Words have power. They bring clarity to complicated issues and shine a light on things hidden in the dark. Looking at history, it’s clear that great communicators inspire action and change. They inspire fear, as well. Because of their words, great communicators are often targeted by powerful institutions and groups that want to maintain the status quo. Speaking out can come at a high cost, especially when it comes to human rights. Those who stand up and speak even in the face of danger should be recognized. Here are five human rights speeches that made a difference in the world:
“Freedom or Death”
Delivered in: 1913
In the early 20th century, British women were fighting for their right to vote. One of the groups – the Suffragettes – became known for its often violent tactics. Emmeline Pankhurst led the Suffragettes and became a controversial figure. In 1913, while traveling to Hartford, Connecticut to raise funds, she gave a speech. She explained why the movement had shifted to more aggressive strategies, describing herself as a soldier in a revolution. In 1914, WWI began. Pankhurst and the Suffragettes quickly took jobs that the men left behind. This earned them a lot of respect. In 1918, the UK finally gave some women the right to vote. In 1928, just weeks after Pankhurst’s death, voting equality was extended to all women over 21 years old.
Memorable quote: “I ask American men in this meeting, what would you say if in your state you were faced with that alternative, that you must either kill them [women] or give them their citizenship? Well, there is only one answer to that alternative, there is only one way out – you must give those women the vote.”
“I Have A Dream”
Martin Luther King Jr.
Delivered in: 1963
In 1963, civil rights leaders led a huge group to Washington D.C. Shorthanded as the March on Washington, this event protested racial discrimination and called for civil rights legislation. More than 200,000 people gathered to hear Dr. King’s speech. It included parts of earlier talks and has become one of the best-known human rights speeches in history. The “I have a dream” mantra did not even appear in the written text; it was improvised. In 1964 and 1965, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. The Library of Congress added “I Have A Dream” to the National Recording Registry in 2002.
Memorable quote: “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
“I Am Prepared to Die”
Delivered in: 1964
In 1964, Nelson Mandela and other members of the South African Communist Party and African National Congress faced serious charges. They’d been fighting apartheid using methods like sabotage. At the time, Mandela was already serving a 5-year sentence, but the new charges of overthrowing the state came with the possibility of the death penalty. Mandela used his time in court to give a speech. He spoke for three hours, calling out the injustices in South Africa and explaining the ANC’s political motives. He hoped that the speech would also draw international attention, which it did. Mandela spent almost 30 years in prison, after which he was elected as the first Black president, ending apartheid.
Memorable quote: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech
Delivered in: 1986
The Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 was awarded to Elie Wiesel for “being a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace, atonement, and dignity.” A Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel wrote 57 books, including Night, which is about his time in concentration camps. He was involved in Jewish causes and human rights causes, campaigning for victims in places like South Africa and Sudan. His speech includes many memorable statements, but the essence is that there is no way to be neutral when it comes to oppression and human rights.
Memorable quote: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
Birthday address to the UN
Delivered in: 2013
Malala Yousafzai was only 15 years old when the Pakistani Taliban shot her. They targeted her because she was already a well-known activist. Since 2009, she’d been writing a blog describing her life in Swat, which was occupied by the Taliban. A New York Times documentary followed, as well as interviews and a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize. Malala survived the assassination attempt and moved to the UK. In 2013, she delivered a speech to the United Nations on her 16th birthday, talking about her recovery and calling for the international community to step up. She continues her activism for gender equality and education.
Memorable quote: “We call upon all communities to be tolerant — to reject prejudice based on caste, creed, sect, religion, or gender. To ensure freedom and equality for women so that they can flourish. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”