Special Report

Greatest Speeches of the Civil Rights Movement

Source: Three Lions / Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘The Montgomery bus boycott’ speech
> Occupation: Civil rights leader
> Place: Montgomery, Alabama
> Date: Dec. 5, 1955

Four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white passenger, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped to the forefront of the civil rights movement. In a baptist church in Montgomery, on Dec. 5, 1955, he addressed a crowd of about 5,000 that had just voted to boycott the buses.

“You have voted [for this boycott], and you have done it with a great deal of enthusiasm, and I want to express my appreciation to you, on behalf of everybody here. Now let us go out to stick together and stay with this thing until the end. Now it means sacrificing, yes, it means sacrificing at points. But there are some things that we’ve got to learn to sacrifice for.”

Source: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Roy Wilkins: ‘The clock will not be turned back’
> Occupation: Civil rights leader
> Place: California
> Date: October 1957

Next to Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP in 1957, was the most recognizable figure in the civil rights movement. In October, he addressed the Commonwealth Club of California five weeks after people in Little Rock, Arkansas, tried to prevent nine black students from attending Central High School.

“The world cannot understand nor long respect a nation in which a governor calls out troops to bar little children from school in defiance of the Supreme Court of the land, a nation in which mobs beat and kick and stone and spit upon those who happen not to be white. It asks: ‘Is this the vaunted democracy? Is this freedom, human dignity and equality of opportunity? Is this fair play? Is this better than Communism?’ No, the assertion that Little Rock has damaged America abroad does not call for sneers. Our national security might well hang in the balance. […] The Negro citizens of our common country, a country they have sweated to build and died to defend, are determined that the verdict at Appomattox will not be renounced, that the clock will not be turned back, that they shall enjoy what is’ justly theirs….”

Source: Three Lions / Getty Images

John F. Kennedy: ‘Civil rights address’
> Occupation: President
> Place: Washington, D.C.
> Date: June 11, 1963

By the time John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, the civil rights movement had gained considerable momentum. In a televised speech on June 11, 1963, he announced that he would be sending civil rights legislation to Congress.

“The heart of the question is — whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. Whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘I have a dream’
> Occupation: Civil rights leader
> Place: Washington, D.C.
> Date: Aug. 28, 1963

King’s “I Have A Dream” speech galvanized the civil rights movement and was instrumental in changing the course of American domestic politics. Before 250,000 people at the March on Washington on Aug. 23, 1963, King called the nation to account for its failed obligation to its African-American citizens. King was unsparing in his recitation of the depredations against African Americans, but he was not bitter and urged them not to despair. The speech displays all of King’s masterful oratorial skills. He reproaches the nation for giving “the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ”insufficient funds,'” and is resolute in urging African-Americans to emerge from the “dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

Source: Three Lions / Getty Images

Malcolm X: ‘The ballot or the bullet’
> Occupation: Civil rights activist
> Place: Detroit, Michigan
> Date: Apr. 12, 1964

By the early 1960s, a more confrontational approach to civil rights emerged, exemplified by the speeches and public comments of Malcolm X. During a speech at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit in 1964, the fiery orator chided the “March on Washington,” calling the participants “chumps,” and said America was a colonial empire.

“Why does it look like it might be the year of the ballot or the bullet? Because Negroes have listened to the trickery and the lies and the false promises of the white man now for too long, and they’re fed up. They’ve become disenchanted. They’ve become disillusioned. They’ve become dissatisfied. And all of this has built up frustrations in the black community that makes the black community throughout America today more explosive than all of the atomic bombs the Russians can ever invent. Whenever you got a racial powder keg sitting in your lap, you’re in more trouble than if you had an atomic powder keg sitting in your lap. When a racial powder keg goes off, it doesn’t care who it knocks out the way. Understand this, it’s dangerous.”

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