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!
“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.
(note; I write on this blog about business topics, business books – and a few other subjects. I also teach Speech. This article refers to a section of what some call the greatest speech delivered in the United States in the 20th Century).
Today is Martin Luther King Day. I have read his words, watched him on video, read biographies. He was a remarkable man – a remarkable leader.
In this year, on this day, maybe it would be good to remember his clarion call for non-violence.
He had reason to demand change. He was the Pastor of the church where Rosa Parks was a member. Her “crime” was technically a crime, but a crime based on an unjust law. Dr. King would later write:
I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all. (Letter from a Birmingham Jail – read the full text of the letter here).
And he knew that to gain freedom, to gain equality and justice, he had to “demand it.”
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed. (Again, from the Letter from Birmingham Jail).
But, how to demand it? This is where Dr. King’s greatness is seen. He believed in demanding it/taking it without violence. His friends had been beaten. Some had been killed. (many, over the decades). Freedom Riders had had their heads bashed in. (Here’s one example: just read the Wikipedia article about Congressman John Lewis, regarding his early activist years. For a gripping photograph of John Lewis, with bandages on the back of his head after being beaten by the KKK, in 1961, go to this Slate.com Magnum Photos slide show — look at picture #6. The photo is from a press conference, and the future Congressman Lewis is seated next to Dr. King).
But Dr. King was certain that to respond to violence with violence was not the answer. Here are words from his greatest speech, I Have a Dream, delivered at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963 (read the full speech here):
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
Today, in relative comfort, four decades removed from the turmoil of that era, we forget that the approach of non-violence was not guaranteed to “win” the day. There were other voices, recommending other paths — like Malcolm X, in a speech delivered some eight months after Dr. King’s, on April 3, 1964: The Ballot or the Bullet (read the full speech here):
The question tonight, as I understand it, is “The Negro Revolt, and Where Do We Go From Here?” or What Next?” In my little humble way of understanding it, it points toward either the ballot or the bullet.
If we don’t do something real soon, I think you’ll have to agree that we’re going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It’s one or the other in 1964. It isn’t that time is running out – time has run out!
There’s new strategy coming in. It’ll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets. It’ll be liberty, or it will be death. The only difference about this kind of death — it’ll be reciprocal.
The black nationalists aren’t going to wait. Lyndon B. Johnson is the head of the Democratic Party. If he’s for civil rights, let him go into the Senate next week and declare himself. Let him go in there right now and declare himself. Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party. Let him go in there right now and take a moral stand — right now, not later. Tell him, don’t wait until election time. If he waits too long, brothers and sisters, he will be responsible for letting a condition develop in this country which will create a climate that will bring seeds up out of the ground with vegetation on the end of them looking like something these people never dreamed of. In 1964, it’s the ballot or the bullet.
The contrast is so stark. And the judgement of history is correct. Dr. King’s speech was the greatest delivered in the era – not the one by Malcom X. Why? Because, ultimately, the path of non-violence is the better path.
This is the message of Dr. King. But his was not a soft message. He had studied Gandhi. He believed that the path of non-violence was the path that had the greatest possibility of success. Dr. King believed that the path of violence was both wrong, but also a losing path.
On Martin Luther King Day, let’s remember the turmoil of his era, the path he beckoned us toward, and the truth that the struggle for justice – justice for all – is ongoing, for us and our children and our grandchildren, and generations to come. And let’s remember his message: that freedom must be demanded, but never with acts of violence.
“There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.”
Walter Reuther, Union Leader
He was pummeled by “thugs” hired by Ford in 1937. (“The union organizers were badly beaten and thrown down thirty-nine steps off an overpass. But a photographer from the Detroit News caught it all, and his photos helped convince courts that Ford was violating workers’ rights.” – from Defining a Nation, edited by David Halberstam).
But he worked tirelessly, and stood shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King and the other organizers at the March on Washington. In case you don’t know, or don’t remember, the full name was: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Here’s an excerpt from WALTER REUTHER: Working-Class Hero by Irving Bluestone, retired U.A.W. vice president, professor of labor studies at Wayne State University – Time Magazine, December 7, 1998:
For Reuther, unionism was not confined simply to improving life at the workplace. He viewed the role of the union as a social movement aimed at uplifting the community within the guarantees of democratic values. After his untimely death, with May, in a plane crash in 1970, waves of downsizing devastated cities and created problems for labor that still exist today. You can just imagine him wading into the fight against wanton job destruction, done for the sake of propping up corporate balance sheets.
One of his favorite slogans was “Progress with the Community–Not at the Expense of the Community.” What is unmistakably clear is that Reuther, in his lifetime, fulfilled his own philosophy of human endeavor.
A comment: have unions at times overreached? Yes, of course. When one asks that question, do you think it would be ok to also ask: have companies ever failed to adequately treat their workers with justice and dignity? Also, a yes…
This is a tough time for the American worker. Walter Reuther was a man who simply fought for the rights and dignity of the American worker. Not a bad life mission.
A while back, I was watching one of those “classic” movie channels. The host/introducer was introducing a movie (I forget which movie). He is a studio executive. And he said that one of the traits of great movies is that they deal with (and at this point he held up a simple, really big sign that said):
Well, as I presented (again!) my synopsis of the immensely practical book, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, this quote from the book really got my attention:
“until your people are mocking you, you’ve not repeated your message enough.”
This is a BIG IDEA!
It is a reminder that leaders need to repeat their key ideas – their “big ideas” – including their top priorities — over, and over, and over and over again.
As I spoke, I thought of the legendary moment when Dr. King was literally in the middle of his I Have a Dream speech. As it was written, the “I have a dream” section was not part of the planned speech for that day. He had delivered this material before, most notably in Detroit just a couple of months before his August 28, 1963 speech in Washington. Legend has it that Mahalia Jackson yelled out “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” So, he pushed his manuscript aside, and started “preaching” through the now familiar “I have a dream” material. It, of course, is what everybody knows about, and everybody remembers from this, his greatest speech.
So — if you have a “Big idea” say it loudly, clearly, repeatedly – especially to your inner circle, your “leadership team.” I promise you, no matter how often you think you’ve said it, you haven’t said it often enough. Keep saying it until they mock you. And when they mock you, keep saying it some more.
That’s the big idea for today.
And 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 fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Happy 4th of July!
(read the entire speech here on AmericanRhetoric.com).