|Civil rights leaders meet in the Oval Office with President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson, August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King is second from left. Source: Records of the NAACP, Library of Congress.|
Intelligent Life, a sister publication of The Economist, in its current
July/August issue, has a feature on famous speeches in advance of the fiftieth
anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I
have a Dream" speech, which was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln
Memorial in Washington DC, during a time of agitation in the United States
by African-Americans for civil rights - - one hundred years after President
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation formally ended human slavery. The magazine focuses on speeches from
Pericles in 430 BC to Hillary Clinton in 1995.
President Kennedy was lukewarm about the civil rights movement. He did not
wish to alienate Southern Democrats while the historic antagonism between the
Irish and blacks in the US may have also been a factor. One hundred and fifty
years ago this month, Irish
mobs rioted against the Union Army draft and lynched blacks on the streets of
In May 1963, Vice President Johnson, a Southern Democrat, whose allies from
his Senate days were mainly segregationists, had no qualms in dealing with the
civil rights issue head-on and in a
speech in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he foreshadowed profound changes that would
be achieved in only 13 months.
“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed,” Johnson said at the cemetery in a
ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, according to
David M. Shribman, executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in
The New York Times. “One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage
to the color of his skin.”
In 1936, Jesse Owens, the black American athlete,
won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics and press reports said that Owens
had snubbed Hitler. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ignored the
achievements of the American. "Hitler didn't snub me – it was FDR who snubbed
me," Owens said later. "The president didn't even send me a telegram." In 1955,
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, named Owens an "Ambassador of
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt, a cousin of FDR's, had invited Booker T.
Washington, the African-American educator, to dine with his family at the White
House. News of the event created a firestorm across the country.
Dr King said on August 28, 1963:
"Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand
today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a
great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in
the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long
night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years
later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of
segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro
lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material
prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the
corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so
we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition."
Intelligent Life on famous speeches:
Sam Leith, a columnist and the author of "You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from
Aristotle to Obama " introduces
the Big Question, explaining that "threads of debt and inheritance tie the
earliest recorded oratory to the speeches of the present day".
James Harding, the director of BBC news and former editor of the Times,
argues that the 270 words of Lincoln's
Gettysburg address deliver "a
prose poem unrivalled in political oratory".
Mark Tully, the BBC's bureau chief in India for 22 years, chooses the speech
made by Swami
Vivekananda at the first World's Parliament of Religion in 1893 on behalf of
"the many who claim to be spiritual but not religious".
The playwright and novelist Gillian Slovo picks Nelson
Mandela's speech from the dock in 1964. "His convictions were unshakable."
The comedian and author Natalie Haynes goes back the farthest to Pericles's
funeral oration in 431BC: "the most beautiful celebration of democracy
Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of the Daily
Beast and Newsweek,
lauds the speech Hillary
Clinton gave about women's rights (Beijing,
1995), which "launched a movement".
Finally, there is a speech from the House of Commons. Johnny Grimond,
contributing editor for The
Economist, praises the combination of reason and emotion in the speech made
on Jewish rights in 1833, where his approach was to take "the arguments for
maintaining the restrictions one by one and destroy each in turn".
In 2004, a one-term state senator from Illinois took the stage to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Just over four years later, Barack Obama was president of the United States: