Speeches That Made History I Oxford Open Learning

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    Speeches That Made History

    Words can be incredible tools – with the power to heal, transform, and even make history. The following three inspiring speeches demonstrate their capacity to change the world.

    1. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘I Have A Dream’, 1963

    ‘I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.”’

    In one of the most memorable speeches in history, Martin Luther King Jr. painted his vision of a world in which racial equality has been achieved. Delivered during The March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, King’s speech marked a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. 250,000 supporters listened to King’s impassioned speech, with his rhetorical use of ‘I have a dream,’ – known as anaphora— used eight times throughout the speech. King artfully combined authentic emotion with a powerful vision.

    As King addressed the audience from the steps of the Lincoln memorial, his speech was interwoven with references to everything from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Bible. Perhaps what makes the address stand out above all else is his use of rich language and metaphors. He describes negroes as having ‘seared in the flames of withering injustice’ and speaks of how they have lived on ‘a lonely island of poverty.’ The brilliance of this speech comes from King’s ability to create a vivid picture in the audience’s mind, making them reflect on their own dreams and imaginings of a better future.

    2. Winston Churchill, ‘We shall fight on the beaches,’ 1940

    ‘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.’

    In the summer of 1940, 338,000 British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk. What had been an emergency operation was a miraculous success, but in truth it masked a military calamity. With the retreat, the threat of Nazi invasion only grew more pervasive. The almost certainty of France’s fall loomed large, and Churchill was tasked with delivering a speech that would forewarn a disaster whilst encouraging the British public to remain steadfast and hopeful in the face of threat. Some historians also argue that the speech’s primary purpose was to win the support of the United States, which was at this point still neutral in the war.

    Churchill’s speech is remembered as one of the most stirring wartime speeches ever recorded, yet the public didn’t hear it until he was encouraged to record it for posterity in 1949.
    Despite not being heard by the British public until after the second world war, Churchill’s speech and promise that ‘we shall never surrender’ goes down in the history books as one of the most famous orations in history.

    3. Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘Freedom or Death,’ 1913

    ‘Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.’

    In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU’s members came to be known as the ‘suffragettes.’ Over the next few years, Emmeline and her allies took part in public protests, including smashing windows and damaging property to gain women what Pankhurst called the ‘rights of citizenship’ – the right to vote. Pankhurst’s speech, delivered in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1913, demonstrates her fervent dedication to the cause. She addresses the government’s ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, whereby suffragettes on hunger strike would be released from prison if they were at risk of death, only to be re-arrested once they were stronger.

    Pankhurst’s speech made it clear that the suffragettes would continue to resort to violent protests to achieve enfranchisement. As Pankhurst states, she and many others were willing to sacrifice their lives for ownership of these fundamental rights. Most famously, suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby. She later died of her injuries.
    In 1918, the Representation of the People Act came into force, which granted the vote to women over thirty, who met the minimum property qualification. The Equal Franchise Act of 1928 finally permitted women over the age of twenty-one to vote. Although Pankhurst died this same year, the incredible legacy she left behind is beyond doubt.

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    Jessica is a freelance copywriter and content writer based in Richmond-Upon-Thames. With a degree in English Literature from University College London, she has experience as a private tutor for 14-18 years olds and adult learners. She has also worked in Widening Participation as a Mentor, Student Ambassador, and Student Leader. As someone who achieved A-Levels through distance-learning, Jessica has first-hand experience of the unique challenges and rewards that distance-learning offers. She regularly contributes content to educational websites including eNotes and Tutorful.