For centuries, public addresses have played a major role in the fight for racial equality. Through the power of the spoken word — be it speeches, sermons, songs, or poetic performances — Black leaders have often comforted and encouraged their communities while inspiring nations to continue to push forward in pursuit of true freedom.
Speeches, in particular, have served as an important medium for Black leaders, from the impassioned pleas of Martin Luther King Jr. to the eloquence with which President Barack Obama delivered his impactful and memorable messages of hope. Many other luminaries, from Nelson Mandela to Sojourner Truth to Booker T. Washington, have galvanized crowds with their demands for accountability and equality. Together, these influential figures have forged a legacy of bravery, beauty, and change that is evident in their most famous and moving words.
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” by Martin Luther King Jr., 1963
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!
— “Ain’t I a Woman?” by Sojourner Truth, 1851
It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.
— “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass, 1852
I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
— “I Am Prepared to Die” by Nelson Mandela, 1964
A spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers, when self-interest and bitterness seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.
— “Who, Then, Will Speak for the Common Good?” by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, 1976
No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.
— “Atlanta Compromise” by Booker T. Washington, 1895
If you believe that the Negro has a soul, if you believe that the Negro is a man, if you believe the Negro was endowed with the senses commonly given to other men by the Creator, then you must acknowledge that what other men have done, Negroes can do.
— “If You Believe the Negro Has a Soul” by Marcus Garvey, 1921
We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.
— “March on Washington” by John Lewis, 1963
And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.
— Presidential election victory speech of Barack Obama, 2008
Photo credit: Georges De Keerle/ Hulton Archive via Getty Images