This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. Two texts of the speech, a reading copy and a press release, exist in the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library. Page images of the reading copy and the press release are available.
For the past several weeks the United States Senate has been engaged in a momentous debate - a debate which has received the attention of the entire world - a debate on one of the most important and emotion-packed issues of our time - the issue of civil rights.
And of all the many problems, the many issues, which make up this many-sided debate - none is more significant than the fight to secure the right to vote to all Americans. For the right to vote is the precondition of all other rights. It is only through the exercise of political power that men ensure that government will protect their right to equal treatment before the law - in every aspect of human endeavor. That is what democratic government is all about. And if the right to vote is being denied - as it is being denied - if men are not allowed to choose their elected officials - then no person's place in society is secure.
We thought that we had secured this fundamental right with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 - an Act which permitted the Attorney General to get a court order requiring that individual Negroes - who had been discriminated against - be allowed to vote. But the inevitable delays of lawsuits - the futility of trying to solve a problem involving many thousands of people by helping one, or a few, at a time-and the reluctance of the Attorney General, who has only brought four suits since the bill was enacted, to use the powers Congress had granted him - all these combined to demonstrate clearly that the Civil Rights bill of 1957 was an eloquent but inadequate Act.
To remedy this deficiency - to enforce the rights of the large numbers of Negroes who are being deprived to their Constitutional right to vote - the Civil Rights Commission proposed a system of voting registrars. These registrars would be sent to districts where discrimination had been found - and would register all those who had been kept from voting merely because of their race or their color. Following this recommendation of the Civil Rights Commission, the Attorney General submitted a bill calling for federal voting referees - having similar powers and to be appointed by the Courts.
Such a system - of either federal registrars or referees - would not be a precedent-shattering move of doubtful constitutionality, as some have said. On the contrary, it would be a direct response to the mandate of the Constitution which grants to Congress alone the power to enforce the unmistakable direction of the Fifteenth Amendment that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State" on account of race or color.
In deciding whether to support registrars or referees - or one of the many variants of these proposals - we cannot afford to be concerned with the origin of the idea - or which party will get the credit. Our single touchstone must be effectiveness - which will work most successfully -how best do we ensure the right to vote. And, in my opinion, any action - to be effective - must meet the follow three conditions:
First, we must provide for the enforcement of the right to vote both in both federal and state elections. The federal Constitution gives a Federal guarantee of the right to vote in all elections - federal and state. It does not distinguish - it does not discriminate - and neither can the Congress if it is to be true to its obligation to enforce this right.
Secondly, we must be sure that no interminable legal roadblocks are placed in the path of those seeking to vindicate their right to vote. The process leading to the appointment of federal voting officers must be swift - as must the process of registration itself. It cannot be allowed to degenerate into a series of individual and lengthy lawsuits, with impossible burdens of proof.
Third, we must be sure that federal registration will be honored at the polling place - that state voting officers will allow federally registered citizens to actually cast their ballot. This means an effective enforcement system - not individual prosecutions or civil suits long after the election is over.
These are the three essential conditions of any congressional action to protect voting rights. And I intend to support all measures which best meet these objectives.
The debate may be long. But I am confident that this Congress will live up to its responsibility to ensure that all Americans - regardless of race - are allowed to participate in the most fundamental process of our democracy - the selection of the officers of government. For today in Washington - on the floor of Congress - we are exercising our trust to the concept of free government by free men -a concept as old as the nation itself. I hope that we will discharge that duty with vision and with courage. For a noted American has reminded us: "The founders of the Republic knew, as did Pericles, that if the secret of happiness is freedom, 'the secret of freedom is a brave heart.'"
We must be worthy of that trust.