Ten Major Civil Rights Speeches and Writings

Obama and Indian Prime Minister at the MLK Memorial

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The speeches of America's civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, Kwame Ture, and others capture the spirit of the civil rights movement during its peak in the 1960s and early 1970s. King's writings and speeches, in particular, have endured for generations because they eloquently express the injustices that inspired the masses to take action. But the others on this list also illuminated the struggle for justice and equality by Black Americans.

Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Martin Luther King Jr. leading march

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King wrote this moving letter on April 16, 1963, while in prison for defying a state court order against demonstrating. He was responding to White clergy who had published a statement in the Birmingham News, criticizing King and other civil rights activists for their impatience. Pursue desegregation in the courts, the White clergymen urged, but do not hold these "demonstrations [that] are unwise and untimely."

King wrote that Black people in Birmingham were left with no choice but to demonstrate against the injustices they were suffering. He deplored the inaction of moderate White people, saying, "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice." His letter was a powerful defense of nonviolent direct action against oppressive laws.

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March on Washington in 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March on Washington in 1963.

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King gave his most famous speech as the keynote address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. King’s wife, Coretta, later remarked that “at that moment, it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.”

King had written a speech beforehand but deviated from his prepared remarks. The most powerful part of his speech—beginning with “I have a dream”—was entirely unplanned. He had used similar words at previous civil rights gatherings, but his words resounded deeply with the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial and viewers watching live coverage of the march from home. President John F. Kennedy was impressed, and when the two met ​afterward, Kennedy greeted King with the words “I have a dream.”

Fannie Lou Hamer's Testimony to the Democratic National Convention, 1964

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate Fannie Lou Hamer speaking

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In late August 1962, Frannie Lou Hamer and several other Black Mississippi residents tried to register to vote at the county courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi. For her effort to exercise her constitutional rights, Hamer was fired from her job, shot at, and arrested. Highway patrol officers told her, "We are going to make you wish you was dead," and beat her repeatedly.

Hamer testified before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on August 22, 1964. She related her ordeal and stated:

"All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?"

Bayard Rustin's Reflections on the 1963 March on Washington

Bayard Rustin Speaking at Lincoln Memorial
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Among his many accomplishments, Bayard Rustin helped organized the "Freedom Rides," where Black and White activists traveled together throughout the Deep South to fight racial injustice; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin was the executive director of the march and spoke at the event. He later reflected on the importance of the march as well as the purpose of the civil rights movement in general:

"What made the march was that Black people voted that day with their feet. They came from every state, they came in jalopies, on trains, buses, anything they could get—some walked. ... And after they came and saw that it was very orderly, that there was fantastic determination, that there were all kinds of people there other than Black people, they knew there was a consensus in this country for the civil rights bill. After the March on Washington, when Kennedy called into the White House the leaders who had been resistant before the march, he made it very clear to them now he was prepared to put his weight behind the bill."

After Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Rustin and other civil rights leaders helped to ensure the passage of that bill—the Civil Rights Act of 1964—less than a year after the march.

Kwame Ture on "Black Power" and Civil Rights Laws

Stokely Carmichael Speaking at Civil Rights Rally
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Kwame Ture, whose birth name was Stokely Standiford Churchill Carmichael, was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, in 1941 but moved to the United States at age 11. He eventually became involved in the civil rights movement and worked for a time for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1966, shortly after he was named chairman of the SNCC, Ture spoke about Black Power and the efforts to pass civil rights legislation in the U.S., saying, in part:

"I maintain that every civil rights bill in this country was passed for White people, not for Black people. For example, I am Black. I know that. I also know that while I am Black I am a human being. Therefore I have the right to go into any public place. White people don’t know that. Every time I tried to go into a public place they stopped me. So some boys had to write a bill to tell that White man, 'He’s a human being; don’t stop him.' That bill was for the White man, not for me. I knew I could vote all the time and that it wasn’t a privilege but my right. Every time I tried I was shot, killed or jailed, beaten or economically deprived."

Ture eventually left the SNCC because he was displeased with its emphasis on nonviolent protest. He joined the Black Panther Party in 1968, serving as the group's prime minister but left that group and the United States that same year. He changed his name from Carmichael to Ture and fought for equality across the world, helping to create the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party.

Ella Jo Baker on the Struggle for Civil Rights

Ella Baker with microphone
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In 1957, Ella Jo Baker helped King form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, in 1960, helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker believed strongly in nonviolent protests such as the sit-ins organized by civil rights activists in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1969, Baker explained her philosophy and the mission of the civil rights movement:

"In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system."

Today, the Ella Baker Center for Civil Rights in Oakland continues to carry out her mission, working to change the system and fight for civil rights and justice.

Lorraine Hansberry on the Problem With White Liberals

Image of Lorraine Hansberry 1960
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Lorraine Hansberry was a playwright, essayist, and civil rights activist best known for writing "A Raisin in the Sun." It was the first play by a Black woman produced on Broadway when it was staged in 1959. But Hansberry was also an outspoken civil rights advocate and gave a striking speech at "The Black Revolution and the White Backlash" Forum at Town Hall sponsored by The Association of Artists for Freedom in New York City on June 15, 1964. In that speech, Hansberry criticized not White racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, but White liberals, stating:

"The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the White liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical. I think that then it wouldn't—when that becomes true, some of the really eloquent things that were said before about the basic fabric of our society, which after all, is the thing which must be changed ... to really solve the problem. The basic organization of American society is the thing that has Negroes in the situation that they are in and never let us lose sight of it."

Hansberry made it clear that she and others in the movement believed White liberals were not doing enough to change society and help achieve racial justice.

Joseph Jackson on the Importance of Voting

Joseph Jackson Speaking

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Joseph H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953 to 1982, opposed "direct action civil rights," such as that practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. At the National Baptist Convention’s 84th annual meeting in Detroit, on September 19, 1964, he explained why he felt voting was a key method for achieving equality and racial justice:

"Negroes must become registered voters and fight their battles in the polling booth. In the coming campaign we must not allow our prejudices, our hatred for individuals, to lead us into emotional outbursts and disrespect. ... We must make [a] choice of the candidate whom we think will serve the best interest of this nation and the nation’s cause, and then take our ballot and help to elect our choice. As I told this convention in 1956, I tell you again, the ballot is our most important weapon. We must not neglect it, forfeit or sell it, but use it for the protection of the nation, the promotion of freedom, the promotion of every citizen, and for the glory of the United States of America."

Jackson believed that Black people should work quietly within the system to create change, without resorting to any protests, even peaceful ones.

James Baldwin's Pin Drop Speech

James Baldwin poses while at home in Saint Paul de Vence, South of France, in1985.

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James Baldwin, a noted American writer, social critic, and civil rights leader, was born in Harlem, New York, in 1924 but moved to France in 1948 to escape the racism he experienced in the U.S. In 1965, he gave a speech at Cambridge University, where he talked about his experiences living as a Black man in the U.S., as well as the racism and discrimination Black people in the United States encountered on a daily basis.

"Any American Negro watching this, no matter where he is, from the vantage point of Harlem, which is another terrible place, has to say to himself, in spite of what the government says—the government says we can’t do anything about it—but if those were White people being murdered in Mississippi work farms, being carried off to jail, if those were White children running up and down the streets, the government would find some way of doing something about it."

Baldwin was referring to the double standards Black people were exposed to, and he tried to get people to question the way the American government treats Black Americans.

Angela Davis's Embassy Auditorium Speech

Angela Davis in 1969
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Angela Davis, a scholar and political activist, has been a civil rights leader for decades and is highly regarded for her work on racial justice, prison reform, and women's rights. On June 9, 1972, she gave a speech at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles where she questioned and challenged the unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S. She said in part:

"For when we see the rockets taking off towards the moon, and the B-52s raining destruction and death on the people of Vietnam, we know that something is wrong. We know that all we have to do is to redirect that wealth and that energy and channel it into food for the hungry, and to clothes for the needy; into schools, hospitals, housing, and all the material things that are necessary, all the material things that are necessary in order for human beings to lead decent, comfortable lives—in order to lead lives which are devoid of all the pressures of racism, and yes, male supremacist attitudes and institutions and all the other means with which the rulers manipulate the people. For only then can freedom take on a truly human meaning. Only then can we be free to live and to love and be creative human beings."

In another part of the speech, Davis said the unequal distribution of wealth created a situation where many "brown and Black [people] and working women and men" live in a condition that "bears a very striking similarity to the condition of the prisoner." Only a fair distribution of wealth would allow for a society that is more just and equal for all, she said.

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Vox, Lisa. "Ten Major Civil Rights Speeches and Writings." ThoughtCo, Jul. 20, 2021, thoughtco.com/major-civil-rights-speeches-and-writings-45362. Vox, Lisa. (2021, July 20). Ten Major Civil Rights Speeches and Writings. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/major-civil-rights-speeches-and-writings-45362 Vox, Lisa. "Ten Major Civil Rights Speeches and Writings." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/major-civil-rights-speeches-and-writings-45362 (accessed September 27, 2021).

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