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The Will of a People

A Critical Anthology of Great African American Speeches

Edited with Introductions by Richard W. Leeman and Bernard K. Duffy

Publication Year: 2012

Drawing upon nearly two hundred years of recorded African American oratory, The Will of a People: A Critical Anthology of Great African American Speeches, edited by Richard W. Leeman and Bernard K. Duffy, brings together in one unique volume some of this tradition’s most noteworthy speeches, each paired with an astute introduction designed to highlight its most significant elements.

Arranged chronologically, from Maria Miller Stewart’s 1832 speech “Why Sit Ye Here and Die?” to President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address, these orations are tied to many of the key themes and events of American history, as well as the many issues and developments in American race relations. These themes, events, and issues include the changing roles of women, Native American relations, American “manifest destiny,” abolitionism, the industrial revolution, Jim Crow, lynching, World War I and American self-determination, the rise of the New Deal and government social programs, the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation, the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate, gay and lesbian rights, immigration, and the rise of a mediated culture. Leeman and Duffy have carefully selected the most eloquent and relevant speeches by African Americans, including those by Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Barbara Jordan, Jesse Jackson, and Marian Wright Edelman, many of which have never received significant scholarly attention.

The Will of a People is the first book to pair the full texts of the most important African American orations with substantial introductory essays intended to guide the reader’s understanding of the speaker, the speech, its rhetorical interpretation, and the historical context in which it occurred. Broadly representative of the African American experience, as well as what it means to be American, this valuable collection will serve as an essential guide to the African American oratory tradition.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

Completing any book requires the cooperation of many people. An anthology would not be possible without the generosity of those who granted permissions to publish the speeches contained in this volume. Many authors, family members, and agents granted permissions gratis or at a reduced cost...

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pp. 1-9

Cicero maintained that there were fewer great orators than there were accomplished exemplars of other learned pursuits, such as poetry, art, or literature.1 It might seem remarkable, then, that history has supplied so many African American orators who have been eloquent...

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Maria W. Miller Stewart

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pp. 10-16

Maria W. Miller Stewart is generally regarded as the first American woman, of any race, to publicly address what was then termed a “promiscuous” audience, that is, an audience comprised of men and women. Women were permitted to preach to mixed audiences at meetings of the Society of Friends...

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Lecture, Delivered at the Franklin Hall (Why Sit Ye Here and Die?)

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pp. 17-21

Why sit ye here and die? If we say we will go to a foreign land, the famine and the pestilence are there, and there we shall die. If we sit here, we shall die. Come let us plead our cause before the whites: if they save us alive, we shall live—and if they kill us, we shall but...

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Henry Highland Garnet

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pp. 22-29

Henry Highland Garnet and Frederick Douglass were widely considered by their contemporaries to be the two preeminent African American orators of the abolition period. Both Douglass and Garnet were fugitive slaves from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and had endured considerable hardships...

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An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America (Speech to the National Convention of Colored Citizens)

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pp. 30-37

Brethren and Fellow Citizens:—Your brethren of the North, East, and West have been accustomed to meet together in National Conventions, to sympathize with each other, and to weep over your unhappy condition. In these meetings we have addressed all classes of the free, but we have never, until...

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Sojourner Truth

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pp. 38-45

Isabella, born a slave, renamed herself Sojourner Truth to reflect her calling as an itinerant preacher of the Christian gospel and the social gospel of racial and gender equality. As Sojourner Truth, she became one of the most colorful and remarkable orators of the nineteenth century. Collectively, her...

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A’n’t I a Woman? (Speech at the Women’s Rights Convention)

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pp. 46-48

One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the convention was made by Sojourner’s Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw...

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Frederick Douglass

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pp. 49-56

There was not a more famous or more eloquent African American abolitionist than Frederick Douglass. Born a slave, the unacknowledged son of an unknown white father and an African American mother in Maryland, Douglass found his voice as an abolitionist and advocate of the equal rights...

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What to the American Slave Is the Fourth of July?

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pp. 57-82

Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens: He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day...

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Henry McNeal Turner

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pp. 83-91

Bishop Henry McNeal Turner carried controversy with him wherever he went. His prodigious intellect and forceful personality enabled him to combat adversity throughout his life. Iconoclastic and proud, he experienced a stinging rejection during the summer of 1868. Participating in the Georgia...

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I Claim the Rights of a Man (Speech to the Georgia State Legislature)

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pp. 92-110

Mr. Speaker: Before proceeding to argue this question upon its intrinsic merits, I wish the Members of this House to understand the position that I take. I hold that I am a member of this body. Therefore, sir, I shall neither fawn nor cringe before any party, nor stoop to beg them for my rights. Some...

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Frederick Douglass

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pp. 111-121

On April 14, 1876, eleven years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass delivered the featured address at the ceremony marking the unveiling of the Lincoln Monument in Washington, DC. The monument, built by funds raised by freedmen, was the first national memorial to...

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Oration on the Occasion of the Dedication of the Lincoln Monument

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pp. 122-132

Friends and Fellow Citizens: I warmly congratulate you upon the highly interesting object which has caused you to assemble in such numbers and spirit as you have to-day. This occasion is in some respects remarkable. Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the...

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

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pp. 133-141

Poet, author, lecturer, and reformer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was one of the most influential African American women of the mid- to late nineteenth century. Highly regarded for her oratorical poetry and poetic oratory, Harper spoke on behalf of abolition, civil rights...

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Duty to Dependent Races (Speech to the National Council of Women of the United States)

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pp. 142-148

While Miss Fletcher has advocated the cause of the Indian and negro under the caption of Dependent Races, I deem it a privilege to present the negro, not as a mere dependent asking for Northern sympathy or Southern compassion, but as a member of the body politic who has a claim upon the...

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Ida B. Wells-Barnett

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pp. 149-157

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was unique among African American orators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although the African American community of the day could boast of many outstanding, strong-minded women orators...

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Lynch Law in All Its Phases

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pp. 158-173

I am before the American people to day through no inclination of my own, but because of a deep seated conviction that the country at large does not know the extent to which lynch law prevails in parts of the Republic nor the conditions which force into exile those who speak the truth...

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Booker T. Washington

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pp. 174-183

One of the most celebrated, and scorned, speeches in African American history is Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address,” also often called the “Cotton States Exposition Address” and the “Atlanta Compromise Speech.” Delivered on the opening day of the Exposition...

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Atlanta Exposition Address (Cotton States Exposition Address)

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pp. 184-187

Mr. Presidenta and gentlemen of the board of directors and citizens. One-third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success...

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Mary Church Terrell

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pp. 188-195

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African American women had an especially pronounced effect on their communities. Through their work as educators, as members of women’s clubs, or as social activists— and frequently as all three...

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What It Means to Be Colored in the Capital of the United States

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pp. 196-204

Thank you very much. Washington, D.C., has been called “The Colored Man’s Paradise.” Whether this sobriquet was given to the national capital in bitter irony by a member of the handicapped race, as he reviewed some of his own persecutions and...

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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

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pp. 205-213

W. E. B. Du Bois was a brilliant scholar who emerged as one of, if not the, most important civil rights leaders of the first half of the twentieth century. Although his accomplishments were many, Du Bois is most remembered as the driving force of the National Association for the Advancement of...

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pp. 214-220

The mere fact that democratic government has spread in the past and is still spreading does not prove that those concerned in its spread always realize the broader foundations of the argument that supports it. Usually nations are dealing with concrete groups whose enfranchisement is advocated and...

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Marcus Mosiah Garvey

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pp. 221-230

Even during his lifetime, Marcus Garvey appeared to his followers, and even his detractors, to be a historic figure whose ambitions for himself and his race made him larger than life. He was the first black nationalist to assemble a mass following, but he also attracted numerous powerful enemies...

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The Principles of the Universal Negro Improvement Association

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pp. 231-239

Over five years ago the Universal Negro Improvement Association placed itself before the world as the movement through which the new and rising Negro would give expression of his feelings. This Association adopts an attitude not of hostility to other races and peoples of world, but an attitude...

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Vernon Johns

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pp. 240-247

By all accounts, the Reverend Vernon Johns was a brilliant, iconoclastic preacher who regularly spoke to church and college audiences with great eloquence. Frequently an itinerant preacher and scholar, many of Johns’s lectures and sermons were never recorded and many of those that were...

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Rock Foundations

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pp. 248-253

Time works havoc with our most treasured possessions. Beauty turns to ashes beneath its touch. The channels of rivers and the course of history change. Debris piles on the faces of queens and kings, and seashells are left stranded on mountain tops. Our health, our wealth, our friends, our...

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Martin Luther King Jr.

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pp. 254-263

Martin Luther King’s historic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 is among the most memorable and inspirational in American history. Many historians of American public address rate it as the best speech of the twentieth century...

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I Have a Dream

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pp. 264-267

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree...

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Malcolm X

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pp. 268-276

Martin Luther King upheld the banner of nonviolent protest and envisaged “the dream” of African American equality but also foresaw, more ominously, that “the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice...

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The Ballot or the Bullet

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pp. 277-294

Mr. Moderator, Brother Lomax, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies: I just can’t believe everyone in here is a friend and I don’t want to leave anybody out. The question tonight, as I understand it, is “The Negro Revolt, and Where Do We Go from...

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Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)

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pp. 295-303

Stokely Carmichael was among the most versatile speakers of the American civil rights movement. In his autobiography, he notes that he developed different styles of speaking “depending on audience and situation . . . standard- English speech reserved for the merely affluent...

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Black Power

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pp. 304-319

Thank you very much. It’s a privilege and an honor to be in the white intellectual ghetto of the West. This is a student conference, as it should be, held on a campus, and we’ll never be caught up in intellectual masturbation on the question of Black Power...

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Martin Luther King Jr.

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pp. 320-329

Martin Luther King, Jr. had begun to criticize America’s involvement in the Vietnam War two years before this landmark speech at Riverside Church. At a Howard University address in 1965, he said that the war was “accomplishing nothing...

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A Time to Break Silence

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pp. 330-345

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy...

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Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm

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pp. 346-352

As the first African American woman to be elected to Congress and, at the time, only one of nine African American members of Congress, Shirley Chisholm became a national celebrity overnight. Her office was deluged with calls from African American citizens from all corners of the country...

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It Is Time to Reassess Our National Priorities

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pp. 353-356

Mr. Speaker, on the same day President Nixon announced he had decided the United States will not be safe unless we start to build a defense system against missiles, the Head Start programa in the District of Columbia was cut back for the lack of money...

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Barbara Charline Jordan

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pp. 357-366

In July 1974, Barbara Jordan was a freshman representative from Texas, a junior member on what had, in that session, turned out to be the most important committee in Congress: the House Judiciary Committee. Since May 1974, the committee had been holding closed hearings...

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Speech on Watergate to the House Judiciary Committee

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pp. 367-371

Mr. Chairman, I join my colleague, Mr. Rangel, in thanking you for giving the junior members of this Committee the glorious opportunity of sharing the pain of this inquiry. Mr. Chairman, you are a strong man and it has not been easy, but we have tried as best we can to give you as much assistance...

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Jesse Louis Jackson

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pp. 372-381

Few modern speakers compare in the power of their eloquence with the Reverend Jesse Jackson. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson’s community organizing and public speaking propelled him to the forefront of the public’s consciousness...

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Speech to the Democratic National Convention (The Rainbow Coalition)

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pp. 382-393

Thank you very much. Tonight we come together bound by our faith in a mighty God, with genuine respect and love for our country, and inheriting the legacy of a great party, the Democratic Party, which is the best hope for redirecting...

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Marian Wright Edelman

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pp. 394-401

Born and raised in rural South Carolina, Marian Wright Edelman has become the consummate political reformer at the national level. After receiving on-the-ground field experience in the 1960s with the famed Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of...

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Children’s Legislative Issues (Speech to the National Education Association)

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pp. 402-411

Martin Luther King said, in the middle of the Vietnam War, that a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. If we look at the President’sa fiscal 1986 budget, you will see and I feel...

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Barack Hussein Obama

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pp. 412-422

An invitation to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in 2004 gave Barack Obama a platform upon which to forge a national identity.1 He could not claim to be the first African American to deliver the convention keynote address...

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Inaugural Address

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pp. 423-428

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you’ve bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation...


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pp. 431-445


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pp. 447-448


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pp. 449-453

Authors Bios

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pp. 454

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809390731
E-ISBN-10: 0809390736
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809330577
Print-ISBN-10: 0809330571

Page Count: 480
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African American orators.
  • Speeches, addresses, etc., American -- African American authors.
  • African Americans -- History -- Sources.
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