American Truth: great speeches

PADUCAH — The spoken word is powerful. Politicians use it to inspire us, and our faith leaders use it to encourage us. The right words comfort us and can also challenge us.

There have been powerful and persuasive speeches throughout our nation’s history, which is why the great American speech is an American Truth.

Robert Valentine of Murray State University

Robert Valentine with Murray State University said the art of public speaking dates back centuries.

“We know that there were oratory competitions — public speaking competitions that were practiced by the Greeks and the Romans — and that they were an important part of training for citizens,” Valentine said.

Valentine added that there are reasons some speeches are more powerful than others.

“The memorable speeches in our culture are usually associated with speakers who are trying to accomplish a necessary good or noble purpose,” Valentine said.

One example is the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave in Memphis in 1968 during the civil rights movement to achieve racial equality.

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” 

Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial waving at the crowd

March 4, 1933, marked the first inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the 32nd president of the United States. From the steps of the United States Capitol, FDR spoke these famous words: “That the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!”

“He was trying to give courage to a nation that was terrified about the impending effects of the depression,” Valentine said. “And he felt that he had an opportunity to give people not only a sense of hope, but also to help them dispel this feeling of fear. (Roosevelt) felt it was his mission to say: look folks, over the next four years we’re going to do something.”

“So, his effort to fulfill a good and noble purpose no doubt fueled his ability to select the words and his desire to set a tone to the speech that would really touch people and accomplish some good for them,” Valentine said.

What makes a great American speech boils down to three things.

“The moment: What is happening that is causing the speech to come in to be? The moment. The speech itself: A great speech is probably great literature. It’s well phrased. The language is powerful. It evokes images and emotions where it’s appropriate. And then the third factor is a great speaker: the person of the speaker. And the voice need not be profound and dynamic, but this speaker has to be somebody who the audience believes is capable and perhaps even morally justified in saying these things,” Valentine said.

All three of those aligned on January 28, 1986: the day Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart, killing all seven crew members. President Ronald Reagan said:

President Ronald Reagan delivers an address from the White House

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” 

Although rare, Valentine said an impromptu speech can be memorable. One example is the night in 1968 when Bobby Kennedy broke terrible news to a crowd of supporters.

“And that is, Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”

“But you’ve got to remember that Kennedy was very well schooled. He was an enormously articulate person, and so, a lot of the powerful language that he was able to bring to bare was right there at his beck and call,” Valentine said.

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”

Bobby Kennedy delivers an impassioned speech to a crowd

Perhaps the best known of all American speeches is the Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln. Delivered during the Civil War, it’s seen as one of the greatest and most influential statements of American national purpose.

Scholars argue that Lincoln’s address has stood the ultimate test of time.

“He was commemorating a graveyard, which is filled with troops from both north and south, but it is in the observation of the federal victory there and the war is not yet won at this point,” Valentine said.

“…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

A sketch depicting President Abraham Lincoln giving the now famous Gettysburg Address

“Lincoln still is talking about the sacrifice made, the importance of preserving the union, but also the importance of becoming — again — a country. So that speech is as much about the south as it is about the north,” Valentine said.

Mary Fisher’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention has its place in history. Fisher, who was HIV positive, delivered remarks seen by many as a way to break the stereotype that surrounded the illness.

“…to recognize that AIDS virus is not a political creature. It does not care whether you are Democrat or Republican; it does not ask whether you are black or white, male or female, gay or straight, young or old.” 

And in 1995, then first lady Hillary Clinton made headlines when, in China, she focused on human rights.

“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”

“You can’t make a great speech without being a great writer. You can’t be a great writer if you have not exposed yourself to the other great writers that have come before you or all around you,” Valentine added.

Inspiring words as we recognize the great speeches that came before us, and speeches in the future that will unit and define America.

You can watch all the speeches from this story, by clicking the links below.

Martin Luther King Jr’s speech

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s speech

Mary Fisher’s speech to the 1992 RNC

Former President Ronald Reagan’s speech

And for a collection of famous speeches in our nation’s history, click here.