Special Report

Greatest Speeches of the Civil Rights Movement

Source: Keystone / Getty Images

Lyndon B. Johnson: ‘And we shall overcome’
> Occupation: President
> Place: Washington, D.C.
> Date: March 15, 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson used a televised speech to advocate for a strong voting rights act, following the attack of state troopers on people on marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. Johnson, a southerner, had helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That act outlawed discrimination in the workplace and public accommodations based on race, religion, national origin, or sex. In his speech before a join session of the House, Johnson framed civil rights as a moral issue and invoked the slogan of the movement.

“What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’
> Occupation: Civil rights leader
> Place: Memphis, Tennessee
> Date: Apr. 3, 1968

Martin Luther King Jr. made his last speech at Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God in Memphis the night before he was assassinated. He was in the Tennessee city to express his solidarity for sanitation workers striking for higher pay. King always lived with the threat of assassination, and he talked about it privately and alluded to it in many of his speeches.

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Source: Harry Benson / Getty Images

Robert F. Kennedy: Statement announcing death of Martin Luther King Jr.
> Occupation: Politician
> Place: Indianapolis, Indiana
> Date: April 4, 1968

Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning for president, broke the news of King’s assassination to a crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kennedy, whose brother was slain by an assassin less than five years before, offered a unique and personal perspective on the death of King.

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”

Source: Veni Markovski / Wikimedia Commons

Vernon Jordan Jr.: National Press Club speech
> Occupation: Civil rights activist/businessman/lawyer
> Place: Washington, D.C.
> Date: Feb. 14, 1978

Vernon Jordan, a businessman and president of the National Urban League, believed the African Americans needed to become more involved in the business community. Even so, at National Press Club luncheon in 1978, Jordan criticized a proposed tax cut that he said would hurt the urban poor.

“The National Urban League opposes the tax cut because it would not solve the problems of minorities. There is little evidence to conclude that the job-stimulation effect of the tax cut would trickle down to minorities. . . . There are those who believe in John Kennedy’s phrase that a rising tide lifts all boats, but we must remind them that a rising tide lifts only those boats in the water, and black people are in the dry dock of this economy. Rather than scatter $25 billion to the winds, we want that money, or a large part of it, used to create jobs directly, either in public service employment, in public works, or in creative incentives to private industry to hire and train the unemployed. A broad tax cut would not only defeat our goal of lowering black unemployment, but would create a large deficit that would, in itself, become the excuse for not undertaking urban programs the nation needs.”

Source: schlesinger_library / Flickr

Dorothy Height: Speech at Scholarly Conference on Black Women
> Occupation: Civil rights/women’s rights activist
> Place: Washington, D.C.
> Date: Nov. 13, 1979

Civil rights activist Dorothy Height noted the contributions African-American women made to the civil rights movement in a speech at the Scholarly Conference on Black Women in 1979.

“We began to build bridges of understanding between black and white women in the South and black and white women in communities across the country. We asked them a question: ‘Does it help you or does it hinder you to have a national organization come in?’ And, the women, Clarice Harvey, speaking for one group of women said, ‘We’re from Jackson, Miss. We are black and white women. We are seeing each other here and knowing each other for the first time. But we know one thing, we will never be apart again.’ And then she said, ‘Don’t give up. A national organization is like a long-handled spoon: you can come in and stir us up and get us moving.'”

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