Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, Convocation of the United Negro College Fund, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 12, 1959

It is a privilege to be able to participate in this program today. It is no exaggeration to say that there are few educational drives more important or of more vital significance than that of the United Negro College Fund. For developing through higher education the full potential of so many millions of our young citizens whose skills might otherwise be lost to our nation by the irrationality of racial discrimination is not only an essential act of justice – in this world of crisis it is also an urgent requirement of national security.

I am here in my own right as a refugee from a small college known as the United States Senate. There are two troubles with our Senate school, however – in the first place, you can't tell the teachers from the students and secondly, although many would-be students are on the waiting list to get in, no present member ever wants to graduate.

To place the importance of education and of Negro education in particular in proper perspective we must view it against the background of our troubled world. For it is only from the perspective of our international responsibilities and opportunities that your work assumes its full dimensions. As Henry L. Stimson wrote in 1947: "No private program and no public policy, in any section of our national life, can now escape from the compelling fact that if it is not framed with reference to the world, it is framed with perfect futility."

The graduates of all American colleges today will play a pre-eminent role in shaping the course of that world. They cannot escape the responsibilities of leadership. As Prince Bismarck once put it: "one-third of all the students in German universities break down from overwork – one-third break down from dissipation – but the other third rule Germany." (I leave it to you to decide which category predominates in your own school.)

But recognizing that your graduates are to rule America, as community leaders, precinct captains, or presidents, let us make certain that no one regards your college as Dean Swift regarded Oxford. Oxford, he said, was a great seat of learning – because every freshman who entered, in order to meet the standards of admission, was required to bring some learning with him – but no senior, when he left, ever took any away – and so it steadily accumulated.

And I want to make sure that these future leaders – facing the most critical, complex world and most urgent peril history has ever known – are prepared to deal with these problems. We don't need men like Lord John Russell, of whom Queen Victoria once said he would be a better man if he knew a third subject – but he was interested only in the Constitution of 1688 – and himself.

It is necessary, therefore, that we discuss our educational problems in the context of the demands for American leadership in world affairs, for American contributions to peace, for American assistance to the undeveloped nations of the world and for American strength in the face of harsh threats from around the world.

When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters – one represents danger and one represents opportunity. The danger signs are all around us. With less than half our productive capacity the Soviet Union has at least equaled us in several crucial areas of military science and technology. Since World War II a devastated Russia has rebuilt its factories, harnessed its rivers and regimented its manpower in such a way as to challenge us in many fields of science and technology where we were for so long supreme. Sputnik is a symbol – the symbol of Soviet concentration on scientific education and development – at the expense, it is true, of the immediate needs of the Russian people.

Soviet economic growth continues to progress at a faster pace than ours. In addition, 650 million people in China are being harnessed to the industrialization of that other Communist colossus. Our danger is not merely that the balance of power may shift in favor of the Soviet-Chinese coalition – it is not that this combination, representing 30% of the people in the world, will overtake us in industrial production – rather the danger lies in the possibility that we will become increasingly estranged from our allies and friends and the uncommitted people of the world. The vast majority of these people are colored, poor, and in need of economic development – and so far we have been failing them. The battles of the next few years will probably not be waged with missiles or thermonuclear bombs – our armaments must be ideas and the battle must be for men's minds.

Along with danger, crisis is represented by opportunity. The space age offers the opportunity for new voyages of discovery. Atomic energy and automation can mean the opportunity for unprecedented abundance. Modern science and technology make it possible for poverty to be abolished everywhere in the world. New developments in means of transportation and communication offer the opportunity to extend the principles on which we based our republic to all mankind.

As Lincoln said, the Declaration of Independence "gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to all the world." It "gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." Never before have we had so excellent an opportunity to fulfill that promise of an equal chance.

The awakening nations of Africa, the restless people of South America, the suffering millions in Asia are all looking for leadership. They need our aid, our strength, our skills, our sympathy and – above all – our understanding. It is not enough to talk grimly of agonizing reappraisals and massive retaliation – we must participate in the advancement of democratic ideals and the economic development of this rising tide of national liberation. It is up to you in the colleges you represent to recognize these challenges and to take advantage of these opportunities on behalf of the free world.

"A university," said Professor Woodrow Wilson, "should be an organ of memory for the state for the transmission of its best traditions. Every man sent out from a university should be a man of his nation, as well as a man of his time." To put it another way, our graduates must all be men of their time regardless of any specialized training they may receive. Some of our education for world responsibility comes from the harsh logic of events. Some can only come through the experience of actually engaging in world-wide activities – for we still learn by doing. But much of our education will have to be grasped in our colleges and universities.

Here, it seems to me, you can play an increasingly important part. For Negro colleges and universities share the general crisis of American education at the same time they face a special crisis of their own. The unanimous decision of the Supreme Court five years ago tolled the end of the era of segregated facilities.

In the transition period to an integrated society, you will, of course, have to play an increasingly important role in remedying the results of inferior education at the lower levels due to continued segregation. This will be an era of ordeal. In some states you will have to continue to carry the main burden of Negro education for some years. With the rise in school population which is already bursting existing facilities, your great responsibility will grow greater.

I should like to suggest an added dimension to that task. One way to speed the transition and make it more successful will be to raise the sights of everyone – students, teachers and parents, Negroes and whites, the society at large – let them raise their sights beyond the difficulties of racial integration at home to see the challenges of our contracting universe.

Integration is itself a world-wide process – in India it means Brahmins and untouchables, Hindus and Moslems. In the Middle East it is Arabs and Jews. In Africa it is colonials and natives. The closing of the gaps caused by segregation policies here in America is part of a world problem.

It is my hope therefore that at least some of our Negro colleges and universities, perhaps because the crisis for them is greater and sharper than that facing American education generally, will adapt their curriculum with this in mind. The new curriculum would be designed to fit Americans for the rigors facing them in the new frontiers of the world.

In the 19th century successive waves of immigrants, speaking foreign languages and with foreign customs, came to our shores. They were crowded into city tenements and subjected to humiliating discriminations by the already established Americans. The Irish in Boston knew something of this discrimination. But education was available to these immigrant groups or their children. In addition, they had a westward moving frontier to which they could go and embark on a new life.

For Negroes the pattern has been far more difficult and there is no American frontier. But there is an unlimited and unexplored region beyond the frontier of knowledge and experience. And there is plenty of room for expansion in the social, political, professional and industrial work involved in world development. Here old prejudices are not entrenched – race is not important – talent is all that counts.

Pericles told ancient Athens that it should be the school of all Greece. America today can be the school of all the world. But American educators must act with the necessary vision. If Negro colleges and universities will assume leadership – in training students for their global responsibilities – they will contribute mightily to the strength of America, help destroy the forces of poverty and turn the battle for men's minds in favor of freedom.

So let us raise both our sights and our standards. One era in the history of our Negro colleges is coming to an end. But another is just beginning. It will require more, not less, effort – greater, not smaller, expenditures – increased, not decreased, recognition from the American people.

The demand for teachers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen will continue to grow. But there will be new and unprecedent demands upon your colleges for community leaders skilled in the arts of persuasion and conciliation – social workers and psychologists, capable of handling the explosive problems of a transitional age – scientists and engineers, qualified to fill the critical gap in our defenses and new industries that care nothing about a man's color and everything about his brain-power – and, to use one final example which to me is pressing, we will need from your colleges men and women trained for our nation's foreign service, demonstrating by their work abroad that this is the land of the free, as well as the home of the brave.

In our nation's quest for new talent, new ideas, new brainpower, new manpower, no college can escape its responsibility – and no qualified young man or woman can be denied. Irrational barriers and ancient prejudices fall quickly when the question of survival itself is at stake.

This, after all, is the real issue of our times. The hard, tough question for the next decade – for this or any other group of Americans – is whether any free society – with its freedom of choice – its breadth of opportunity – its range of alternatives – can meet the single-minded advance of the Communist system.

Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure? That is the real question. Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction – but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space and the inside of men's minds. We and the Russians now have the power to destroy with one blow one-quarter of the earth's population – a feat not accomplished since Cain slew Abel.

For the Russian peasant has looked up from his hoe to fling Sputnik into outer space – opening not a new frontier of hope for all mankind, but a new and somber frontier of fear. We cannot hope to escape a prolonged and powerful competition with Soviet power – a competition which demands that we act from enlightened impulses but never act impulsively.

It is the enduring faith of the American tradition that there is no real conflict between freedom and security – between liberty and abundance. Through centuries of crises, the American tradition has demonstrated, on the contrary, that freedom is the ally of security – and that liberty is the architect of abundance.

To keep that faith alive – to keep that message meaningful at a time of doubt and despair and disunity – will require more thought and more effort on your part than ever before. It will require leadership better equipped than any since Lincoln's Day to make clear to our people the vast spectrum of our challenges.

In the words of Woodrow Wilson: "We must neither run with the crowd nor deride it – but seek sober counsel for it – and for ourselves."

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 902, "United Negro College Fund, Indianapolis, Indiana, 12 April 1959." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.