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‘I Have a Dream’ leads top 100 speeches of the century

December 15, 1999 By Barbara Wolff

The mastery and magic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech earned it top honors in a new list of the 100 best political speeches of the 20th century.

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The full list of the top 100 speeches

Program in Presidential Rhetoric at Texas A&M University

Compiled by researchers at UW–Madison and Texas A&M University, the list reflects the opinions of 137 leading scholars of American public address. The experts were asked to recommend speeches on the basis of social and political impact, and rhetorical artistry.

Stephen Lucas, UW–Madison professor of communication arts, and Martin Medhurst, professor of speech communication at Texas A&M, say the new list confirms that excellence in American public oratory has thrived during the last 100 years.

“While it has become fashionable to bemoan the death of eloquence, this list makes it clear that the 20th century has produced public speeches of the highest order,” Lucas says.

King delivered “I Have a Dream” during the civil rights march on Washington Aug. 28, 1963. Says Medhurst, “His eloquent vision of a day when his own children ‘would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’ persuasively articulated the American dream within the context of the civil rights struggle.”

Following “I Have a Dream” on the list are John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, best known for the famous challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, March 4, 1933 and his declaration of war, Dec. 8, 1941, make FDR the only person with two speeches in the top five.

Barbara Jordon’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, July 12, 1976, completes the top five. Surveyed scholars cited her eloquence, power and masterful delivery, as well as the historical importance of the first keynote by an African-American woman.

The rest of the top 10 are:

  • Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech of 1952.
  • Malcom X’s 1964 “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
  • Ronald Reagan’s 1986 eulogy of the Challenger astronauts.
  • JFK’s address to the Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960 presidential campaign.
  • Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech that helped secure passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Lucas and Medhurst say the list has yielded some interesting information, including the fact that three of the top 10 speeches were delivered by African Americans, reflecting the importance of the civil rights movement and the black oral tradition.

Twenty-three of the top 100 were delivered by women. Two speeches by women in the 1990s fared especially well: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1995 address at the United Nations World Conference on Women (No. 35), well ahead of her husband’s only ranked speech (No. 92), made at a prayer service for Oklahoma City bombing victims. And while George Bush didn’t make the list at all, wife Barbara Bush’s 1990 commencement address at Wellesley College ranked No. 47.

Lucas notes that the list, which also includes speeches by Jesse Jackson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mario Cuomo, and famed attorney Clarence Darrow, reminds us of the power of the spoken word throughout American history. “Despite our computer age,” he says, “there is still no substitute for public speech to lead, galvanize, console and inspire.”

Tony Dolan, the writer of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech (No. 29), calls the new survey a document of record. “One hundred years from now, historians will see here evidence of both how clearly and how poorly we saw our time,” he says. “The list is sure to cause controversy.”

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