africa (1964)
Instead of testifying, Nelson Mandela’s speech at his trial for alleged sabotage characterized the anti-apartheid movement and his reputation as a supporter of equality in South Africa. Before making his iconic conclusion, in which he declares that an equal and free state is “an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” he makes an argument for the validity of his purpose and clarifies his beliefs.
Although sentenced to life in prison, Mandela didn’t die there. For the next 27 years, he continued his advocacy from within prison walls until his release. He noted that the communists were South Africa’s only political group who had demonstrated a willingness to treat Africans as equals.
9. “Hope Speech” by Harvey Milk
San Francisco, California (1978)
When Harvey Milk stood for the San Francisco Supervisory Board in 1977, he used his “Hope Speech” as his campaign speech. Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to a public position in the state of California.
The stirring speech stresses the significance of electing LGBTQ+ leaders because then young LGBTQ+ people in the country who are confronted with homophobia would have role models to look up to and find hope in. Even though Milk’s life was cut short by his murder a few months later, he never stopped serving as a symbol of hope for the LGBTQ+ community.
10. “The Mexican American and the Church” by César Chávez
Delano, California (1968)
In the struggles for Latino and worker rights, César Chávez is a legendary figure. In order to aid the striking farm workers, Chávez used traditional nonviolent and resistance strategies, such as fasting. Upon ending his 25-day fasting, Chávez gave a speech at a symposium on the relations between Mexican Americans as well as the church.
His involvement with the NFWA served as a pillar for the Chicano Movement, which promoted Mexican American rights in the 1960s and moved forward. He is truly an icon, remembered for his work in the field of human rights.
11. “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” by Winston Churchill
London, England (1940)
Winston Churchill gave three speeches in the five weeks after he became Prime Minister, with the second one addressing France’s increasingly dire circumstances. Churchill was tasked with giving a speech that described a recent military disaster while also warning the public of a potential invasion attempt by Nazi Germany, all without making it seem like an eventual victory was impossible.
Even though many people were skeptical of Churchill, he won them over with his speech and it was clear that it would be remembered for years to come.
12. “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln
Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Pennsylvania (1863)
Lincoln’s short speech, which was not planned to be the day’s main event, is now seen as one of the best and most important statements on what it means to be an American. Lincoln stated that the U.S. was created with Liberty, and dedicated to equality for all men, imagining the Civil War as a test of whether such a nation could survive in Gettysburg Address.
The Gettysburg Address is an important part of American history and culture. Although Lincoln’s speech is praised for its historical significance, many scholars argue over the precise words that were said. In fact, different versions of the transcriptions exist, with discrepancies in punctuation and wording. Even though these sources come from newspaper accounts at the time of the event or are handwritten copies by Lincoln himself, there are still differences between them.
13. “Ain’t I A Woman?” by Sojourner Truth
Ohio Women’s Rights Convention (1851)
Sojourner Truth, a famous abolitionist and women’s rights activist, delivered the speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. The Civil War did not stop her from continuing to fight for equality for African Americans and women. As the antislavery movement gained traction, she became more involved.
As someone who actually grew up as a slave and experienced the hardships that came with it, Sojourner Truth’s words held a lot of weight. In her speech, she highlights the double standard between how men and women are treated. Even though both sexes are human, women are not given the same rights and opportunities as men.
14. “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
West Front of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. (1993)
Well-known for her empowering novels, poems, and work as a civil rights activist, Maya Angelou uplifts fellow African American women through her words. Just as beautiful when recited, Maya’s poem “Still I Rise” gives poetry audiences chills all over the world. She acts as a bastion of hope for women of color worldwide, reassuring them that progress can be made if they have faith and empower themselves to bring about change.
Despite any challenges she may face, she is confident that she can prevail – her skin color will not be a determining factor. It’s a testament to the strength of African American women, and a rallying cry for anyone who has ever been marginalized because of their appearance.
15. “Nobel Lecture” by Mother Teresa
Oslo, Sweden (1979)
Mother Teresa is revered as the model of love and compassion in modern culture, according to the majority of people. But if one were to pay greater attention to her earlier talks, one would see that she had a strong passion for social justice and the oppressed in addition to her philanthropic donations.
She says with grace and wisdom that “love begins at home” because of each person’s individual activities in their personal lives, which add up to a life of goodness and generosity. Because they continue to provide guidance on how we might live lives that are worthwhile, her remarks fulfilled a purpose that went beyond mere consolation or passing significance.
16. “Freedom or Death” by Emmeline Pankhurst
Hartford, Connecticut (1913)
Emmeline Pankhurst used her address in Connecticut as a rallying cry for people to back the suffragette movement. Her courage in making such a sobering statement about the state of women’s rights is something to be remembered since it had a priceless influence and contributed to the freedoms we have today.
Emmeline Pankhurst was an outspoken political activist who organized protests and worked to get women the vote in England. This activist leader participated in innumerable protests, went on hunger strikes, and created the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
17. “Duties of American Citizenship” by Theodore Roosevelt
Buffalo, New York (1883)
TR’s speech on the “Duties of American Citizenship,” delivered while serving as a New York assemblyman, covered both the theoretical justifications for why every man should be active in politics and the actual procedures for doing so. Roosevelt chastised individuals who shunned politics because they were too busy, saying that it was every man’s responsibility to invest some time in upholding good government.
18. “Farewell to Baseball Address” by Lou Gehrig
Yankee Stadium (1939)
Lou Gehrig’s lengthy and successful career seemed like it would last forever. The Yankees first baseman was notoriously durable, always giving 100% to the game–earning him the nickname “Iron Horse.” Gehrig was afflicted by the disease that would come to be known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The Yankees hosted a ceremony to pay tribute to their beloved teammate Gehrig. They announced his number was being retired, gave glowing speeches of his greatness, and presented him with many gifts including plaques and trophies.
Gehrig gave a speech to the crowd instead of wallowing in self-pity. He spoke about what he was grateful for and how lucky he felt. He also said he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Gehrig’s speech is remembered as one of the most emotional and powerful speeches in baseball history.
19. “Their Finest Hour” by Winston Churchill
House of Commons, London (1940)
Churchill gave this speech during the Battle of France, which was the third of three speeches he gave during that time period. Churchill noted the lack of support given to France and explained that this was due to the recent evacuation at Dunkirk. He also announced that most of the supporting forces had been successfully evacuated.
20. “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate” by Ronald Reagan
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin (1987)
In addition to bringing the nation together, President Reagan was dedicated to overthrowing the entire “Evil Empire” when he took office. Although there is continuous debate surrounding Reagan’s involvement at the end of the Cold War, it is clear that he had some impact.
Reagan’s most impactful moment was when he delivered his speech at the Berlin wall, which represented the “Iron Curtain.” He called on Gorbachev to tear down the wall. It was a powerful moment that is remembered as one of the most important speeches of the 20th century.
These speeches were so important because they delivered messages that needed to be heard. At a time when the world was facing difficult challenges, these speeches gave people hope and inspired them to fight for what was right. Although some of these speeches were given centuries ago, their messages are still relevant today.