After deploying the Alabama National Guard to help two black students integrate the University of Alabama, President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation about civil rights. This is the full and unedited version of the speech.
President Kennedy Addresses the Nation on Civil Rights
NARRATOR: From the White House in Washington, D.C. the National Broadcasting Company brings you an address by the President of the United States John F. Kennedy. The decision to speak to the nation tonight was made about one hour before two negro students were admitted to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.
President JOHN F. KENNEDY: This afternoon, following a series of threats and defiant statements, the presence of Alabama National Guardsmen was required on the University of Alabama to carry out the final and unequivocal order of the United States District Court of the northern district of Alabama. That order called for the admission of two clearly qualified Alabama residences who happened to have been born Negro. That they were admitted peacefully to the campus, is due in good measure to the conduct of the students at the University of Alabama who met their responsibilities in a constructive way. 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. Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And 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. 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 demonstrations in the street. 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. 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 or she would wish to be treated.
It is better to settle these matters in the courts then 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, and 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 at an American restaurant open to the public, if he cannot 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 his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the consuls 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 free 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.
Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act. To make a commitment it has not fully made to this century, to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law. This is one country, it has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to ten percent of the population that you can’t have that right. That your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have. That the only way they are going to get their rights is to go into the street and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.
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 ourselves. To give a chance for every child to be educated to the limit of his talents. As I’ve said before not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or equal motivation. But they should have the equal right to develop their talent, and their ability and their motivation to make something of themselves. We have a right to expect that the negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the constitution will be color blind as Justice Holland said at the turn of the century. 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. Thank you very much.
Editor's Note: In his civil rights address of June 11, 1963, delivered to the nation over radio and television, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) announced that he soon would ask Congress to enact landmark civil rights legislation. In his speech, JFK responds to the threats of violence and obstruction on the University of Alabama campus following desegregation attempts.