It's a group that yields a fascinating range of perspectives over time, starting with former slave Sojourner Truth's famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, the most-quoted line of which may have been added later by white men or women. These speakers broke down barriers, illustrated through the lens of the Democratic National Convention, where Fannie Lou Hamer spoke to a committee but failed to get a seat at the 1964 convention; where Barbara Jordan became the first woman and first African-American to give the convention's keynote in 1976; and where Michelle Obama addressed the convention as the first black First Lady in 2012. They shed light on issues ranging from lynching, war and human rights to family planning, sexual harrassment and on-the-job discrimination, and they use their speaking opportunities to inspire future leaders and mourn those of the past.
Here are the 17 famous speeches from the Index given by African-American speakers, arranged in chronological order. I've also added, where available, book suggestions that will give you the chance to learn more about either the speech or the speaker. Which is your favorite? Share your thoughts in the comments:
- Sojourner Truth's 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?" is oft-quoted, but has a disputed source, illustrating why it's often tough to find famous women's speeches. In this case, that happened because Truth could neither read nor write. That doesn't detract at all from her message about equality for all women of all races. Read Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" Speech: A Primary Source Investigation for more about the many versions of this speech, only one of which contains the most-quoted phrase.
- Ida B. Wells's 1909 "This Awful Slaughter" busted the myth that women's safety was the reason lynchings were carried out, and used a mix of data and defiance to fight against the practice of mob killings of black men. Read the book To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells to learn more about her campaign.
- Josephine Baker at the March on Washington shares the brief remarks of the lone woman to share the program with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and scores of other, male speakers. Those who thought of her as a notorious showgirl learned more about her self-enforced exile to France as a way of seeking racial equality.
- Fannie Lou Hamer's 1964 convention committee testimony failed to gain her a seat at that convention, but succeeded in raising the visibility of violence against blacks attempting to register to vote. Four years later, she became an historic convention delegate. You can read more about her public speaking in The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is.
- Coretta Scott King's 1968 "10 Commandments on Vietnam" -- a speech she gave in her husband's place, just weeks after his assassination -- took scribbled notes found in his pockets and made them into a powerful call to action. Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King is a recent biography.
- Shirley Chisholm introduces the Equal Rights Amendment wasn't a first. This member of Congress was re-introducing the legislation, 40 years after it was first proposed--and did so in her usual fiery and forthright style.
- Barbara Jordan's 1976 Democratic convention keynote broke barriers for women and for blacks in one speech, suggesting that "the American Dream need not be deferred." It's loaded with elegant rhetoric and is a wonderful listen, thanks to Jordan's vocalizing skills. A Private Woman in Public Spaces: Barbara Jordan's Speeches on Ethics, Public Religion, and Law takes a focused look at the speeches of one of America's most eloquent women.
- Anita Hill's 1981 Senate testimony about Clarence Thomas disrupted the Senate confirmation hearings of the then-nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, leveling sexual harrassment allegations against him that ultimately did not prevent his appointment to the court. "It would have been more comfortable to remain silent," she said in this televised testimony that stunned viewers and brought harrassment into the open as an issue. In Speaking Truth to Power, she tells her story.
- Maya Angelou's 2006 eulogy for Coretta Scott King might be any eulogy from one close friend for another, as Angelou tells stories about the civil rights icon that only a girlfriend would know. This is a lovely, simple and moving tribute.
- Edwidge Danticat's 2007 testimony on death in detention gave the novelist a gripping real-life story to tell, about her uncle's treatment at the hands of U.S. immigration and customs officials when he was held in detention. It's moving, direct and powerful, just like her fictional writings. You can read more about this dramatic story in her book Brother, I'm Dying.
- Rep. Gwen Moore's 2011 floor speech on abortion rights and family planning came during a debate about federal funding for family planning. She chose to use her status as a member of Congress to share a personal perspective as a former teenage mother.
- Michelle Obama's 2011 speech to young African women leaders took place in a powerful setting, and used that visual reminder to call these young women to action. Michelle Obama: Speeches on Life, Love, and American Values collects speeches of our current First Lady, preserving the legacy of a frequent speaker.
- Viola Davis's 2011 awards acceptance speech, "What keeps me in the business is hope," went far beyond the usual platitudes and confronted what it's like to be a black actress in the movie industry. An eloquent extemporaneous speech.
- Michelle Obama's 2012 Democratic National Convention speech follows a formula for memorable speeches recommended by President John F. Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. And it worked with today's audiences, garnering more than 28,000 tweets per second from those who watched it.
- Viola Davis's 2012 commencement speech is titled "Go out and live!" It's a stunning example of what you can do with a tired speaking format, and is like no college commencement speech you've ever endured. Perhaps my favorite line: "The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you discover why you were born."
- Essie Washington-Williams's "I feel completely free" told the world a secret she'd kept most of her life: She was the daughter of a black woman and Senator Strom Thurmond, a white segregationist who campaigned against civil rights.
- Myrlie Evers-Williams's invocation at President Obama's second inaugural happened just last month, marking the first time the invocation at the ceremony was given by a woman, and by someone other than a member of the clergy. The widow of assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers summoned the spirits of the leaders of that movement to witness the day's proceedings. Read more about her story in her memoir Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be.