Kennedy’s civil rights address to the nation, June 11, 1963
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John F. Kennedy began this address to the nation on June 11, 1963, by describing what had just occurred at the University of Alabama. Pursuant to court order, and over the objections and body barricade of Alabama Governor George Wallace, two young people of color had just been admitted as students under the watchful eye of the Alabama National Guard. Enrollment was peaceful, “due in good measure to the conduct of the students of the University of Alabama, who met their responsibilities in a constructive way.” Kennedy continues with the speech of a lifetime. In his too-short life, he gave more than one such.
….Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. 1:18 When Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select, without having to be backed up by troops. 1:38 It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation … without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street. 1:57 And it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register, and to vote, in a free election, without interference or fear of reprisal. 2:08
It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American, without regard to his race or his color. 2:19 In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. 2:28
But this is not the case. [Kennedy then details some of the economic, social, and physical realities and effects of discrimination.] [Discrimination]is not a sectional issue….[S]egregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every state of the Union. 3:21….Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis, men of good will and generosity should be able to unite, regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal, a legislative issue alone. 3:45….[L]aw alone cannot make men see right. 3:57
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. 4:06
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. Whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. 4:19
….Who among us would be content with the counsels of patience and delay? One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves. Yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet free from the bonds of injustice; they are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. 5:15
And this nation, for all its hopes, and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free. 5:24
….Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise. 5:58 ….Where legal remedies are not at hand, redress is sought in the streets…. We face therefore a moral crisis as a country and a people. 6:35 ….[I]t cannot be met by repressive police action. 6:39….It cannot be quieted by token moves, or talk. 6:47
It is a time to act … in the Congress, in your state and local legislative body, and above all, in all of our daily lives. 6:58
It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. 7:18
Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality. 7:30….[JFK discusses the legal and legislative mechanisms he is proposing for action by Congress.]
….Nationwide legislation is needed, if we are to move this problem from the streets to the courts. 9:27 ….But legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American, in every community across our country 10:46….[T]hese are matters which concern us all — not merely presidents, or congressmen, or governors — but every citizen of the United States. This is one country. 12:05
….Therefore, I am asking for your help in making it easier for us to move ahead and provide the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves. 12:39 [The African-American community has] the right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be colorblind, as Justice Harlan said at the turn of the century. 13:09
This is what we are talking about. And this is a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for. And in meeting it, I ask the support of all of our citizens. ____________________________________________________________________
As a young girl, I heard JFK give this speech live on television, and I knew then what leadership was.
Facing realities, coming together as one people to solve problems, without finger-pointing and blame, asking for help, summoning our best natures to adapt in ways which may be uncomfortable but are critically necessary — this is leadership. Long may it guide us.