Four Major Civil Rights Speeches and Writings

What Martin Luther King, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson said about civil rights

The civil rights speeches of the nation's leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson, capture the spirit of the movement during its peak in the early 1960s. King's writings and speeches, in particular, have endured for generations because they eloquently express the injustices that inspired the masses to take action. His words continue to resonate today.

President Obama And Indian Prime Minister Modi Visit MLK Memorial. Alex Wong / GettyImages

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 the African-Americans of Birmingham were left with no choice but to demonstrate against the injustices they were suffering. He deplored the inaction of moderate whites, 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 Counciler 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 non-violent direct action against oppressive laws. More »

President Kennedy could no longer avoid directly addressing civil rights by mid-1963. Demonstrations across the South made Kennedy's strategy of remaining quiet so as not to alienate Southern Democrats untenable. On June 11, 1963, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, ordering them to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to allow two African-American students to register for classes. That evening, Kennedy addressed the nation.

In his civil rights speech, President Kennedy argued that segregation was a moral problem and invoked the founding principles of the United States. He said the issue was one that should concern all Americans, asserting that every American child should have an equal opportunity "to develop their talent and their ability and their motivation, to make something of themselves." Kennedy's speech was his first and only major civil rights address, but in it he called on Congress to pass a civil rights bill. Though he did not live to see this bill passed, Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, invoked his memory to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. More »

Shortly after Kennedy’s civil rights address, King gave his most famous speech as the keynote address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 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 King’s speech--beginning with the refrain of “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 from their televisions at home. Kennedy was impressed, and when they met afterwards, Kennedy greeted King with the words, “I have a dream.” More »

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Lyndon B. Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" Speech

The highlight of Johnson’s presidency may well have been his speech on March 15, 1965, delivered before a joint session of Congress. He had already pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress; now he set his sights on a voting rights bill. White Alabamans had just violently rebuffed African-Americans attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery for the cause of voting rights, and the time was ripe for Johnson to address the problem.

His speech, titled “The American Promise,” made it clear that all Americans, regardless of race, deserved the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. Like Kennedy before him, Johnson explained that the deprivation of voting rights was a moral issue. But Johnson also went beyond Kennedy by not merely focusing on a narrow issue. Johnson spoke of bringing about a grand future for the United States: “I want to be the president who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races, all regions and all parties. I want to be the president who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.”

Midway through his speech, Johnson echoed words from a song used at civil rights rallies--“We Shall Overcome.” It was a moment that brought tears to King’s eyes as he watched Johnson on his television at home--a sign that the federal government was finally putting all of its force behind civil rights.

Wrapping Up

The civil rights speeches given by Martin Luther King and presidents Kennedy and Johnson remain relevant decades later. They reveal the movement from both the activist's perspective and the federal government's. They signal why the civil rights movement became one of the most important causes of the 20th century.