Martin Luther King's `I have a dream' is judged the greatest speech of the century

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The Independent Online
MARTIN LUTHER King's "I have a dream" speech to 210,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, in August 1963 has come out on top of the 100 best political speeches of the 20th century because of his mastery of the spoken word and the impact it had on the American consciousness.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University have compiled a list of the 100 best American speeches and 10 of the best of British orations over the past 100 years. The list reflects the opinions of 137 scholars of public speaking, who were asked to recommend speeches on the basis of their social and political impact and rhetorical artistry.

Stephen Lucas, co-author of the study and professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the list showed the power of oratory had not died as society had developed more technological and sophisticated ways of communicating.

"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," Professor Lucas said. "With the rise of information technology, video and computers, people have assumed that oratory is dying. But despite our computer age, there is no substitute for public speech to lead, galvanise, console and inspire."

One of the most recent speeches in Britain to capture the heart and pulse of the nation was Earl Spencer's at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in which he spoke of his sister as "the most hunted person of the modern age". The earl "used the form of a funeral oration to make some very poignant remarks", Professor Lucas said. He "let the words speak for themselves and became the voice of the people".

Memorable speeches capture the mood of an era and often mark decisive moments in history, but the long-term impact of the speech depends on the audience. "If the audience are not in the position to take the contents of the speech and advance the ideas in it then, although it may have been a very good speech, the power of it is lost," he said.

Eloquent and powerful delivery are crucial but the level of emotion can be just as affective when it is muted. "Winston Churchill was a master of the English language; his war speeches are without parallel but he did not use excessive emotion," Professor Lucas said.

His war speech given to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 came out top of the British speeches of the past 100 years. The French resistance against Hitler could not hold up much longer, and the Prime Minister knew Britain would have to stand alone; the Battle of Britain had begun. "Let us brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, `This was their finest hour'," he said.

In the American list, 23 of the top 100 speeches were delivered by women, including the first ladies Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush. The only two women to make it into the British top 10 were Margaret Thatcher, with her 1982 speech in defence of the Falklands war, and the 1912 speech by Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragettes.

Toney Dolan wrote the "evil empire" speech of the former US President Ronald Reagan - referring to the Soviet Union - which came 29th on the American list. Mr Dolan said: "One hundred years from now, historians will see here evidence of both how clearly and how poorly we saw our time."


Winston Churchill

London, 13 May 1940

As Hitler advances to Dunkirk, Churchill rallies the nation with his character and resolve.

I would say to the House, as I said to the Government: `I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.'... I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, `Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.'

Emmeline Pankhurst

London, 17 October 1912

Speaking at the Albert Hall, Pankhurst shows her militant commitment to unceasing agitation for the vote.

We in the Suffragette Army have a great mission, the greatest mission the world has ever known - the freeing of one half of the human race and through that freedom the saving of the other half. I incite this meeting to rebellion!

Edward VIII

London, 10 December 1936

The King renounces the throne so he can marry the woman he loves, a divorcee called Mrs Wallis Simpson.

After long and anxious consideration, I have determined to renounce the throne... The burden which constantly rests upon the shoulders of a soverign is so heavy that it can only be borne in circumstances different from those in which I now find myself.

Margaret Thatcher

London, 20 May 1982

In the House of Commons, Mrs Thatcher defends her policy in the Falklands crisis.

The gravity of the situation will be apparent to the House and the nation. Difficult days lie ahead; but Britain will face them in the conviction that our cause is just and in the knowledge that we have been doing everything reasonable to secure a negotiated settlement.

Earl Spencer

London, 6 September 1997

At Princess Diana's funeral, her brother voices the British people's anger towards the press and the royal family.

To sanctify your memory would be to miss out on the very core of your being... Of all the ironies of Diana, perhaps the greatest was this: a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in fact, the most hunted person of the modern age.

Martin Luther King jr

Washington DC, 28 August 1963

King speaks to 210,000 black people gathered at the Lincoln memorial.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character... With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

John F Kennedy

Washington DC, 4 March 1961

In his inaugural address, he sets the standard by which modern presidential inaugural speeches will be judged.

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

President Franklin D Roosevelt

Washington DC, 4 March 1933

Roosevelt lifts American spirits out of the depression in his inaugural address.

This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Ronald Reagan

Washington DC, 28 January 1986

Addressing the nation after the `Challenger' space shuttle disaster. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The `Challenger' crew were pulling us into the future... we will never forget them [as they] waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God" [quotes from the poem "High Flight" by the Second World War pilot John Gillespie Magee].

Lyndon B Johnson

Washington DC, 15 March 1965

The President recommends his Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress and the Senate.

This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all - all, black and white, all, North and South, sharecropper and city-dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease ... not man, not our fellow neighbour. These enemies ... we shall overcome.