Black History Month’s observance was founded on the need to acknowledge the turmoil Black Americans have had to face throughout history, but also the necessity to celebrate Black accomplishments. Learning about these famous Black history speeches is a great way to do both of these things.

These speeches show the range of what Black Americans have had to advocate for, from the abolition of slavery, to the Civil Rights Movement to modern conversations about race and injustice. The words of these speakers empowered the Black community and impacted it in ways that are still relevant today. Here are 10 Black history speeches that changed history to acknowledge and celebrate this Black History Month. 

“The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964) – Malcolm X 

“The Ballot or the Bullet” is a powerful and influential speech delivered by Malcolm X on April 12, 1964, in Detroit. In this address, Malcolm X emphasized the urgency for political empowerment and self-defense within the African American community. He argued that if the government failed to address the concerns of black citizens and provide them with their constitutional rights, they should use their voting power strategically or, if necessary, resort to more forceful means to secure their rights.

Malcolm X called for unity among African Americans and rejected the notion of relying solely on nonviolent resistance, advocating for a more assertive stance in the face of systemic racism and inequality. The speech highlighted Malcolm X’s evolving ideology, moving away from the teachings of the Nation of Islam towards a broader, more inclusive perspective on the struggle for civil rights and justice.

“Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851) – Sojourner Truth 

“Ain’t I a Woman?” is a historic speech delivered by Sojourner Truth at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree, Truth emerged as a passionate abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. Truth challenged prevailing stereotypes and gender-based discrimination faced by African American women in her poignant address. She eloquently questioned the prevailing notions of femininity and argued for the equal rights of black women in the suffrage and abolitionist movements.

Though there are variations in the accounts of her exact words, the essence of Truth’s speech remains a powerful testament to her resilience, determination, and commitment to dismantling the intersecting barriers of racism and sexism. “Ain’t I a Woman?” continues to resonate as a pivotal moment in the history of both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.

“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (1852) – Frederick Douglass 

“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” is one of the many  powerful and searing Black history speeches delivered by Frederick Douglass. It was delivered on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York. Douglass was a former enslaved person turned prominent abolitionist and used this occasion to address the glaring hypocrisy of celebrating American independence while millions of African Americans remained enslaved.

In his speech, Douglass articulated the stark contrast between the ideals of freedom and equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the harsh reality of slavery. He questioned the moral integrity of a nation that denied basic rights to a significant portion of its population and highlighted the stark irony of celebrating freedom while denying it to others. Douglass’ speech remains a poignant critique of the contradictions embedded in American society during the era of slavery and stands as a timeless condemnation of systemic injustice.

“A More Perfect Union” (2008) – Barack Obama

“A More Perfect Union” is a landmark speech delivered by Barack Obama on March 18, 2008, during his presidential campaign. Obama sought to confront issues of race in America head-on while addressing the nation in the wake of controversy surrounding his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In the speech, Obama acknowledged the complexities of race relations, emphasizing the need for an honest and open dialogue about the nation’s racial history.

He spoke about his own biracial background and the evolving American identity, urging the country to move beyond racial divisions and work towards a more inclusive and united future. The speech is notable for its eloquence, thoughtfulness, and Obama’s commitment to fostering understanding and unity in a diverse and complex nation. It played a significant role in shaping the narrative of his campaign and addressing the broader issues of race in American society.

“Black Power” (1966) – Stokely Carmichael 

“Black Power” is a pivotal speech delivered by Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) during the March Against Fear in Mississippi on June 16, 1966. It is one of the Black history speeches that played such a pivotal role in mobilizing Black Americans, but many do not know much about it today. As a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Carmichael popularized the term “Black Power,” encapsulating a call for empowerment, self-determination, and pride within the African American community.

In his speech, Carmichael emphasized the need for black people to define and assert their political and social agenda, urging them to move away from reliance on white allies and institutions. “Black Power” marked a shift in the civil rights movement, emphasizing a more assertive and militant approach to address systemic racism. The term became a rallying cry for a generation of activists advocating for black identity, pride, and autonomy in the face of ongoing racial injustice and inequality.

“I Have a Dream” (1963) – Martin Luther King Jr. 

“I Have a Dream” is one of the most iconic and influential speeches in American history, not just amongst Black history speeches. It was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. In this powerful address, King passionately articulated his dream of a nation where individuals are judged by their character rather than the color of their skin. He called for an end to racial segregation and discrimination, advocating for civil and economic rights for African Americans.

King’s eloquent and inspiring words resonated far beyond the crowds gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, contributing to the momentum that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The “I Have a Dream” speech remains a symbol of the ongoing struggle for racial equality and justice, embodying King’s vision of a more inclusive and harmonious society.

James Baldwin’s 1965 Debate With William F. Buckley Jr.

The debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. took place on February 18, 1965, at the Cambridge University Union in England. The discussion centered on the motion “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin passionately argued that systemic racism in the United States fundamentally contradicted the ideals of the American Dream. He eloquently articulated the harsh realities faced by African Americans, emphasizing the deep-rooted racial inequalities that persisted despite the nation’s espoused principles of freedom and equality.

Baldwin’s argument challenged the audience to confront the pervasive racism ingrained in American society. On the other hand, Buckley defended the motion, contending that progress was being made and that individual responsibility played a significant role. The debate remains a powerful moment in the history of civil rights discourse, showcasing Baldwin’s insightful critique of racial injustice in America.

Fannie Lou Hamer’s Testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention

Fannie Lou Hamer delivered a historic and powerful testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.  Hamer, a sharecropper and civil rights activist from Mississippi, passionately recounted the brutal and unjust treatment she endured for attempting to register to vote. Speaking before the credentials committee, she vividly described the physical abuse she suffered in jail, including beatings that left her with permanent injuries.

Hamer’s testimony was a poignant and unfiltered indictment of the systemic racism and violence faced by African Americans seeking to exercise their right to vote in the deeply segregated South. Her fearless and compelling words, ending with her famous declaration, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” resonated deeply and brought national attention to the plight of Black voters in the face of disenfranchisement. Hamer’s courageous testimony, significantly contributed to the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark achievement in the fight for civil rights.

W.E.B. Dubois’ 1905 Niagara Movement Speech

W.E.B. Du Bois delivered a pivotal speech at the founding meeting of the Niagara Movement on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in 1905. The Niagara Movement was a civil rights group that sought to address racial inequality and advocate for civil rights for African Americans. In his speech, Du Bois emphasized the urgency of addressing systemic racism, discrimination, and disenfranchisement faced by African Americans.

He called for an end to racial segregation, the protection of civil rights, and the promotion of higher education for African Americans. Du Bois’s Niagara Movement speech laid the foundation for his lifelong dedication to civil rights activism and marked a significant moment in the early 20th-century struggle for racial equality in the United States.

“Making the Struggle Everyday” (1974) – Ella Baker 

In her influential speech at the 1974n Puerto Rico solidarity rally, civil rights icon Ella Baker outlined her philosophy that the struggle for racial justice and liberation had to be an ongoing, grassroots effort embedded in daily life, not just periodic moments of activism. Baker called on listeners to make the fight against oppression and inequality a consistent part of their communities through civic engagement, leadership development, cooperative economics, and sustained political participation.

She argued real change comes from the bottom up through ordinary people taking an active role, not just relying on leaders or national movements. The speech reflected her pragmatic vision centered on community empowerment and self-determination beyond just legislative change. Baker emphasized building a “group-centered” movement through organizing, education and mobilization at the neighborhood level to make the struggle an everyday practice, not just a periodic campaign. Her speech provided a powerful blueprint for institutionalizing the fight for justice and freedom through consistent local action.