Martin Luther King Jr. is regarded as one of the best speakers of all time, and not just among Americans. His skills, refined by his rigorous schedule of 450 speeches per year (that’s 2,500 public events in his lifetime!), are part of the reason why MLK and his legacy has endured so brightly, even as other important Civil Rights figures, such as Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, slipped into obscurity.
One only has to listen to Martin Luther King speeches audio to understand why he was able to have such an effect on the crowds who gathered to hear him. He spoke slowly and surely, giving each word the time to land and make its full impact.
But Dr. King was not alone. American history is filled with powerful black orators. In this blog post, we will examine a few of the most famous black speakers in U.S. history.
Starting life as a slave, Douglass eventually escaped to the North where he became a renowned advocate for abolition and civil rights. He is best remembered for his speeches to Congress about the best way to end slavery during the civil war and his memoir about his time in slavery. In private, he met with Abraham Lincoln, who wrote that their conversation greatly influenced his own views on slavery.
Sojourner was also an escaped slave. After her escape, she became a member of an evangelical religion and an advocate for moral reform and abolition. Although she was illiterate, Sojourner’s quick wit, dedication, and personal magnetism distinguished her as an unparalleled orator, a legacy solidified in her famous extemporaneous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”
While Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are often represented as opposite sides of the civil rights movement, one commonality is their oratory virtuosity. Malcolm X believed that the key to good public speaking was knowledge, and he spoke with the breadth of understanding of black struggles not only in the United States but the world over.
Jackson came up as an orator during the prime of MLK’s career. Jackson would often open for King, and as a young man he learned much of his technique from the civil rights hero. But what makes Jackson so successful as a speaker is his unique language, inspired by the musicality of jazz and blues. His two campaign’s for president proved that black Americans were a political force to be reckoned with.
Barack and Michelle Obama
The first Black President and First Lady have accomplished a great deal in a short time. Their efforts have launched initiatives from health care to school lunches to softening the discriminatory war on drugs. But what makes them truly exceptional is their oratory ability. Former President Barack Obama’s dignity and eloquence has been undeniable since the earliest days of his presidential campaign, and Mrs. Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention was a highlight of the week-long event. When the Obamas turn it on, they can bring the house down.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a world class speaker, and one in a legacy of powerful black orators. Ranging from escaped slaves to the leader of the free world, these men and women have had a profound effect in the shaping of our young nation.