The following is a transcript of Elle Simmons’ January 20, 2014 reading of Robert Kennedy’s A Speech on Race, as part of Amalia Pica’s Now, Speak! installation. Elle Simmons is a member of the Museum’s Teen Arts Council.
ELLIE SIMMONS: I come here today because I had heard this place was a place whose name represents a belief in old traditions and values, a hatred of unnecessary ferment and agitation, a respect for morality and religion, admiration for traditional forms of education, and the tribute of Yale and Harvard. I am glad of Berkeley. And I am glad to be here with you for I am sympathetic. And I welcome the passionate concern with the condition and future of the American nation, which can be found on this campus.
The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems in their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason, and courage and a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of the American nation. It will belong to those who see that wisdom can only emerge from the clash of contending views, the passionate expression of deep hostile beliefs.
Plato said, a life without criticism is not worth living. This is the seminal spirit of the American democracy. It is this spirit which can be found among many of you. It is this which is the hope of our nation.
For it is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it. For there is much to dissent from.
We dissent from the fact that millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich. We dissent from the conditions and hatreds which deny a full life to our fellow citizens because of the color of their skin. We dissent from the monstrous absurdity of a world where nations stand poised to destroy one another and men must kill their fellow man. We dissent from the sight of most mankind living in poverty, stricken by disease, threatened by hunger, and doomed to an early death after a life of unremitting labor.
We dissent from cities which blunt our senses and turn the ordinary acts of daily life into a painful struggle. We dissent from the willful, heedless destruction of natural pleasure and beauty. We dissent from all of the structures of technology and of society itself which strip from the individual the dignity and the warmth of sharing in the common task of his community and his country.
These are among the objects of our dissent. Yet we must, as thinking men, distinguish between the right of dissent and the way we choose to exercise that right. It is not enough to justify or explain our actions by the fact that they are legal or constitutionally protected. The Constitution protects wisdom and ignorance, compassion and selflessness alike.
But that dissent which consists simply of sporadic and dramatic acts sustained by neither continuing labor or research, that dissent which seeks to demolish while lacking both the desire and direction for rebuilding, that dissent which contemptuously or out of laziness casts aside the practical weapons and instruments of change and progress, that kind of dissent is merely self-indulgence and is satisfying perhaps to those who make it. But it will not solve the problems of our society. It will not assist those seriously engaged in the difficult and frustrating work of our nation. And when it is all over, it will have not brightened or enriched the life of a single human being or portion of humanity in the globe.
All of us have the right to dissipate our energies and talents as we desire. But those who are serious about the future have the obligation to direct those energies and talents toward concrete objectives consistent with the ideals they profess. Devoted and intelligent men have worked for generations to improve the well-being of the American people, diminish poverty and injustice, and protect freedom. Yet even as we honor their accomplishments, we know that our own problems will not yield to the ideas and programs on which past achievement has been built.
Ideas are often more confining, more difficult to discard in their successes than in their failure. Yet we must now cast aside many tested concepts in the face of challenges whose nature and dimension are more complex and towering than any before for we must look to your generation, a generation which feels most intensely the agony and bewilderment of the modern age and which is not bound to old ways of thought.
The great challenge before us is what you have gathered to consider, the revolution within our gates, the struggle of Negro Americans for full equality and freedom. That revolution has now entered a new stage, one that is at once more hopeful and more difficult, more important, and more painful. It is the effort to enforce newly won rights and give them content. It is to give every Negro the same opportunity as every White man to educate his children, provide for his family, live in a decent home, and win human acceptance as well as economic achievement in a society of his fellows. And it is to do all this in the face of the ominous growth of renewed hostility among the races.
This will not be achieved by law or a lawsuit, by a single program, or in a single year. It means overcoming the scarred heritage of centuries of oppression, poor education, and the many obstacles to fruitful employment. It means dissolving ghettos, the physical ghettos of our big cities and those ghettos of the mind which separate White from Black with hatred and ignorance, fear and mistrust. It means a revolution which is spread from the deep South to the cities of the North to every place, in fact, where Black Americans seek to leap the gulf dividing them from the city of promise.
Some among us say the Negro has made great progress, which is true, and that he should be satisfied and patient, which is neither true nor realistic. In the past 20 years, we have witnessed a revolution of rising expectations in almost every continent. That revolution has spread to the Negro nation confined within our own.
Men without hope, resigned to despair and oppression, do not make revolutions. It is when expectation replaces submission, when despair is touched with the awareness of possibility, that the forces of human desire and the passion of justice are unloosed.
Occasionally, broken hope and a deeply felt futility erupt in violence and extreme statements and doctrines. If we deny a man his place in the larger community, then he may turn inward to find his manhood and identity, rejecting those who he has felt rejected him. Therefore, far more impressive than the violence of a few is the fact that the overwhelming majority of American Negroes retain their faith in the goodwill of the nation and the possibilities of peaceful progress within the ordered framework of American politics and life.
But if any man claims that the Negro should be content or satisfied, let him say he would willingly change the color of his skin and go live in the Negro section of a large city. Then and only then has he a right to such acclaim. Yet, however much the condition of most Negroes must call forth compassion, the violence of a few demand condemnation and action.
In the streets of many cities in recent months, we have seen riots and looting, even occasional murder. Still far more disturbing than the chaotic self-destructive violence of Watts or Oakland are the statements of a very few Negro spokesman, those who have called for hatred to fight prejudice, racism to meet racism, violence to destroy oppression. Here is the seat of tragedy for Black and White alike.
To understand the causes is not to permit the result. No man has the right to wantonly menace the safety and well-being of his neighbors. All citizens have the right to security in the streets of their community in Birmingham or in Los Angeles.
I know many of you understand the terrible frustration, the feeling of hopelessness, the passion for betterment which, denied to others, has turned to violence and hate. Some have turned to violence. And the question many Negros surely ask themselves, the question many of you surely ask yourselves, is, why not? Why not turn to violence?
But the course of violence will be terribly wrong, not just because hatred and violence are self-defeating, though they are self-defeating for they strike at the very heart of process and cooperation. We must oppose violence not just because of what violence does to the possibility of cooperation between Whites and Blacks, not just because it hampers the passage of civil rights bills or poverty legislation or open occupancy laws. The central disease of violence is what it does to us all, to those who engage in it as to those who are its victims.
Cruelty and wanton violence may temporarily relieve a feeling of frustration, a sense of impotence. But the damage of those who perpetrate it, these are the negation of reason and the antithesis of humanity. And they are the besetting sins of the 20th century.
Surely the world has enough in the last 40 years of violence and hatred. Surely we have seen enough of the attempt to justify present injustice by past slights or punish the unjust by making the world more unjust. We know now that the color of an executioner’s robe matters little. And we know in our hearts, even through times of passion and discontent, that to add to the quantity of violence in this country is to burden our own lives and mortgage our children’s souls and the best possibilities of the American future.
In recent months, we have seen comment on what some have called, the backlash. Opposition to violence and riots and irresponsible action is the justified feeling of most Americans, White and Black. But that backslash, which masks hostility to the complete fulfillment of equal opportunity, that is wrong, shameful, immoral, and self-defeating. Any leader who seeks to exploit this feeling for the momentary advantage of office fails his duty to the people of this country.
It would be a national disaster to permit resentment or fear at the actions of a few, to drive increasing numbers of White and Black Americans into opposing camps of distrust and enmity. Understandable alarm at sporadic turbulence and irresponsibility cannot be allowed to create new barriers of oppression, revival of hatreds, or cause us to falter for a single moment in our drive toward the day when the truths we held to be self-evident areas clear to Black Americans as to Whites.
Some say that in the last analysis, after all, we need not fear injustice, that if our great common purpose divides into conflict and contests, the Whites will win. In one sense, that is true. But it would be a Pyrrhic victory. The cost would be decades of agony and strife, the sacrifice of our ideal liberty, and ultimately the loss of the soul of our nation.
We understand the apprehension of those White Americans who feel threatened in their persons or their property. Yet they are only being asked to permit others what they demand for themselves, an equal chance to share in the American life. The whole experience of our nation shows that each minority, as they emerged, those who came before feared damage to their own way of life and that each time they were wrong. The achievements of each group enlarged the prospects of us all. In President Kennedy’s words, the rising tide lifts all boats. That will be our experience with the Negro too.
Moreover, we must all understand that the problem will not go away. The 20 million Negro Americans are reality. The slums and ghettos, unemployment, and the denial of education are all realities. Prejudice, discrimination, and segregation are all realities as are frustrated expectations and disappointed hopes. Most importantly, the awareness of injustice and the passion to end it are inescapable realities.
No force in the world can wish these facts out of existence or abolish them. Thus, we only have one choice. Wean face our difficulties and strive to overcome them. Or we can turn away, bringing repression and leaving problem of far more terrifying and grievous dimensions to our children. Anyone who promises another course, who pledges a solution without cost or effort or difficulty, is diluting both themselves and the people to whom he speaks.
We must continue to enforce the command of the Constitution against racial discrimination and the many laws passed to carry out that command. We can never move too fast by giving men the liberty they were guaranteed a century ago. And as new laws are needed to combat unequal treatment, they too must be passed.
Even if we do all this and much more, if we act on an unprecedented scale, progress will still be slow. It is trues Jefferson wrote that, the generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it. The problem of giving content to equality is deeply embedded in the structure of American life. It cannot be swept away with a single blow. Yet we can create the steady concrete and visible achievements which would justify and sustain the expectation that each year will bring greater opportunity than the last. And we can support and nourish the faith of Negro Americans that their country recognizes the justice of their cause and the urgency of their needs.
This is one of the many crossroads at which American life now stands. In the world and at home, you have the opportunity and responsibility to help make choices which will determine the greatness of the nation. You are a generation which is coming of age at one of the rarest moments in history, a time when all around us the old order of things is crumbling and a new world society is painfully struggling to take shape. If you shrink from this struggle and these many difficulties, you will betray the trust which your own position forces upon you.
You live in one of the most privileged nations on Earth. You are some of the most privileged citizens of that privileged nation for you have been given the opportunity to study and learn, to take your place among the tiny minority of the world’s educated men. By coming to this school, you have been lifted onto a tiny sunlit island while all around you lie an ocean of human misery, injustice, violence, and fear.
You can use your enormous privilege and opportunity to seek purely private pleasure and gain. But history will judge you. And as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself on the extent to which you’ve used your gifts to lighten and enrich the lives of your fellow man. In your hands, not with the president’s or leaders, is the future of your world and the fulfillment to the best qualities of your own spirit.
[APPLAUSE AND CHEERS]