Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy to the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts, February 16, 1956

I am deeply honored and deeply grateful for the distinction you bestow upon me tonight. I only hope that my future conduct, as a private citizen and as a public servant, will be worthy of the trust symbolized by this award.

I think there is some significance to the fact that you have chosen a politician – and I use the word without apology – as one of the recipients of your award. For the unfortunate truth of the matter is that the field of politics is all too often lacking in the principles and practices we honor tonight. Religious, racial, and ethnic distinctions are prevalent – indeed, sometimes dominant – in the political life of Massachusetts and the nation. Bloc voting, so-called "balanced tickets," and special appeals for special ethnic groups are all an integral part of the political scene as we know it today – as well as outright racial and religious prejudice, slander, and discrimination.

Perhaps some ethnic distinctions are inevitable as long as the various ethnic groups themselves insist upon thinking in such terms – but what is the value of it? Would not our society be better served if the best available men were picked for the highest available offices – rather than excluding some because of their religious affiliation and including others because of their ethnic background? Is it not preferable for our candidates to think in terms of the long-run interests of our state and nation rather than in terms of the Irish vote, or the Jewish vote, or the Yankee vote?

I can testify from personal experience that expertness in the affairs of a Senatorial office is not dependent upon religious affiliation. Three professional staff members assist me in my office in Washington. No inquiry of their religious affiliation was made when I hired them. I was interested, and remain interested, only in their work. One of these men is a Catholic. One is a Protestant. One is a Jew. All three are at the service of any Massachusetts citizen who requests our help, whatever may be his problem and whatever may be his religious faith.

Tonight we stand on the threshold of another political campaign – and all of us here tonight share the hope, and pledge our efforts toward its fulfillment, that no racial, religious or other ethnic differences will play any part in this year's campaign. And if they do, I suggest that we take inspiration from the courage displayed by others before us who refused to bow to the passions of prejudice and bigotry.

One such example was a Protestant Senator from the State of Nebraska, George W. Norris. In 1928, as many of you will vividly recall, the Democratic nominee for President, Al Smith, was subjected to a variety of vicious attacks because of his Catholic faith. Governor Smith made it clear that his personal religious views did not affect his belief in the First Amendment, in freedom of religion for all, in the enforcement of our laws and Constitution and in the American public school system; and he stated flatly that he recognized no power in the Church which could interfere with any of these matters.

But the bigots and the uninformed, aided and abetted by those politically opposed to Smith, inflamed and exploited the prejudice and ignorance of many Americans toward the Catholic Church in 1928. A radio commentator stated flatly over the air that a New Jersey convent had been purchased by the Catholic Church as the American residence for the Pope after Smith's election. In Georgia, some churches exhibited pictures of Smith at the opening of the Holland Tunnel, convinced that the tunnel was actually being constructed to connect with the basement of the Vatican in Rome, 3500 miles away. On election eve the story spread that the Pope had already purchased tickets for sailing to the United States as soon as he was radioed news of a Smith victory.

In the face of such a campaign, George Norris of Nebraska, a lifetime Protestant from an overwhelmingly Protestant state, could hardly be expected to speak out – particularly since he was also a member of a different party and also differed with Smith over prohibition. But Norris believed one issue in the campaign – public power – overrode all others – and once he had made his decision on this basis to join the Smith camp, he was not going to let the false issue of religion, or the emotions it aroused among his constituents, stand in his way. Surely "it is possible," he said, "for a man in public life to separate his religious beliefs from his political activities...I am a Protestant and a dry, yet I would support a man who was a wet and a Catholic provided I believed he was sincerely in favor of law enforcement and was right on economic issues."

When his constituents condemned his stand, Norris assailed the "special interests and machine politicians who have kept this religious issue to the front although they knew it was a false, wicked and unfair issue." And he closed his nationwide broadcast for Smith from Omaha by meeting this issue openly and powerfully, with these words:

"It is our duty as patriots to cast out this Un-American doctrine and rebuke those who have raised the torch of intolerance. All believers of any faith can unite and go forward in our political work to bring about the maximum amount of happiness for our people."

A second example – also of some significance today – occurred four years earlier – in the pre-convention campaign of the Democratic Party of 1924, when intolerance had again raised its ugly head - not because of the religious affiliation of any candidate but because of the whole problem of racial and religious hatred and the powerful groups who fostered it. The Ku Klux Klan was a potent force in American politics in 1924, numbering an estimated 5 million members in 45 states. Hate-mongering was their business; "America for the Americans" was their slogan; and post-war fear and distrust of our allies, our former enemies and the new Communist movement provided their atmosphere. Negroes were lynched – Catholics were flogged – Jews were tarred and feathered – immigrants were excluded – and it was all done in the name of the Lord.

As the Democratic Convention prepared to meet in New York City, the burning issue was whether the Klan - dominant in Southern Democratic politics and influential elsewhere – would be condemned, condoned or even mentioned. The advisors of Senator Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama – a former Presidential candidate (in 1912), a former Democratic floor leader in both the House and the Senate, author of the famous tariff bill which bore his name, and a leading Presidential possibility – urged that he say nothing to offend the Ku Klux Klan. But Senator Underwood, convinced that the Klan was contrary to all the principles of Jeffersonian democracy in which he believed, denounced it in no uncertain terms, insisted that this was the paramount issue upon which the party would have to take a firm stand, and fought vigorously but unsuccessfully to include an anti-Klan plank in the party platform. The Louisiana delegation and other Southerners publicly repudiated him, and from that moment on his chances for the Presidency were nil. But it was the courage of such men as George W. Norris and Oscar W. Underwood that paved the way for the progress in race relations and religious tolerance that has brightened the years since their brave deeds were done.

But courage on the part of those public officials under a bigoted attack, or on the part of those public officials who boldly support them, is not enough. I ask you now to recall the atmosphere in Washington and the nation – and particularly here in Boston – exactly 40 years ago this very night. President Woodrow Wilson had nominated to be Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court one of Boston's best-known and most controversial citizens – Louis D. Brandeis. Opposition to the appointment was heavy and vociferous. It was said that Mr. Brandeis was a radical, that he was dishonest, that he was controversial, that he was an impractical theorist – and that he was a Jew.

Although opposition on this latter ground was, for the most part, not out in the open, Brandeis himself – when asked to prepare an anonymous brief on his own case by Senator LaFollette – opened with these words:  "The dominant reasons (as contrasted with the stated reasons) for the opposition to the confirmation of Mr. Brandeis are that he is considered a radical and is a Jew." Jewish lawyers were advised not to write to the Senate Committee on his behalf for fear of antagonizing the Southern Democratic votes needed for confirmation; and most newspapers emphasized in their news columns the fact that no Jew had ever served on the highest Court in our land.

I will not now repeat the names of those good citizens of Boston who protested the Brandeis appointment – on grounds other than religious, of course – the scions of famous Boston families, the eminent lawyers, the scholarly professors. No useful purpose is served by recalling the bitter attacks made by those who 20 years later would call Louis Brandeis one of the greatest jurists of all time. For his detractors, and their methods and attacks, did not concern Brandeis so much as those who sat by and merely watched.

"What has seemed to me the really serious features of the attitude of this community," he wrote a friend from Boston,

"were not the attacks of my opponents, however vicious and unfounded, but the silence or acquiescence of those who were not opposed to or were actually in sympathy with me.

Most alarming is the unmanliness, the pusillanimity of those who believed that my efforts were commendable but feared to speak out; feared because of either financial or social considerations or for the love of enjoyment or ease. And then the acquiescence of an equally large body of men who felt neither sympathy with nor opposition to my views, but who so lacked an active sympathy with the demands of fair play that they were willing to remain silent, although they realized fully that my opponents were guilty of foul play...

My opponents substituted attacks upon reputation for opposing arguments. And this community permitted them to do so almost without a protest. This seems to me the fundamental defect. Our task in Massachusetts is to reconstruct manhood."

We would do well to remember today, just 40 years later, the experience and the words of Louis Brandeis. Fulfillment of the principles of brotherhood requires the courage of manhood – the manhood which Brandeis found lacking in Boston 40 years ago, the manhood of George Norris and Oscar Underwood. Our most challenging and difficult task in the field of human relations, it seems to me, is to arouse and encourage those who do not preach race hatred, but who make no protest when others do – those who do not practice religious intolerance but who acquiesce in its existence. It is these good but timid or thoughtless citizens whom Harry Overstreet called "the mild and gentle people of prejudice..."

"They do not go to lynchings but they do nothing to create a condition of human dignity that would make lynchings impossible...Their moral sickness is that they have learned to stand by and do nothing. Consciously or subconsciously, the sense of responsibility is dimmed out in them. The power to feel is blurred. The issue is befogged by rationalizations."

"Thus," concluded Dr. Overstreet, "it is the mild and gentle people of prejudice, with their compulsive effortlessness, who must bear the burden of moral guilt." And it is these gentle people of prejudice, it seems to me – those who wanted to ignore the Klan in 1924, who listened to the Al Smith whispers in 1928, who permitted Brandeis to be slandered in 1916 – it is that great group, which includes almost all of us at one time or another, to whom Brotherhood Week must be most specifically directed.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 895, "National Conference of Christians and Jews, Boston, Massachusetts, 16 February 1956." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.