Remarks of John F. Kennedy, Freedom House, Roxbury, Massachusetts, March 23, 1958

I am delighted to celebrate with you today the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Freedom House. I have been interested in the progress of Freedom House for several years. I think it was about six years ago that you were kind enough to invite me to a dinner in this building which unfortunately I was unable to attend. However, I was happy that my sister Pat was able to pinch-hit for me – and as I remember, she was so courteously received – that most everyone forgot that I was the one who had actually been invited.

I think it would be a very fine thing if in every American community there would be a central point of activity – where the thinking people meet regularly to exchange ideas and to develop programs regarding the most important local problems. When this happens – and programs actually develop as a result of local stimulation – something else happens too which is a very good thing in a democratic society.

It is almost inevitable that the local action is a stimulus to other communities and if the action is significant enough – is a stimulus also to the city, the state, and the entire region involved.

I think a good example of this is the movement which began some years ago to improve educational opportunities throughout the United States. The launching of the Russian satellite merely dramatized what many of us have recognized to be a problem for a long time. The important thing is – that the people who lived in the school districts expressed the first concern about the general number and quality of our schools – and this concern was echoed afterwards in the city halls, then in the state capitols, and then finally in Congress.

I imagine that if in every country in the world the concern of people for their welfare as individuals and as members of a national community could result finally in action at the highest level of government, then we probably would achieve a total democratic society and half the problems which involve this world and outer space would be resolved once and for all.

If Freedom House always has this significance within the community of Greater Boston then it will be a community effort which was well worth the undertaking and one which today I endorse sincerely and recommend to every community in this country.

The meetings and programs which have been conducted here in the interest of slum clearance and urban renewal; in the interest of securing better schools and better education for the children; and in the interest of encouraging local small business – reflect the kind of awareness of what has to be done – and the kind of determination to do what has to be done which we need more of in the United States.

I am very glad that I know such people as my good friend Herbert Tucker, Frank Morris, Muriel and Otto Snowden, and Mrs. Melnea Cass – just to name a few – who deserve a great deal of appreciation for the citizenship which they have shown.

I think most Americans are aware of the pressing problems which this nation faces today, not only in international affairs but here at home – and I should like to comment briefly on two of these which touch upon the purposes and objectives of Freedom House.

The first of these is the problem of our public schools. Like you, I am aware of the many facets of this problem. If the good citizens of Roxbury believe that they must work to preserve and improve the public school system in this area – then I say this is a worthy effort.

The fact of a shifting population in a large community where people of different races and religions have long lived side by side faces many cities in the United States. We are constantly reminded that in the North there is a form of residential segregation which confronts our school boards and committees with the necessity to take corrective measures which are novel and perhaps even experimental.

On my own part, as a member of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, I have undertaken to help meet the national problem of classroom shortages. The situation in Massachusetts, even though not as distressing as in some other states, nevertheless points up this need.

A survey, two years ago, showed that one out of every four public school buildings in this state was obsolete – many buildings were fifty years old or older and one in three was unsafe in case of fire.

Add to this fact, that nationwide we are short, according to conservative estimates, 140,400 classrooms and also that we have fourteen to twenty thousand schools which are fire traps.

Accordingly, in January of this year – when the Administration had suddenly forgotten that scientists, too, have to start in the first grade – I introduced a bill to authorize federal assistance to states and local communities in financing public school construction. I do not believe that Congress can ignore or forget the classroom shortage. I do not believe that action should be deferred – because if it is, we shall be postponing the production of trained citizens of every occupation and status, as well as scientists, to justify the peace we are so desperately striving to preserve.

The second subject I want to mention is the problem of civil rights.

The one transcending observation one can make in this field today is that we appear to be living in a period of relatively swift and meaningful transition.

There has been so much progress in civil rights in the last twenty years that the documentation would be lengthy and involved. For example, the phrase "mixed divisions" has almost passed out of our vocabulary, the progress of integration in the Armed Services has proceeded so sharply and has had such generally good results.

Employment discrimination must be met today – not merely by basic laws and educational effort – but by uniform state laws to insure regional and national effort and by intensive striving for equal opportunity in the more complicated field of apprentice training by unions and industry.

In the end, it is my opinion that the orders of the Federal Courts and appropriate enforcement will undoubtedly change the pattern of the school system of the United States. At a time when the United States is desperately engaged in a competitive race for survival with the Soviet Union, it is most important that everyone in this country should have their talents developed to the maximum. Denial of equal opportunity penalizes us all.

What we must foresee and devise is the application of new techniques and new methods in all these fields involving human rights which will best accomplish a new set of objectives.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 900, "Freedom House, Roxbury, Massachusetts, 23 March 1958." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.