From Abraham Lincoln’s speech on the struggle for the Unites States to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's powerful “The struggle this time is for our freedom; the struggle this time is for independence,” here are the top five speeches that changed the course of the history:
March 4, 1865; Washington, DC
- Abraham Lincoln
The Union’s victory was but a month away as Abraham Lincoln began his second term as president of a bitterly ruptured US. Like the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln kept this speech only as long as needful. While there are those who still debate whether the Civil War was truly fought over slavery or not, Lincoln certainly believed so. And with the war not quite over, he offered this pronouncement:
''Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgements of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
He did not relish the prospect of coming victory; instead, he appealed to his countrymen to remember that the war was truly fought between brothers. When the war was over and the Confederacy forced to return to the Union, Lincoln was prepared to treat the South with relative leniency. He did not believe secession was truly possible, and thus the South had never truly left the Union. Reconstruction would not mean vengeance, but the return home of a terribly errant son.
Banaras Hindu University, India, February 4, 1916
- Mahatma Gandhi
Having spent many years outside India, Gandhi on return to his homeland reacquainted himself with the land of his fathers, and swapped his Western-style dress for the simple robes of a peasant. Until that time, the independence campaign had been largely waged by a clique of upper-class intellectuals who aped the British in manners, but Gandhi saw this was a road to nowhere. Invited to speak at the opening of the Banaras Hindu University in front of an audience of princes in elegant robes, and other worthies, some of them British, he declared:
“There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewellery and hold it in trust for your countrymen.”
His words outraged everybody – need to remember that this took place during World War I, when India's princes had rallied to the imperial cause – but it was a keynote speech in the struggle for Indian independence, and helped transform the nature of the debate, and turn Gandhi into the movement's spiritual leader. Tragically, Gandhi would pay for his dedication to the cause with his life, but despite the conflict that followed the declaration of Indian independence, his dream of an India free from colonial rule was achieved.
House of Commons, June 4, 1940
- Winston Churchill
It was an absolute classic of a speech that Churchill made following the Dunkirk evacuation just weeks after becoming prime minister of the United Kingdom. To quote the most famous lines:
“We shall fight on the seas and oceans ... 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 ...”
It was, in effect, an exultation to the nation to pick itself up and start the struggle all over again, despite the setback at Dunkirk – and the impending defeat of France.
Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, August 28, 1963
- Martin Luther King
One of the most powerful speeches of modern times was that made by the black civil-rights leader Martin Luther King in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Using soaring Christian rhetoric, he told a huge audience:
''I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed … We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal … I have a dream today!”
Tragically, the King was assassinated just a few years later, but the great thing about this speech is that his dream was eventually realised – even though at the time he spoke it was just a dream.
Ramna Race Course Maidan, Dhaka, March 7, 1971
- Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s historic March 7, 1971 speech that effectively declared Bangladesh’s independence has been selected as one of the most rousing and inspirational wartime speeches in the last 2,500 years.
The speech delivered at the Race Course Maidan (now Suhrawardy Udyan) encouraged the Bangalis to start the bloody struggle for freedom that lasted for nine months.
He spoke at a time of increasing tensions between East Pakistan and the powerful political and military establishment of West Pakistan. The Bangali people were inspired to prepare for a potential war of independence, amid widespread reports of armed mobilisation by West Pakistan.
During the 13-minute speech, Awami League president Mujib made the most famous declaration: “Since we have shed blood, we shall shed more blood but we will free the people of this land, Insha-Allah [If God is willing]. The struggle this time is for our freedom; the struggle this time is for independence. Joy Bangla [Victory to Bangladesh].”
He also announced the civil disobedience movement in the province, calling for “every house to turn into a fortress.” The war eventually began 18 days later, March 25, when the Pakistan Army launched “Operation Searchlight” against Bangali civilians, intelligentsia, students, politicians and armed personnel, shortly after Mujib declared independence of Bangladesh through a message.