Targeting people for the colour of their skin, unfortunately, continues to this day, whether it is racist attacks seen in the UK following the referendum, black victims of police brutality in the US, or violence against refugees in continental Europe. But things can change for the better.
In 1963, the US National Guard had to be sent to protect two African American students Vivian Malone and James Hood as they enrolled at the University of Alabama. The Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked their path and their lives had been threatened. Following this, the US President of the time, John F. Kennedy, gave a speech on civil rights where he first proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Martin Luther King, Jr. later called the proposals ‘the most sweeping and forthright ever presented by an American president’.” Seven months after Kennedy was assassinated the Act became law. It abolished discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and federally funded programs. It fundamentally changed the lives of discriminated people. Here are some of the highlights of the speech:
“ The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the Nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.”
“ We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?”
“ It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.
Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”
This speech along with JFK’s on world peace are two of the most powerful and transformative speeches given in modern times. It shows that change is possible.