I recently stumbled across a book entitled 21 Speeches That Shaped Our World that inspired me to revisit some of my own favourite orations. These eloquent and powerful epiphanies have had far-reaching influences over hurdling humanity’s most robust barriers and social injustices and are a testament to my belief that one person can make a difference in this world.
Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream.”
One hundred years after the abolition of slavery in the United States, activist Martin Luther King Junior delivered what would become regarded as the most important event in the Civil Rights Movement that would eventually shape modern America.
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, King coupled his skills of rhetoric with a fierce passion and strong charisma to call for an end to racial discrimination. Although scripted, King broke from the text towards the end of the speech to improvise the famous “I Have a Dream” oration which sent a clear message of hope for freedom and equality to arise from the ashes of slavery and hatred.
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
William Faulkner, “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.”
William Faulkner is regarded as one of the most important writers in American literature, an indisputable master of the written word who was not known for public appearances let alone speeches. In 1949, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition “powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.”
Faulkner loathed the fame that the award brought and partly donated the money he earned from it towards a fund supporting new writing talent. However, he used the Nobel Banquet ceremony the following year in Stockholm to deliver his most compelling work – a speech about the resilience of the human spirit at a time when the world was in the grips of fear from the threat of a nuclear war.
“I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this.
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honour and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.
The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Winston Churchill, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches.”
Winston Churchill had been installed as the British Prime Minister for less than a month when he addressed the House of Commons in June 1940 to deliver his “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”, speech.
Like King George VI, Churchill had suffered from a crippling speech impediment earlier in life but overcame this to deliver a number of rousing orations that lifted the country during some of its darkest hours.
The speech, alongside another famous oration “This Was Their Finest Hour” later the same month, buoyed the British nation and inspired them to halt Hitler’s advance in Europe during the Battle of Britain campaign. That success is regarded as the turning point of the Second World War which was a firm defiance of the menace of tyranny.
Following the speech, an opposition Labour party politician wrote to Churchill to say “My dear Winston. That was worth 1,000 guns and the speeches of 1,000 years.”
“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.
At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Demosthenes, “The Third Philippic.”
Through the four philippics against Philip II of Macedon, Demosthenes established himself as the most influential politician in BC Athens. Demosthenes cherished the democratic freedoms enshrined by the way of life in his beloved city and took a strong stance against anyone that might impinge these liberties.
He was acutely aware of the incursion of Philip II of Macedon into the Greek peninsula and when Philip was incensed after an assault by Athenian general Diopeithes on the maritime district of Thrace, knew that the threat of attack as recourse was imminent.
This turbulence sparked an assembly which Demosthenes embraced as the ideal platform to awaken his peers from their apathetic slumber. For too long they had taken their way of life and its freedoms for granted and The Third Philippic called upon them to take action before all was lost. The speech was a success, inspiring the assembly to cry out, “To arms! To arms!” upon its conclusion.
“It is this fate, I solemnly assure you, that I dread for you, when the time comes that you make your reckoning, and realise that there is no longer anything that can be done. May you never find yourselves, men of Athens, in such a position!
Yet in any case, it were better to die ten thousand deaths, than to do anything out of servility towards Philip. A noble recompense did the people in Oreus receive, for entrusting themselves to Philip’s friends, and thrusting Euphraeus aside! And a noble recompense the democracy of Eretria, for driving away your envoys, and surrendering to Cleitarchus! They are slaves, scourged and butchered! A noble clemency did he show to the Olynthians, who elected Lasthenes to command the cavalry, and banished Apollonides!
It is folly, and it is cowardice, to cherish hopes like these, to give way to evil counsels, to refuse to do anything that you should do, to listen to the advocates of the enemy’s cause, and to fancy that you dwell in so great a city that, whatever happens, you will not suffer any harm.”
Charlie Chaplin, the closing monologue from The Great Dictator
Saving the best to last, I turn to the magic of the silver screen and a monologue delivered by cinema’s most iconic star of the silent cinema era. Charlie Chaplin made a career out of dazzling audiences with his slapstick theatrical routine but it wasn’t until years after his forte genre of silent films had been phased by sound pictures that the English comedian and actor decided to deliver his most compelling performance with arguably the greatest speech ever spoken.
Of course, as a film monologue, Chaplin’s oration hasn’t moulded or shaped the world in much the same way as Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ or Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death” speech (two more great orations), but the satirical political comedy did stir condemnation of Hitler and Mussolini especially in the United States who were still at peace with Nazi Germany upon its release in January 1940.
It is also a universal statement that could apply to any circumstances of oppression or in the fight for unity and harmony. And so, without further ado, in all of its crowning glory, Charlie Chaplin’s full monologue at the close of The Great Dictator.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another.
In this world there is room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.
We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood, for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say ‘do not despair’. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes. Men who despise you. Enslave you. Who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think or what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle. Use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men. Machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate. The unloved and the unnatural!
Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the 17th Chapter of St. Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man”, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power. The power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power! Let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work that will give youth the future and old age a security.
By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie! They do not fulfil their promise; they never will. Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people! Now, let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.
Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! In the name of democracy, let us all unite!”