Confrontation and Eloquence
on Civil Rights
In January 1963, George Wallace was sworn in to his first term as Governor of Alabama at the very same spot where Jeffereson Davis had been sworn in as President of the Confederacy. In his inaugural address, Wallace declared:
[i]n the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.
Six months later, two African-American students applied to the University of Alabama and a federal judge ordered them to be admitted and forbade Wallace from interfering. Despite this, Wallace seized the mantle of Southern defiance and, in an act of calculated brinkmanship stood at the entrance to Foster Auditorium to block the two students. The move forced President Kennedy to federalize the Alabama National Guard, who then ordered Wallace to step aside. Wallace ultimately complied.
Wallace biographer Marshall Frady explained:
“And, as a historical moment, a rather pedestrian production. But no other southern governor had managed to strike even that dramatic a pose of defiance and it has never been required of southern popular heroes that they be successful. Indeed, southerners tend to love their heroes more for their losses.”
In Washington, President Kennedy’s inner circle was divided as to whether he should deliver a televised national address on civil rights and intended to wait to see how the Alabama standoff played out. Once Wallace backed down, they unanimously advised against the speech. Kennedy went ahead anyway in a widely praised speech he abandoned his administration’s prior caution on Civil Rights to call for major civil rights legislation.
. . . I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.
It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstration in the street. 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.
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. 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. But this is not the case today.
. . . This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every state of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of goodwill and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these methods in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right.
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
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. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he can not send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
One hundred years have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home; but are we to say to the world, and, much more importantly, for each other, that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes?
Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them. . . .
Historian Nick Bryant explained:
“The speech was the most courageous of Kennedy’s presidency. After two years of equivocation on the subject of civil rights, Kennedy had finally sought to mobilize that vast body of Americans who had long considered segregation immoral, and who were certainly unprepared to countenance the most extreme forms of discrimination.”
It is one of six President Kennedy speeches included in American Rhetoric’s ranking of top 100 speeches. It came only a day after his commencement speech at The American University calling for a nuclear test freeze and fifteen days before his Ich bin ein Berliner speech – both of which are included in the ranking.