10 Most Famous Speeches Ever Given on College Campuses

Posted December 18, 2012

It must be invigorating for speakers to address college students. Looking out on those fresh young faces, full of optimism and not yet grayed by the cares and hypocrisies of the world, would be enough to stir anyone to deliver words of importance, words about ideas and movements that are going to change the world. After all, the ones who are going to carry out those changes (or fight to ensure the opposite happens, as the case may be) are right there listening. From presidents to paupers, these 10 speakers gave the most historic speeches ever on a college campus.

  1. John F. Kennedy at Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962

    JFK’s presidency was filled with unforgettable statements that now dot the American lexicon. And while his address at American University’s 1963 commencement was a seminal moment in American foreign policy at the time, it is his remarks on a hot September day at Rice Stadium that are still recalled 50 years later. It was here that the president famously said Americans "choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…" Kennedy was a huge believer in the space program at a time the country was uncertain on how much money should be devoted to Apollo. With his moving vow that Americans would not see the moon "governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace," JFK gave all Americans a reason to believe, as well.

  2. Steve Jobs at Stanford Commencement, June 12, 2005

    Even PC fanboys can’t deny the influence of the business and cultural juggernaut that was Steve Jobs. His commencement talk at Stanford in 2005 became an instant classic known as the "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish" speech. In it, the Apple legend discussed his own college experience that ended with his dropping out; love and loss; and death. At his passing in 2011, many harked back to the poignant words he had spoken while dealing with the pancreatic cancer that would claim his life: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

  3. Mario Savio at UC Berkeley, Dec. 2, 1964

    Berkeley students like Mario Savio spent the summer of ’64 fighting for civil rights in Mississippi. On their return to the "comfort and security of Berkeley," Savio said they couldn’t forget the people they had tried to help. But back on campus they were faced with the prospect of a ban on political activism. As things came to a head between students and the administration in December, Savio came to the microphone on the steps of Sproul Hall and delivered the speech that would make him the father of the free speech movement: "There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part … And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop."

  4. Ronald Reagan at Moscow State University, May 31, 1988

    This is probably the only time Ronald Reagan and Mario Salvo have been mentioned in the same breath. As president, Mr. Reagan had made a career of badmouthing the Soviet Union, dubbing it the "evil empire" and stoking the (icy) flames of the Cold War. Which is why his invitation to talk to students and faculty at Moscow State University — and the way Reagan made use of the opportunity — still stands as an unforgettable part of his legacy and both countries’ histories. He spoke directly to the young men and women in the audience, praising American values and describing how one could "go to any American town" and see freedom in action. It was an appeal to the idealism of youth that at least one president has since evoked.

  5. George Wallace at University of Alabama, Aug. 11, 1963

    This speech is remembered more for its location than the words of its speaker. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, Alabama governor George Wallace of "segregation now, segregation forever" fame stuck to his racist guns by marching up the steps of Foster Auditorium and staging his "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door." In a melodramatic attempt to prevent black students from entering, Wallace declared his "refusal to submit to the central government’s illegal use of power." But submit was exactly what he did, to the national guard, in a move that signaled to the entire country that desegregation’s time had totally arrived.

  6. Lyndon Johnson at University of Michigan Commencement, May 22, 1964

    President Kennedy was originally invited to be the keynote speaker at Michigan’s Class of ’64 graduation, but after his assassination, another invitation was extended to his successor. LBJ accepted, and after a White House pool skinny-dipping brainstorming session, he decided he would use the occasion to unveil his new, sweeping social program he collectively called "the Great Society." He peppered the phrase into his monologue, saying the Great Society "rests on abundance and liberty for all" and "demands an end to poverty and racial injustice." Campaigns that still survive, like Medicare and Medicaid, and game-changing laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all had their groundwork laid that day, in that speech.

  7. Stokely Carmichael at UC Berkeley, Oct. 29, 1966

    Carmichael arguably does not enjoy the level of recognition awarded to some of his peers in the civil rights movement, but in much of the ’60s he was an important part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later of the Black Panthers. Although he had been using the phrase for several months, this speech at Berkeley is the one that is immortalized under the title "Black Power." Probably it is remembered that way because the image of Carmichael lecturing a crowd of privileged, white college kids is so stark and indelible. He told them, "We are now engaged in a psychological struggle in this country, and that is whether or not black people will have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction to it … but we are not going to wait for white people to sanction Black Power …"

  8. George C. Marshall at Harvard University, June 5, 1947

    Who remembers their U.S. history and can tell us what the Marshall Plan was? Or containment? Anyone? Bueller? OK, well, George Marshall’s famous plan was to come to the aid of war-torn European countries after WWII to help them rebuild. (The fact that this would help keep them from going Commie didn’t hurt, either.) To a crowd of 15,000 graduating seniors and their families in Harvard Yard, Marshall said, "The United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is not directed against any country, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos." Such became official policy, and six years later Marshall was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as its architect.

  9. Mahatma Gandhi at Banaras Hindu University, Feb. 4, 1916

    In early 1916, Gandhi was back in his native India after two decades of helping Indians in South Africa overcome discrimination. Back in his motherland, he quickly became a prominent leader, hence his invitation to speak at the opening of the Banaras Hindu University. The opulently-adorned audience was in for a surprise once the slight, unassuming man in the simple cloak and turban took the podium. "I compare with the richly bedecked noble men the millions of the poor," he said, referring to his listeners like the Maharaja of Darbhanga and others. "And I feel like saying to these noble men, ‘There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewelry and hold it in trust for your countrymen in India.’" The commotion his words stirred up prevented him from finishing the speech, but he had set the tone for what would become the quintessential grassroots civil rights campaign.

  10. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University, Sept. 24, 2007

    This one might be more appropriately filed under "infamous," but few talks given on college campuses boast a speaker who has been the focus of so much international attention and whose words echo around the globe. As hundreds of people protested on campus and at other spots in Manhattan, the president of Iran shared his thoughts on some of the most hot-button topics of the last half century or so: the Holocaust, homosexuality (specifically that it doesn’t exist in Iran), Israel, Iran’s nuclear proliferation, 9/11, and the U.S.’ activities in the Middle East. It was a classic illustration that even a man with ideas as anathema to Americans as Ahmadinejad can find the freedom to speak his mind within the halls of academia.

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