Public Speaking and Social Movements in the United States 1900–2020

Learning Objectives

Explain how social movements in the U.S. have used public speaking to advance their causes.

The Labor Movement: 1900–

Whether urging workers to join together in unions, arguing for legislation to protect workers’ rights and safety, or persuading fellow citizens to support strikes, pickets, or boycotts, the U.S. labor movement has always relied on speeches to build and sustain its cause.

See caption for alternative text.

A photograph of Mother Jones, taken between 1910 and 1915.

Mary G. Harris Jones (1837–1930), known as Mother Jones, was an Irish-born American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a prominent union organizer and activist. In 1902, she was called “the most dangerous woman in America” for her success in organizing mine workers and their families against the mine owners.[1] Jones was known for her salty language and fiery rhetoric. In 1912, she spoke on the steps of the Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, in support of striking miners.

I have been in jail more than once, and I expect to go again. If you are too cowardly to fight, I will fight. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, actually to the Lord you ought, just to see one old woman who is not afraid of all the blood-hounds. How scared those villains are when one woman eighty years old, with her head gray, can come in and scare hell out of the whole bunch. (Laughter.) . . .

Now, my boys, you are mine, we have fought together, we have hungered together, we have marched together, but I can see victory in the heavens for you. I can see the hand above you guiding and inspiring you to move onward and upward. No white flag–we cannot raise it, we must not raise it. We must redeem the world. [2]

To listen: Samuel Gompers

We can get a sense of the rhetoric used by early labor leaders in a 1918 speech by Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, which was recorded at the time on vinyl. In “Labor’s service to freedom,” Gompers compares the role of workers with that of soldiers, reminding listeners that the contribution of labor to the war effort should not be overlooked.

In addition to the fundamental principles at issue, labour has a further interest in the war. This war is a people’s war, labor’s war. The final outcome will be determined in the factories, the mills, the shops, the mines, the farms, the industries and the transportation agencies of the various countries. The workers have a part in this war equal with the soldiers and sailors on the ships and in the trenches. America’s workers understand the gravity of the situation and the responsibility that devolves upon them. They are loyal to the republic. They have done and are doing their part.

One of the most important leaders in American labor was César Estrada Chávez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later merged to become the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union. Chávez was an active labor organizer for over 40 years, using his words to activate and unite Latino farmworkers—a crucial but disenfranchised sector of the labor force—as well as to organize several successful consumer boycotts of specific agricultural products—most famously, California grapes.

To Watch: The Words of César Chávez

In the following clip, actors read excerpts from Chávez’s 1986 speech “The Wrath of Grapes,” which drew attention to the way pesticides poisoned farm workers and urged U.S. consumers to boycott California grapes.

You can view the transcript for “Speeches of Freedom: Cesar Chavez (1986)” here (opens in new window).

PDF of the speech

What to watch for:

Note how Chávez sets up the problem as if he were appealing to a jury:

I am speaking to you about our Wrath of Grapes Boycott. Because I believe our greatest court, the court of last resort, is the American people. And I believe that once you have taken a few moments to hear this message you will concur in this verdict along with a million other North Americans who are already committed to the largest grape boycott in history.

By framing the issue as if it were a court trial, Chávez plants the idea that the grape companies are committing a crime. He then makes it clear that the victims of this crime are not just the farm workers, but all Americans—indeed, all humans:

The worth of humans is involved here. I see us as one family. We cannot turn our backs on each other and our future. We farm workers are closest to food production. We were the first to recognize the serious health hazards of agriculture pesticides to both consumers and ourselves.

This speech is an excellent example of tailoring a speech to an audience. When speaking to the farmworkers, Chávez would talk more specifically about their conditions and challenges. Here, he creates a universal, principled argument by invoking the legal system, then anticipates the defensive reaction of an audience who may feel distant from migrant or immigrant farm workers. If the listener isn’t convinced by the ethical argument that the worth of humans is involved, they should pay attention for self-serving reasons: the health hazards of pesticides are coming for them, too.

Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) refers to the social movements led by African Americans in the United States aimed at exposing rampant (and often legalized) racial discrimination and achieving equal rights and liberation for African Americans. The emergence of the Black Power Movement, which lasted roughly from 1966 to 1975, enlarged the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include racial dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from oppression by white Americans.

To Watch: Fannie Lou Hamer

In 1964, members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) traveled to the Democratic National Convention to unseat Mississippi’s all-white official delegation (which had been elected through the exclusion of Black voters from the primaries). One of the most powerful testimonies was given by a field organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Fannie Lou Hamer. As this clip explains, President Johnson was so nervous about Hamer’s testimony that he staged an impromptu press conference to interrupt coverage of her speech on TV.

You can view the transcript for “Fannie Lou Hamer’s Powerful Testimony | Freedom Summer” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Hamer’s unvarnished account of her brutal mistreatment at the hands of the police is a remarkable example of speaking truth to power. As so often happens, those in power—President Johnson and the leadership of the Democratic National Committee—were not ready to hear this message.

Click here to listen to the full speech (audio) and read more of the backstory

The March on Washington

See caption for alternative text.

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963

Perhaps the most famous of the civil rights-era demonstrations was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held in August 1963, on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Its purpose was to pressure President Kennedy to act on his promises regarding civil rights. The date was also the eighth anniversary of the brutal racist murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. As the enormous crowd gathered outside the Lincoln Memorial and spilled across the National Mall, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most famous speech.

In “I Have a Dream,” King called for an end to racial injustice in the United States and envisioned a harmonious, integrated society. The speech marked a high point of the civil rights movement and brought the message of the movement to a wider audience. However, it did not prevent white terrorism or dismantle white supremacy, nor did it permanently sustain the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience.


See caption for alternative text.

Tarana Burke, civil rights activist and creator of the #MeToo movement

The Me Too (or #MeToo) movement is a movement against sexual abuse and sexual harassment where people publicize allegations of sex crimes committed by powerful and/or prominent men. The phrase “Me Too” was initially used in this context on social media in 2006, on MySpace, by sexual harassment survivor and activist Tarana Burke.

Similar to other social justice and empowerment movements based upon breaking silence, the purpose of “Me Too,” as initially voiced by Burke as well as those who later adopted the tactic, is to empower women through empathy and solidarity through strength in numbers, especially young and vulnerable women, by visibly demonstrating how many women have survived sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

To watch: Oprah Winfrey

Although it had its origins in grassroots activism, the message of the #MeToo movement was amplified by the voices of many celebrities and politicians. One of the most famous public statements of the movement was made by Oprah Winfrey in her acceptance speech for the Cecile B. DeMille Award at the 2018 Golden Globes.

You can view the transcript for “Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech, annotated” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

A great speaker choses the right message for the moment, and Winfrey certainly did so at the 2018 Golden Globes. The entertainment world had been roiled by the sexual assault charges filed against the powerful producer Harvey Weinstein, and issues of sexual misconduct and gender inequality were front of mind for the audience at the awards ceremony. In her speech, Winfrey does a remarkable job of connecting the historical significance of her award with the battle for justice being waged under the sign of #MeToo.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a decentralized political and social movement advocating for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people.

In July 2013, the movement began with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin 17 months earlier in February 2012. The movement became nationally recognized for street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African Americans, that of Michael Brown—resulting in protests and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, a city near St. Louis—and Eric Garner in New York City. Since the Ferguson protests, participants in the movement have demonstrated against the deaths of numerous other African Americans by police actions or while in police custody. The originators of the hashtag and call to action, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, expanded their project into a national network of over 30 local chapters between 2014 and 2016.

To watch: Lebron James

In his comments during a press conference, basketball legend Lebron James talked about Black Lives Matter.

You can view the transcript for “Lebron James: ‘Black Lives Matter… when you’re black it’s not a movement, it’s a lifestyle.'” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

James’s statement in this video is a great example of effective impromptu speaking. His comments sound off-the-cuff, but his argument is skillful and precise. He begins by saying, “when you’re black, [Black Lives Matter] isn’t a movement, it’s a lifestyle.” He then lays out an account of the various ways racism and racial profiling impact the African American community, but also talks about the strength and resilience of black Americans. At the end of his statement, he brings the argument full circle with the double meaning of the word movement: “It’s not a movement. I don’t like the word movement. Because unfortunately in American society, there ain’t been no damn movement for us.”


  1. Gorn, Elliott J. Mother Jones: the Most Dangerous Woman in America. Hill and Wang, 2002.
  2. “'Mother' Jones, ‘Speech at a Public Meeting...,'"Voices of Democracy, 5 July 2016,