Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at Reception, Jewish Community Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, March 23, 1960


The United States Senate has been locked in debate for over 4 weeks over basic questions of democracy. In some respects the argument is unreal. Voting rights guaranteed almost a hundred years ago are questioned. A Supreme Court decision is being challenged. Equality and Justice are being given different values. But the facts are not unreal. The denial of rights is not unreal - the discrimination is not unreal. The inequality is not unreal. And my determination to fight for strong effective civil rights legislation is not unreal.

It is time, I believe, to restate fundamental principles. We are concerned with enforcing two great commands of our Constitution. The first - in the Fourteenth Amendment - provides that no state may discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race or color. It matters not whether the discrimination involves access to public institutions or facilities - withholding rights of citizenship - or unequal enforcement of laws. All discrimination is precisely and unmistakably prohibited.

The second command of the Constitution under debate is the Fifteenth Amendment. It clearly directs that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged" on account of race or color. Yet hundreds of thousands of American citizens - in this enlightened year of 1960 - have been denied the right to vote solely because of their race or color.

Three years ago the Congress enacted a Civil Rights law to permit the Attorney General to satisfy this constitutional mandate and protect every American's right to vote. But he has brought in these three years a grand total of 4 suits, two of which are pending. In a world where over two-thirds of the population is non-white - where our claim to leadership rests upon our assertions of human rights - we need a more effective answer than this.

Tonight I will not attempt to discuss in detail the more than 10 pounds of amendments introduced to correct this situation. I should simply like to outline what I consider a minimum response to our legislative obligation in this field.

First - and perhaps the most important - the right of every citizen to vote must be assured. That right is the precondition of all other rights. It is through the exercise of political power that all other rights can - in the last analysis - be protected. And if the right to vote is denied - as it is being denied - if men are not allowed to choose their elected officials - then the very fabric of democratic society is threatened - and no person and no place is secure.

But it would, in my opinion, be better to reject every voting proposal than to accept one which is ineffective.

To be effective the voting provision must cover both federal and state elections. The Constitution offers a federal guarantee of the right to vote in all elections - federal and state. It does not distinguish - it does not discriminate - and there is no reason to water down that constitutional guarantee.

It does not matter who gets the credit for an effective voting law - much of the debate has been bipartisan. It does not matter what the federal officer is called - referee, registrar or enrollment officer. But it does matter that a bill pass - a strong effective bill - that gives every citizen assurance of this most basic of all American rights.

A second major objective of the current debate should be a law granting the Attorney General power to help any person to vindicate his civil rights. This was first proposed in the Civil Rights Act of 1957, where it was known as Title III or Part 3. But it was defeated in 1957, much to my regret. And it was defeated again a few days ago. But I am convinced that the Attorney-General must be given this power to equalize the advantages entrenched interests have over private individuals deprived of their rights by community pressures.

Third, we must outlaw bombings and other forms of intimidation. No civilized society can afford to permit such wanton disregard for law and order to continue for long. I was pleased by the action of the Senate in adopting the bill I introduced to make such actions a federal offense. No citizen of this nation should ever have fear that his school or home or meeting-place can be destroyed by terrorists - and no loophole should ever allow perpetrators of such deeds to escape unpunished.

Fourth, the Congress must recognize the process of school integration. It is almost 6 years since the Supreme Court affirmed the right of all Americans to attend school without discrimination on the basis of race or color. In those 6 years the burden of protecting that right has rested on the courts. But courts - however courageous and determined - have limited resources and power. They cannot do the job alone. Schools which need financial assistance in making the difficult and costly transition - in good faith - to an integrated school system should be able to obtain that assistance.

These are four of the responses which Congress can and should make. They represent no radical departure from constitutional doctrine. They are not novel. In a sense, they are merely restatements of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution.

This is our democratic heritage. All we ask now is that that heritage be transformed into reality. All we ask now is that the Federal Government demonstrate the leadership this issue so sorely needs. If the Congress fails its responsibilities, no local community will meet its responsibility. But if the Congress leads, many will follow. Let us resolve, here and now, in 1960, to set an example of dedication to human rights that will inspire our people - and the peoples of the world - now and in years to come.

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 907, Folder: "Jewish Community Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 23 March 1960".