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Senator Kennedy Speeches

April 9, 1964 | Floor of the United States Senate

First Floor Speech

On April, 9, 1964, barely four months after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Senator Kennedy gave his maiden speech on the floor of the United States Senate, urging support of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sen. Kennedy talks with Martin Luther King, Jr.

My brother was the first President of the United States to state publicly that segregation was morally wrong. His heart and his soul are in this bill. If his life and death had a meaning, it was that we should not hate but love one another; we should use our powers not to create conditions of oppression that lead to violence, but conditions of freedom that lead to peace.

Mr. President, it is with some hesitation that I rise to speak on the pending legislation before the Senate: A freshman Senator should be seen, not heard; should learn, and not teach. This is especially true when the Senate is engaged in a truly momentous debate. in which we have seen displayed the most profound skills of the ablest Senators, in both parties, on both sides of the issue.

I have been extremely impressed over the past 4 weeks with the high level of the debate on this issue; with the dignity of the proceedings, the precision with which the legal issues have been defined. The viewpoint of each of the great sections of our Nation is being fully aired and fully developed, as we proceed toward a national consensus on this issue.

I had planned, about this time in the session, to make my maiden speech in the Senate on issues affecting industry and employment in my home State. I still hope to discuss these questions at some later date. But I could not follow this debate for the last 4 weeks—I could not see this issue envelop the emotions and the conscience of the Nation—without changing my mind. To limit myself to local issues in the face of this great national question, would be to demean the seat in which I sit, which has been occupied by some of the most distinguished champions of the cause of freedom.

I feel I can better represent the people of Massachusetts at this time by bringing the experience of their history to bear on this problem.

I believe the basic problem the American people face in the 1960’s in the field of civil rights is one of adjustment. It is the task of adjusting to the fact that Negroes are going to be members of the community of American citizens, with the same rights and the same responsibilities as every one of us.

The people of my State of Massachusetts have been making this kind of adjustment for 300 years. We have absorbed every racial nationality group, from the Puritans to the Poles to the Puerto Ricans. Massachusetts today has a higher percentage of foreign nationality groups than any other State in the country. Fully 40 percent of the people of my State, according to the latest census, are either immigrants or children of immigrants.

Every problem this bill treats—be it voting, equal accommodations, employment, or education—has arisen in my State at one time or another and we have solved them—by persuasion where possible; by law where necessary.

We have not suffered from this effort. Indeed, we have been strengthened. Our economy, our social structure, the level of our culture are higher than ever before, in a large part because of the contributions minorities have made.

I believe that if America has been able to make this adjustment for the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Poles, the Greeks, the Portuguese—we can make it for Negroes. And the Nation will be strengthened in the process.

In 1780, a Catholic in Massachusetts was not allowed to vote or hold public office. In 1840, an Irishman could not get a job above that of common laborer. In 1910, a Jew could not stay in places of public accommodation in the Berkshire Mountains.

It is true, as has been said on this floor, that prejudice exists in the minds and hearts of men. It cannot be eradicated by law. But I firmly believe a sense of fairness and good will also exists in the minds and hearts of men, side by side with the prejudice; a sense of fairness and good will which shows itself so often in acts of charity and kindness toward others. This noble characteristic wants to come out. It wants to, and often does, win out against the prejudice. Law, expressing as it does the moral conscience of the community, can help it come out in every person, so in the end the prejudice will be dissolved.

This bill has deep moral implications for the individual and his society. For this reason we have seen in recent months an unparalleled show of support for the bill by the religious leadership of America. Yesterday, I received a communication from His Eminence Richard Cardinal Cushing, of Boston. He said as follows:

On behalf of nearly 2 million Catholics, I am unhesitantly and wholeheartedly supporting the civil rights bill which is now under consideration in the U.S. Senate. The rights embodied in this bill are sacred rights, important to the dignity of the individual under God. I make this statement through Senator EDWARD M. KENNEDY, as cardinal of the Boston archdiocese.

I want to add that no one, in my judgment, has made a greater contribution to racial and religious understanding in my part of the Nation than Cardinal Cushing through his life and his works.

I have also received the following statement from the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of Massachusetts, Bishop Anson Stokes:

I believe I speak for the overwhelming number of Episcopalians as well as for Protestants in general when I affirm my personal, wholehearted support for the civil rights legislation and particularly for its public accommodations section. Courtesy, respect, and equal opportunity for human beings of all races cannot be left to chance. It must be assured by law as a human right, in all parts of our country in North as well as South.

Bishop Stokes has also made a significant contribution in this area.

In January of last year, there gathered in Chicago a National Conference on Religion and Race. Representatives of 67 national religious bodies, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, representing nearly all of the denominations of America, said at that time:

Our appeal to the American people is this: Seek a reign of justice in which voting rights and equal protection of the law will everywhere be enjoyed; public facilities and private ones serving a public purpose will be accessible to all; equal education and cultural opportunities, hiring and promotion, medical and hospital care, open occupancy in housing will be available to all.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have the full statement printed in the RECORD.

Mr. President, when religious leaders call on us to urge passage of this bill, they are not mixing religion and politics. This is not a political issue. It is a moral issue, to be resolved through political means. Religious leaders can preach, they can advise, they can lead movements of social action. But there comes a point when persuasion must be backed up by law to be effective. In the field of civil rights, that point has been reached.

Mr. President, others have discussed the specific provisions of this bill with more skill than I possess. The constitutionality of the bill has been affirmed by the most eminent lawyers in the land. But there are some points in each of the major sections I would like to stress.

The purpose of title I, the voting section, is to accomplish the aims of the voting rights sections of the civil rights bill of 1957 and 1960. Had Congress known then the weaknesses in those sections, I believe these provisions would have been added at that time. We learn by experience. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, under the outstanding leadership of Burke Marshall, has labored for 3 years to do the job assigned to it by the prior legislation. Its small squadron of attorneys have worked long and hard, but every possible legal barrier has been thrown in its path to win, after protracted litigation, the right to vote in an election held a year ago, is no victory. The right to vote in Federal elections must be enforcible at the time of the election to have any meaning.

The barriers to the right to vote were taken down in my State over 100 years ago. The differences between our social and economic groups have been settled peacefully at the ballot box, the way they should be in a democracy.

Title II, the public accommodation section, seeks to relieve the principal cause of demonstrations that have torn the South in recent years. It confers on Negroes a right the rest of us have enjoyed under the common law for 500 years—the right to enter and be served in establishments holding themselves out to serve the public. Were we to ground this section attending schools that had been integrated under locally approved plans. In these cases and others, integration was blocked by outside authority, arbitrarily and illegally imposed.

I respect the doctrine of States rights because it recognizes the importance of local action to individual freedom. But I respectfully submit that one cannot oppose having the Federal Government telling the States what to do, and at the same time, condone States telling cities what to do.

My State has been criticized in the field of education, and I would like to look at the record. Forty-seven percent of the Negroes in Massachusetts live outside of the City of Boston. All of their children go to school with white children. But most of the Negroes in Boston do not, because they live in all-Negro neighborhoods—racially mixed.

We in Massachusetts have recognized this problem and have begun to seek means to correct it. But there is an enormous difference between school segregation as practiced in some States and the situation in mine. In Massachusetts, no State law forbids integration in Schools. No State official stands in the doorway to block it. The only barrier to complete school integration is the sound and historic principle that children of the same neighborhood should attend the same school. With the increase in economic opportunity that will come to Negroes in my State, residential segregation will break down and the school problem will diminish.

Title VI will serve the important purpose of removing Federal financial support from segregated programs. We cannot justify using Negro taxpayers money to perpetuate discrimination against them.

Federal programs, especially in the fields of health and education, and training for jobs have an enormous influence on the social fabric of our communities. They can set a pattern in keeping with the moral commitment of the Nation, or they can set a pattern opposed to it.

Title VII is directed toward what, in my judgment, American Negroes need most to increase their health and happiness. To be deprived because of race of the right to vote or use public accommodations or to attend integrated schools is a humiliation and an impediment. But to be deprived of the chance to make a decent living and of the income needed to bring up children is a family tragedy. The average Negro with a high school education can expect to earn, in his lifetime, $100,000 less than the average white man with the same education. This is a personal hardship. It is a burden on families. It saps the economic strength of the Nation.

In Massachusetts we have found that job opportunity is the key to assimilation of any minority group. As long as our minorities were shut off from worthwhile jobs, they remained poor, ignorant, resentful of the rest of the community. Once they found a wider range of jobs, they were able to cast off their poverty, break out of their slums, and, most important, measure up to the standards of social behavior set by the community. Crime and illegitimacy declined as men found something. to live for. This can happen again.

It is argued that Title VII can only make jobs for Negroes by taking them away from whites. The same accusation was thrown at the Irish in Massachusetts in the 1820’s. The argument is groundless in America, because it assumes a stagnant economy. We have almost always had a dynamic, job-creating economy. The new income spent by new job holders has created more demand and more jobs, in a great upward movement of growth and prosperity.

Mr. President, this is not a force bill. There are no fines or criminal penalties. On the contrary, the bill abounds with reasonableness, with conciliation, with voluntary procedures, with a moderate approach toward its goals.

The public accommodations section covers only those types of establishments where discrimination works the severest hardship. Even these types are exempt if they are small enough so that their integration would disturb the owner in his private life.

The voting section covers only Federal elections. It uses the procedures of the courts. It creates not special privileges, but only tries to prevent irreparable injury.

The education section creates no new rights. The Department of Justice would be able to sue only to enforce what the Constitution already requires. The Federal program section is equally moderate. Funds could only be denied to programs where’ discrimination is practiced. other funds could not be affected. The procedures under this section must conform to the standard of due process, of notice and hearing, of the administrative procedures act.

And the employment section is equally mild. Companies would have adequate time to comply with its requirements. The Fair Employment Commission has no sanctions of its own, but must look to the courts for enforcement of its orders.

In short, the bill emphasizes not new rights but remedies of existing rights; not coercion but voluntary compliance; not the heavy hand of the Federal Government but the even-handed justice of the courts of law.

With provisions as mild as these, it can truly be said that even in passing this bill, we are still relying primarily on the decency and the tolerance and the conscience of the American people to secure these rights for Negro citizens.

In conclusion, Mr. President, there are some personal reasons why I am so interested in passage of this bill. As a young man I want to see an America where everyone can make his contribution, where a man will be measured not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.

As one who has a special concern with the emerging nations of Africa and Latin America, I have seen what discrimination at home does to us in those countries. I want to see America respected there.

And finally, I remember the words of President Johnson last November 27:

No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.

My brother was the first President of the United states to state publicly that segregation was morally wrong. His heart and his soul are in this bill. If his life and death had a meaning, it was that we should not hate but love one another; we should use our powers not to create conditions of oppression that lead to violence, build conditions of freedom that lead to peace.

It is, in that spirit that I hope the Senate will pass this bill.

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