10 Best Modern Political Speeches
6. Lyndon B Johnson: Voting Rights
On the night LBJ delivered this speech, Civil Rights protesters gathered outside the White House to sing "We Shall Overcome," meaning they'd overcome Johnson and get equal rights for blacks. To their surprise, LBJ used the opportunity to back the Civil Rights Movement. When he borrowed the phrase "we shall overcome" from black leaders, MLK broke down while watching at home with friends.
5. Robert F. Kennedy: Remarks on the Assassination of MLK
On what was supposed to be a routine campaign stop, Robert F. Kennedy broke the news of MLK's death to a mostly black Indianapolis crowd, saying MLK wouldn't want people to respond with violence or bitterness. "For those of you who are tempted to...be filled with hatred and mistrust...I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling; I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man." That night riots hit many American cities, but not Indianapolis, where people heard Kennedy's words. Two months later, he was gunned down in California.
4. Ronald Reagan: Tribute to the Challenger Astronauts
After the Challenger disaster, Reagan postponed The State of the Union to give this thoughtful tribute to the astronauts who lost their lives. The famous line "slip the surly bonds of Earth" was actually lifted from aviator poet John Magee, who died in a mid-air collision during World War II: "Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings."
3. John F. Kennedy: I Am a Berliner
When the Soviet Union blocked trade with West Berlin, the Allies started airlifting supplies into the isolated city. The airlift had been going on for about two years when JFK came to Berlin to show his support for the city and issue a challenge to dissenters at home: "Anyone who claims we can work with the Communists, let them come to Berlin."
The gaffe that never was: There's a misconception that JFK accidentally said, "I am a jelly donut" in German because of the way he phrased or pronounced the phrase "ich bin ein Berliner." It's true that a Berliner is a kind of donut in Europe, but German speakers agree that Kennedy's German made sense because he was speaking metaphorically: "I am one with the people of Berlin." Besides, if someone told you they're a New Yorker, you wouldn't think they're talking about the magazine.
2. Martin Luther King: I Have a Dream
Widely considered the greatest speech of all time. Surprisingly, King was so busy around this time he didn't have anything written 12 hours before he took the podium. He also winged some sections, including the legendary "I have a dream" part. Musicians say there's a certain magic to first takes, so maybe that's what happened onstage.
1. FDR's Inaugural Address
FDR was usually a charming, gregarious guy, but in this speech he takes on a solemn tone to give the nation hope in the middle of the Great Depression. As with JFK, the famous "fear itself" line might have been the work of a teenage FDR's schoolmaster. Since it broke onto the scene in 1933, the catchy "fear itself" line has wormed its way into pop culture, inspiring the titles for a Batman graphic novel and a horror TV series that NBC canceled in 2008. Fitting tributes.