The 10 Most Influential American Speeches of the 20th CenturyDr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream”President John F. Kennedy, “Inaugural Address”President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “First Inaugural Address”William Faulkner, “Speech Accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature”President Ronald Reagan, “Tear Down This Wall!”Helen Keller, “Strike Against War”President Richard M. Nixon, “Checkers”Huey P. Long, “Every Man a King”Lou Gehrig, “Farewell to Baseball”Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Struggle for Human Rights”
The spoken word has, for many centuries, been one of the most powerful and effective means of communication. A great speech has the ability to evoke emotion and provoke action among all people, even in the digital generation. Let’s take a look at some of the most important American speeches of the 20th century.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, was capped by this partially improvised speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Delivered in front of 250,000 supporters on the Washington Mall, the speech became one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement.
It was for many Americans a new era when John F. Kennedy was sworn in to the presidency on January 20, 1961. His election represented a movement of youthfulness and promise in an America facing a turbulent decade, and his line “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” summed up the moment perfectly.
The United States was reeling from the Great Depression, and rumblings of war were imminent in Europe. America had not faced such tough times since the Civil War when, on March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his inspiring first inaugural address, famous for the memorable line, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The master stylist of Southern literature was relatively unknown before being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but his December 10, 1950, acceptance speech, in which he urged young writers to rediscover the writing craft, remains one of the most famous Nobel Prize speeches in history.
President Reagan’s words speak for themselves. This ultimatum issued on June 12, 1987, to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the most powerful and memorable moments of the Cold War. Delivered in front of the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall, Reagan’s speech was a risky rhetorical move, one which was not initially supported by his staff.
Helen Keller had overcome deafness and blindness with the help of teacher Anne Sullivan, and by the turn of the 20th century, she had graduated from Radcliffe College and taken up political activism. An outspoken socialist, Keller delivered her famous anti-war speech in Carnegie Hall on January 5, 1916, stressing equality and the plight of the worker and calling out her opponents and those who pitied her.
Well before Watergate, when Richard Nixon was still a U.S. senator, he appeared on TV on September 23, 1952, in the midst of his vice presidential candidacy to deliver a half-hour address, in which he took on opponents, dispelled doubts about improper political funding, urged viewers to weigh in with the Republican National Committee, and, most famously, told the story of the Nixon family dog, Checkers, a gift which he vowed to keep regardless of any political accusations.
The infamous Louisiana governor and senator, known as a riveting speaker and outspoken left-wing populist, delivered his trademark speech via radio broadcast on February 23, 1934. He addressed issues of poverty and encouraged the sharing of wealth, championing the common man of America. Long’s political career, however, was marred by corruption, and he was assassinated the following year.
It was a moment in sports when all rivalries ceased and Americans bid farewell to one of baseball’s greatest heroes. Lou Gehrig’s speech on July 4, 1939, was brief but effective, as he celebrated his great fortune in the midst of his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), calling himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Gehrig would succumb to the disease, which is often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, two years later.
In the years following World War II, the world saw the rise of atomic warfare as well as the growing threat of the Soviet Union. In the midst of this turmoil, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave an address at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on September 28, 1948, in which she advocated for the maintaining of human rights through the passage of the Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations. Roosevelt praised “the Magna Carta of all men everywhere,” and for her efforts, she was honored posthumously with the UN’s Human Rights prize in 1968.