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  • Marc Johnson

Great Speeches Week


It is Martin Luther King, Jr, Day, a good day to remember Dr. King’s remarkable impact on the evolution of American notions about civil rights and to acknowledge the work that remains.

And, even though King made his most famous speech in August, no MLK Day is complete without remembering one of the great speeches ever delivered in the English language, his “I Have a Dream Speech” from 1963.

This week also marks the 50th anniversary of two other truly memorable speeches – Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell were he warned of the rise of the “unwarranted influence” of the “military-industrial complex” and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural where he summoned the nation to “ask not” what the country can do for us.

Remarkably these two speeches – delivered just three days apart in January 1961 – speak to us still across half a century.

Eisenhower, the popular president and former five star general, it is now clear, labored at length over his final speech from the White House considering it, as his grandson says, a significant part of his legacy of public service. Fifty years later, with the American military engaged in two wars and the nation’s enormous power projected in every corner of the world, Eisenhower’s words speak an enduring truth and, like Kennedy, he called the country to informed, engaged citizenship.

As David Eisenhower told NPR over the weekend, his grandfather’s “farewell address, in the final analysis, is about internal threats posed by vested interests to the democratic process. But above all, it is addressed to citizens — and about citizenship.”

Kennedy’s great speech, delivered on January 20, 1961, can be read as a companion piece to the speech of his predecessor and it was also about citizenship and responsibility. Speaking in the context of the nuclear arms race with the then-Soviet Union, Kennedy said: “So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

Those words, in the context of our domestic politics today, certainly ring true.

In the age of Twitter and text messages some might argue that the spoken word or political rhetoric has lost its power to inform and stimulate. Three classic speeches we remember this week leave us with an entirely different message. Enduring truth, delivered with genuine conviction and deeply imbuded with knowledge, is always powerful.

As Dr. King so powerfully said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

All three great Americans spoke in their most famous speeches to “the ultimate measure of a man” and their words live on.

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