On April 3, 1962, President Johnson, then Vice President of the United States, was presented with the 1962 Stephen Wise Award by the Maryland Chapter of the American Jewish Congress for his fight against discrimination and bigotry. In accepting the award, Mr. Johnson delivered the following speech in which he defined his credo as an American.
I accept this honour with a reluctance that goes way beyond modesty. I remember so well the remark made to me many years ago by a wise old Texan. “Young man,” he said, “just remember that how many awards and honours you have isn’t the real sign of greatness. It’s how many you deserve.” I can’t think of any honour I’ve ever wanted to deserve more than this one. I cherish the very thought that I have contributed in some measure to spreading liberty and opportunity to more of our citizens.
I accept this honour in good conscience only because I view it as a token of appreciation and encouragement to those Americans, including members of the American Jewish Congress, who have worked so long to make the American dream a thing of life. But I could never view this plaque as a tribute to me alone. You see, I got my “reward” for my efforts against discrimination long before tonight. My reward has been an increased understanding and appreciation of what my country stands for and must be. My “profit” has been a sharper awareness of what it is we offer when we Americans speak to the world.
In the last several months I have been in many countries on several continents. I have seen many faces in that great mass of mankind which is caught up in turbulent change. I have seen people who most of all need hope. I have seen people who are yearning to be free. I have seen people who are struggling to break the bonds of poverty, illness, and illiteracy.
You cannot work for long with the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity without achieving a better understanding of the forces that are most powerful among these people in far distant lands. After all, the goal of our Human Rights organizations is to provide for our own citizens the hope and freedom that we hold forth as a goal to these masses in other lands.
Why should our Government be so concerned about racial Injustice?
There are some hard, practical considerations that none of us can overlook: Our country and the whole free world is confronted with an immense challenge. It is a challenge that stretches from the rice paddies of Vietnam to the rain forests of Africa to the steamy villages of Latin America. To meet that challenge in triumph, we shall need every resource this nation can muster. We shall need the intellectual genius, Moralstrength, politicalastuteness, oratorical skill, mechanical know-how – all these and many things more we shall need.
We must remember, as Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, that “Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinarypeople.” Whatever may be offered by a lad trapped in the slums of Harlem, or a youngster isolated on an Indian reservation, or a boy struggling along on a Midwestern farm – whatever each can offer the nation must receive.
One of the most moving tributes to Democracy and human freedom that I ever read was the statement by Chaplain Roland B. Gottelsohn a few years ago when he dedicated the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. He said:
Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now a man who was destined to be a great prophet … Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor … Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews … Here no man prefers another because of his faith, or despises him because of his colour. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Theirs is the highest and the purest Democracy.
That is a statement which reflects brilliantly the principles of Morality, of Religion, of respect for humanworth, on which this nation was founded. Each generation is obligated to expand their impact, to make them more meaningful to more people.
You and I know what the obstacles are. John Stuart Mill once wrote that, “The Despotism of custom is everywhere a standing hindrance to human advancement.” We see the painful truth of this as we observe efforts to erase from our society the blot of racial and religious discrimination. And I say this with no holier-than-thou attitude. We all have been influenced by the ideas, the assumptions, the likes, the dislikes, of our fathers and grandfathers. Each of us is to some degree a victim of our environments. What we must do is free ourselves, and help to free each other, from the ignorance, the outmoded notions that are incompatible with a free society in an age of nuclear weapons and space vehicles.
I am not prepared to accept the notion that racial or religious hatred and conflict are inevitable any more than our forefathers were prepared to accept muddy roads and horses and buggies as an inevitable part of life. We must have confidence that we can make ours a society in which men and women of all races, Religions and backgrounds can live under conditions of mutual respect and of true equality of opportunity. I believe that we can.
I came to Washington from Texas some 30 years ago. I remember that Washing was like then. I remember how difficult it was for a Negro to get a Governmentjob of any importance or prestige. We have come a long way in those 30 years.
I got a sharp, personal reminder of what has been happening in this country recently when I went to San Antonio to urge the people to elect Henry B. Gonzalez to Congress. We made whistle stops all over town. Late in the day we stopped near a big supermarket. I was given an eloquent introduction by a Negro who has been a friend for many years. Then I got up and delivered what I hoped was a good speech. As the meeting broke up a middle-aged Negro gentleman stepped up to the pick-up truck on which I stood and said:
Mr. Vice President, I was born two blocks from this spot. And I’ve lived here all of a long life. But let me tell you that never in the wildest night did I dream that I’d live long enough to have a white Texan Vice President of the United States come to this corner, be introduced by a Negro, and get up and appeal to the people to vote for a man named Gonzalez.
That was a sharply touching moment for me, because until that remark was made I was completely unaware of what really had taken place, or of how much it signified in the way of change. Yes, there’s been a lot of change in the last 30 years. But there’s room for a lot more. I pledge to you on behalf of the President that we’re going to produce more progress in the first four Kennedy years than the country made in all those 30.
I am against bigotry and discrimination because I think they are Wrong. I am for humanunderstanding, or equal Justice, for equality of opportunity because I think they are right.
May this country always be the kind where a man needs, and the people demand, no great explanation than this.