I am frequently asked what I think was the greatest speech of all time. I receive these questions since I coach professional presenters in the marketplace, as well as teach business presentations as part of the MBA program in the College of Business at the University of Dallas. I think that many people like to benchmark features of their own presentations against famous speeches that they are familiar with.
Since we recently passed the 50th anniversary of the great “I Have a Dream” speech by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., you have likely seen several editorials about the context, the speaker, and the speech. I will not repeat any of these here as they are readily available for you. There is no question in my mind that it is one of the greatest of all time, but it is not THE greatest.
That honor goes to the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who at the Democratic National Convention in 1988, gave the most inclusive presentation I have ever seen. That evening, he put it all together. There is no single presentation that I have seen which embodies all of the elements of successful speechmaking this well. No matter what you wish to critique – projection, tone, eye contact, posture, gestures, language, verbal and vocal variety, storytelling, and on, and on, and on….this speech is a model. I am especially impressed when I see how he touches all elements of his audience – young and old, white and black, rich and poor, able and disabled, male and female, and any other demographic classification that you want to examine. I especially encourage you to watch Part 7 by clicking here. He would be nominated for the presidency of the United States the next evening. Had he been elected, I think he would have been powerful with foreign leaders, but would have had great difficulty passing legislation through his own bodies of congress.
Two other items about this speech stand out to me. First, he has energy. Even 75 minutes from the beginning, Jackson has the same enthusiasm he started with. Second, he puts elements from the African-American pulpit into a political speech very successfully. As you watch Part 7, note features such as repetition, parallelism, cadence, etc., which you would see any Sunday in this type of church.
So, for what it is worth, here is my list of the top five American speeches of all time, with links to a YouTube version of the speech where available:
1. Rev. Jesse Jackson – 1988 Democratic National Convention
2. President Ronald Reagan – Challenger Explosion Speech – January 28, 1986 – in just 4:40, he settles down the country, gives hope to children who watched the broadcast, praises NASA, and restores faith in the United States space program.
3. Robert F. Kennedy Announces Death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. – April 4, 1968 – en route to a political campaign stop in Indianapolis, RFK receives word of the King assassination, and speaks from the heart in an attempt to unify the country which could experience significant polarization; he holds an envelope with scribbled notes that he barely refers to.
4. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. – “I Have a Dream” – August 28, 1963 – an electrifying, sincere, and emotional presentation filled with striking metaphors and allegories that marks a transition in civil rights
5. Jim Valvano – ESPY “Don’t Ever Give Up” – March 3, 1993 – filled with terminal cancer, the famous NC State basketball coach stirs the crowd with hope, passion, and humor
You may ask where are these American speeches? Yes, they are great, and likely in a “top 20,” but….
JFK inaugural address – January 20, 1961 – upbeat and enthusiastic, but disorganized, and one famous line does not make an entire speech famous
Abraham Lincoln Gettysburg Address – November 19, 1863 – we all memorized it, but our effort is why we probably think it is great
Richard Nixon “Checkers” Speech – September 23, 1952 – the first of many defiant and denial attempts by an elusive liar
Barbara Jordan addresses Democratic National Convention – July 12, 1976 – a remarkable address by a woman of color who left us way too soon, but she was the star, not the speech
What do you think? Do you have other favorites? Let’s talk about it really soon!
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.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, he penned his response to a letter from some clergymen who objected to his demands. He had led a peaceful march for freedom, but some objected, including some local church leaders. Those clergymen wrote, in part:
We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
Dr. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to their call to be “patient.” It is, in my opinion, must reading for any American who cares about our long quest for freedom for all people. Here are some key excerpts from Dr. King’s response:
16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms…
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.
If we should have learned anything about the centuries long quest for freedom, it should be this: people (peoples) who don’t have freedom are seldom given it freely. They have to take it. Our very Declaration of Independence reminds us of this:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Whatever else we celebrate today, we celebrate this: that people longing to be free have risen up, time and again, and asked for what is their “constitutional and God given rights.” And any attempt to withhold such rights, such freedom, such freedoms, from any people (peoples) is downright un-American.
Enjoy your freedom. Remember the long struggles that got us here. And ask, who is deprived of this freedom today? And, what can we do to speed up the process for them? For, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Happy 4th of July.
An interesting note: this is a rare photograph of Dr. King dressed not in a suit and tie. Taylor Branch chronicled Dr. King’s decision to go to jail, and described the shocked look on the faces of his friends as he stepped out of his bedroom in “dungarees and a work shirt.” Ir’s been years since I read this, but I’m pretty sure it was in Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch. As his friends debated the wisdom of Dr. King himself participating in the demonstration and thus being arrested, Dr. King stepped out in attire that signaled “I’m ready to go to jail.” The adds to the poignancy of this line from his “I Have A Dream “ speech, delivered some four months after this arrest:
“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.”
For practically every family, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause.
If problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be. A job alone is not enough. Medical insurance alone is not enough. Good housing alone is not enough. Reliable transportation, careful family budgeting, effective parenting, effective schooling are not enough when each is achieved in isolation from the rest. There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty. Only where the full array of factors is attacked can America fulfill its promise.
The first step is to see the problems, and the first problem is the failure to see the people.
David Shipler: The Working Poor (Invisible in America)
How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed – On (Not) Getting By in America
News item: Non college graudates are seeing their job opportunites completely disappear. From Do You Have a Job? by Daniel E. Slotnik:
For many young people in America, steady work is far from guaranteed. A new study shows that only one of six high school graduates is now employed full time, and although 73 percent think they will need more education, only half say they will enroll. Are you now employed? What jobs have you had in the past? Do you think you could find work after high school, if you choose not to attend college?
In her article “More Young Americans Out of High School Are Also Out of Work,” Catherine Rampell writes:
Whatever the sob stories about recent college graduates spinning their wheels as baristas or clerks, the situation for their less-educated peers is far worse, according to a report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University scheduled to be released on Wednesday.
Today is Urban Engagement Book Club day. Twice a month, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with social justice or poverty at this event hosted by CitySquare. This is one part of a multi-part life I am living. On one day, I present a synopsis of a best selling and challenging business book. On the next day, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with some aspect of human struggle, even human misery – books on social justice and poverty. (I also do some presentation skills training; some keynote speaking, and a few other kinds of corporate-training-like activities). I like everything that I do, and believe it is all useful to the folks that I interact with regularly. I really do want to help people get “better” at what they do.
But it is the social justice part of my schedule that probably wins the “what matters most to you?” top spot. I care about these issues deeply. I’ve read too many books; I’ve read Isaiah and Amos from the Bible. Caring about the neediest among us really is a big human deal. To fail to do so makes us a little less human.
Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
These words come from Amos 5, and here are a few of the other words that precede that famous “climax” in the chapter:
You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts…
Seek good, not evil.
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.
Caring for the poor; helping the cause of the poor; seeking and providing justice. These may not be needed all that much by those with great means. But as for the neediest… these matter a great deal. And the neediest among us seems to be a growing group at the moment.
Today’s book at the Urban Engagement Book Club is Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter. This is a book about a specific injustice, the “exploitation” of black people in Chicago. But that story has been replicated in city after city. This may be the key quote in the book:
When a seller in the black market demands exorbitant prices and onerous sales terms relative to the terms and prices available to white citizens for comparable housing, it cannot be stated that a dollar in the hands of a black man will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white man.
The book is really about how people with means find ways to make a lot of money – a lot of money — off of black people without the same level of means. It is a story overflowing with racism. But there is a warning in here for all folks.
I fear that we are in for much more of this kind of exploitation. People with inadequate means is a growing demographic. High school graduates (and those who did not graduate from high school – some 23-27% of all high school students) are simply unable to find work (see the news item above). The situation is going to be increasingly dire. And this book chronicles just how adept some folks are at making a lot of money off of the exploitation of the poor. The poor black people were the victims in Chicago. And such racially charged abuse is still present in far too many places. But the plight of all types of people without adequate means is a story that I think we need to know, and give some serious thought to.
May I make a suggestion? As we read business books, and as we think about improving our own business, and getting ahead financially – let’s not forget the needy among us. And not just with an occasional charitable gift. Let’s give this issue some real attention. Consider reading an occasional book that deals with such social justice issues. (Start with the Shipler book, The Working Poor. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and this book is honest, thorough, well-written).
Could anything help our country more than for all of us to set our minds to some solutions – to help create a better set of work possibilities for those now in such need, those without that college education to rely on?
It may be that the most patriotic thing any of us can do right now is to help the under-skilled and undereducated find work.
Every semester, I go over the masterpiece I Have a Dream in great detail. I give each student a copy of the text of Dr. King’s speech, and then together we circle key phrases all the way through to the end. One obvioius characteristic of the speech just jumps out at every student – he kept repeating key phrases, over and over again. “Now is the time…”; “I have a dream…”; “We are not satisfied…”; and a number of others.
There is a key truth underlying this practice. We are slow to learn. No, slow to learn isn’t strong enough. We are slow to even pay attention.
Ed Savage, EdD, is Manager MID Training & Development at L-3 in Greenville, and a regular participant in the First Friday Book Synopsis. He is full of wisdom and insight on a host of topics. Recently, we were discussing just how difficult it is to get a message really heard throughout an organization. (and, yes, within a family, and anywhere else messages matter). He told me of “The Rule of Seventeen: Communicating the Change Message Requires 17 Repetitions.” Though aimed specifically at communicating a message of change throughout an organization, it applies to all communication challenges. This rule states that one must repeat a message 17 times to get it through, fully accepted, and then acted upon by a listener. When I heard it, it immediately made sense.
(And, I might add, after the 17th time, there will still need to be something of a refresher/reminder every now and then… The communication task is never quite finished).
He first heard this from Naomi Sullivan of St Anthony’s, and then he refined it a bit. And he has given me permission to share this on our blog. Thanks, Ed. This is valuable!
So, here it is – “The Rule of Seventeen.” Click on the image, print it out, and re-read it at least seventeen times yourself — and then, start repeating those key messages over and over and over and over ….again.
“Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee (the night before his death)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — 48 years ago today.
I was 12 years old, and not paying much attention. And a lot of others were not paying much attention either, though they were old enough that they should have known better.
But on this day, August 28, 1963, he did what he did best. He spoke the words of his mind and his heart. And, if you look at his career, that’s what he did: he spoke. He spoke, and spoke, and marched, and spoke, and stood with others, and got arrested, and wrote a brilliant letter from a jail cell, and spoke some more, right up to the night before he died.
The big event, at which he gave his greatest speech (many call it the greatest speech of the 20th century in this country), was named the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” His dream had been shared at least one time earlier, in Detroit (in the audience was the Pastor who helped organize the event, Reverend Franklin, and the Pastor’s young adult daughter, Aretha):
This earlier version included these words:
“I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job…” (emphasis added)
(Read about the Detroit version here).
On this day in August of 1963, his themes sounded forth in a loud and clear voice.
What did he accomplish? Some, so much…not enough. He spent the rest of his years adding to the “simple” civil rights struggle with ongoing, deep, and abiding concern for jobs, and then, at the end, opposition to the war in Vietnam.
I think it may be best to call him simply the Prophet. “The lion has roared–who will not fear? The Sovereign LORD has spoken–who can but prophesy?” wrote Amos (Amos 3:8). And so, when Dr. King saw injustice, he spoke. Over and over and over again.
Does speaking matter? Does speaking up, speaking out, matter? Yes – it may be the one thing that matters most. The history of getting things accomplished always begins with: “In the beginning was the word.” Take your pick – Winston Churchill spoke, and they did fight them on the beaches, and never did surrender… Franklin Roosevelt spoke, and people learned that fear itself was the greatest thing to fear. JFK spoke about a bold idea to accomplish by the end of the decade, and we did send men to the moon and bring them safely back to earth again.
Words lead to deeds. They always have. They always will.
Sadly, Dr. King was silenced far too soon. What would he be doing today? I suspect he would speak, with his loud and clear voice, about jobs. Remember, it was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” And on the night before he died, he spoke in Memphis, speaking out for the jobs of sanitation workers who were not treated justly. Injustice, injustice in the arena of jobs — jobs for the common person. This mattered to Dr. King. And when something mattered to Dr. King, he always knew what to do — he spoke.
He spent the last night of his life at the Lorraine Motel, room 306. I show a brief video, which includes his I Have a Dream Speech, to each of my speech classes. It is narrated by Peter Jennings. There is the iconic photo of Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, standing next to a very young Jesse Jackson. I’ve been to the Lorraine Motel. It is as Peter Jennings described it: “a cheap, cinder block rooming house.” He did not go to Memphis looking for a plush retreat. He stayed in a modest place, and spoke to and about the workers. He cared about them, and their jobs. And he spoke. It is what he always did.
It would be nice to hear that voice today. No adequate replacement has arisen. That is why his words are etched in granite in the new memorial, just a stones throw from where he spoke some 48 years ago.
Update: my wife just read this post, and reminded me that Dr. King may not have been (probably was not!) welcome at the nicer hotels of Memphis in the 1960s. The Lorraine Motel may have been the kind of option he faced. I should have remembered this. (“We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.” – I Have A Dream. & “When you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you” – Letter from Birmingham Jail).
“Until your people are mocking you, you’ve not repeated your message enough.”
Verne Harnish, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits
Each semester, I handout copies of the full text of I Have a Dream, the great speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. I take a fresh copy myself, and I have us work through the speech, circling each phrase that he repeats. The list is overwhelming: “now is the time” “100 years later,” “let freedom ring,” “all of God’s children,” “I have a dream,” “one day.” Over and over and over again, he hammers home these key phrases. This is part of the reason why the speech is burned so deeply into our collective memory.
We all need to take a lesson from Dr. King – especially at work.
We are so very busy, in our lives, and in our brains. At work, we always have the incident/task/crisis of the moment demanding our attention. So, if we want to focus on what is important in the big picture/over the long haul, it has to be front of mind, and put back in front of mind, time and time and time and time again.
In other words, one major job of a leader is to repeat what is important over and over and over and over again. “until they mock you.” There is no alternative to this.
Here’s how Mark Aesch, CEO of the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA) put it, in his book Driving Excellence: Transform your Organization’s Culture – and Achieve Revolutionary Results:
With an issue this significant, putting it in front of any group of people once is not going to get it done.
You need to come back, time and again, to make people focus on the issue’s importance.
Everyone – bus operators, radio controllers, customer service personnel, up to and including the vice presidents – is nudged to tie our strategies to the most basic task they happen to be performing minute to minute.
How are you doing? Are you repeating the key elements of your mission and your strategy over and over again to your people?
Are they mocking you yet? If they are not, you’ve got some more repeating to do.