RFK Center - Defending Human Rights In This World
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Selected Quotes


It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live. (Address, China Conference, University of Chicago, February 8, 1967).

What matters about this country cannot be put into simple slogans; it is a process, a way of doing things and dealing with people... a way of life. There are two major ways to communicate what this country is really about: to bring people here, or to send Americans abroad. (Address, Sixth Annual West Side Community Conference, Columbia University, New York City, March 12, 1966).

In many ways Wall Street is closer to London than it is to Harlem, a few miles uptown; Scarsdale is often closer to Paris than to Selma, Alabama; and Americans in Appalachia are in many ways closer to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro than they are to society in which you and I live. (Address, Testimonial Dinner for Congressman John Dow, Sterling Forest, New York, May 2, 1965).

My faith is that Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising as a people to confront the hard challenges of our age-and that we know that the hardest challenges are often those within ourselves. My confidence is that, as we strive constantly to meet the exacting standard of our national tradition, we will liberate a moral energy within our nation which will transform America's role and America's influence throughout the world-and that upon this release of energy depends the world's hope for peace, freedom and justice everywhere. (Address, Joint Defense Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, Chicago, Illinois, June 21, 1961).

Time and time again the American people, facing danger and seemingly insurmountable odds, have mobilized the ingenuity, resourcefulness, strength, and bravery to meet the situation and triumph. In this long and critical struggle, the American system of free enterprise must be our major weapon. We must continue to prove to the world that we can provide a rising standard of living for all men without the loss of civil rights or human dignity to any man. (Speech, Chicago, August 1963).

The great challenge to all Americans--indeed to all free men and women--is to maintain loyalty to truth; to maintain loyalty to free institutions; to maintain loyalty to freedom as a basic human value, and above all else to keep in our hearts and minds the tolerance and mutual trust that have been the genius of American life throughout our history. (Speech, the National Conference of Christians and Jews Dinner, Cleveland, Ohio, December 3, 1961).


The challenge of politics and public service is to discover what is interfering with justice and dignity for the individual here and now, and then to decide swiftly upon the appropriate remedies. (Speech, Athens, Georgia, May 6, 1961).

On this generation of Americans falls the full burden of proving to the world that we really mean it when we say all men are created free and equal before the law. All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity. (Speech, Law Day Exercises of the University of Georgetown Law School, May 6, 1961).

It is not easy, in the middle of one's life or political career, to say that the old horizons are too limited, that our education must begin again. But neither are the challenges ahead easy. The best responses will not be easily found; nor once found, will they command unanimous agreement. But the possibilities of greatness are equal to the difficulty of the challenge. (Address, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Convention, Miami Beach, Florida, May 27, 1966).


The path of innovation is never easy. Change is always painful. But it is the only path with the promise of saving our cities, the only path with the potential of bringing forth the resources needed for the task ahead. In our central cities are millions of Americans who have too long been denied a share in the American dream. And the gap is widening. Therefore we must join together-the people of the neighborhood, government, private enterprise, foundations, and universities-in an effort of unprecedented scope. The future of our nation demands that. (Remarks, Model City Conference, Buffalo, New York, January 20, 1967).

In such a fantastic and dangerous world-we will not find answers in old dogmas, by repeating outworn slogans, or fighting on ancient battlegrounds against fading enemies long after the real struggle has moved on. We ourselves must change to master change. We must rethink al our told ideas and beliefs before they capture and destroy us. And for those answers America must look to its young people, the children of this time of change. And we look especially to that privileged minority of educated men who are students of America. (Speech, Worthington, Minnesota, September 17, 1966).

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic towards common problems and 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 in a personal commitment to the ideals an great enterprises of American society. It will belong to those who see that wisdom can only emerge from the clash of contending views, the passionate expression of deep and hostile beliefs. Plato said: "A life without criticism is not worth living." (Address, Berkeley Campus, University of California, October 22, 1966).

To say that the future will be different from the present and past may be hopelessly self-evident. I must observe regretfully, however, that in politics it can be heresy. It can be denounced as radicalism or branded as subversion. There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present and invoke the security of a comfortable past, which in fact, never existed. It hardly seems necessary to point out in the United States, of all places, that change, although it involves risk, is the law of life. (Speech, New York, May 20, 1964).

Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies. (Chicago, August, 1963).


The plight of the cities--the physical decay and human despair that pervades them--is the great internal; problem of the American nation, a challenge which must be met. The peculiar genius of America has been its ability, in the face of such challenges, to summon all our resources of mind and body, to focus these resources, and our attention and effort, in whatever amount is necessary to solve the deepest and most resistant problems. That is the commitment and the spirit required in our cities today. (remarks, Model City Conference, Buffalo, New York, January 20, 1967).

The city is not just housing and stores. It is not just education and employment, parks and theaters, banks and shops. It is a place where men should be able to live in dignity and security and harmony, where the great achievements of modern civilization and the ageless pleasures afforded by natural beauty should be available to all. If this is what we want-and this is what we must want if we are to be free for that "pursuit of happiness" which was the earliest promise of the American nation-we will need more than poverty programs, housing programs and employment programs, although we will need all of these. We will needs an outpouring of imagination, ingenuity, discipline, and hard work unmatched since the first adventures set out to conquer the wilderness, for the problem is the largest we have ever known, and we confront an urban wilderness more formidable and resistant and in some ways more frightening than the wilderness faced by the pilgrims or the pioneers. (Remarks before the Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization of the Committee on Government Operations of the United States Senate, August 15, 1966).


It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. (Address Day of Affirmation, University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966).


Democracy is no easy form of government. Few nations have been able to sustain it. For it requires that we take the chances of freedom; that the liberating play of reason be brought to bear on events filled with passion; that dissent be allowed to make its appeal for acceptance; that men chance in error in their search for the truth. (Statement on Vietnam, February 19, 1966).

We know full well the faults of our democracy, the handicaps of freedom, the inconvenience of dissent. But I know of no American who would not rather be a servant in the imperfect house of freedom, than be a master of all the empires of tyranny. (Address, the 120th Anniversary Dinner of B'nai B'rith, Chicago, October 13, 1963).


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 hatred 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 men. We dissent from the sight of most of 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 those structures--of technology and of society itself--which strip from the individual the dignity and warmth of sharing in the common tasks of his community and his country. (Address, Berkeley Campus, University of California, October 22, 1966).


Education is the key to jobs, to income, to human dignity itself...In the last analysis the quality of education is a question of commitment--of whether people like us are willing to go into the classrooms as teachers or parents, as volunteers, or just as concerned citizens, to ensure that every child learns to the full limit of his capabilities. (Speech, University of Alabama, March 18, 1966).

I suspect there may always be arguments about what constitutes a higher education, but wise men through the ages have at least been able to agree on its purpose. Its purpose is not only to discipline and instruct, but above all to free the mind--to free it from the darkness, the narrowness, the groundless fears and self-defeating passions of ignorance. You may sometimes regret it, for a free mind insists on seeking out reality, and reality is often a far more painful matter than the soft and comfortable illusions of the intellectually poor. (Speech, Commencement Exercises, Trinity College, Washington, D.C., June 2, 1963).


The free way of life proposes ends, but it does not prescribe means. It assumes that people, and nations will often think differently, have the full right to do so, and that diversity is the source of progress. It believes that men advance by discussion, by debate, by trial and by error. It believes that the best ideas come, not from edict and ideology, but from free inquiry and free experiment; and it regards dissent not as treason to the state, but as the tested mechanism of social progress. And it knows the diverse nations will find diverse roads to the general goal of political independence and economic growth. It regards the free individual as the source of creativity, and believes that it is the role of the state to serve him, and not his role to serve the state. (Speech, Chicago, August 1963)

It is the ideal of freedom which underlines our great concern for civil rights. Nations around the world look to us for leadership not merely by strength of arms, but by the strength of our convictions. We not only want, but we need, the free exercise of rights by every American. We need the strength and talent of every American. We need, in short, to set an example of freedom for the world-and for ourselves. (Address, American Jewish Congress, New York City, October 28, 1962).

We know that freedom has many dimensions. It is the right of the man who tills the land to own the land; the right of the workers to join together to seek better conditions of labor; the right of businessmen to use ingenuity and foresight to produce and distribute without arbitrary interference in a truly competitive economy. It is the right of government to protect the weak; it is the right of the weak to find in their courts fair treatment before the law. It is the right of all our citizens to engage without fear or constraint in the discussion and debate of the great issues which confront us all. We understand this regardless of the extent to which we may differ in our political views. We know that argument in the open is one of the sources of our national strength. (Address, Seattle World's Fair, August 7, 1962).


If our Constitution had followed the style of St. Paul, the First Amendment might have concluded, "But the greatest of these is speech." In the darkness of tyranny, that is the key to the sunlight. If it is granted, all doors open. If it is withheld, none. (Address, 10th Anniversary Convocation, Center for Study of Democratic Institutions of the Fund for the Republic, New York City, January 22, 1963).


It is not easy to plant trees when we will not live to see their flowering. But that way lies greatness. And in search of greatness we will find it--for ourselves as a nation and a people. (Address, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Convention, Miami Beach, Florida, May 27, 1966).


We must recognize the full human equality of all our people--before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous--although it is; not because the laws of God and man command it--although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do. (Address, Day of Affirmation, University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966).


The first element of individual liberty is the freedom of speech: the right to express and communicate ideas, to set oneself apart from the dumb beasts of field and forest; to recall governments to their duties and obligations; above all, the right to affirm one's membership and allegiance to the body politic--to society--to the men with whom we share our land, our heritage and our children's future. Hand in hand with freedom of speech goes the power to be heard, to share in the decisions of government which shape's men's lives. Everything that makes man's life worthwhile--family, work, education, a place to rear one's children and a place to rest one's head--all this depends on decisions of government; all can be swept away by a government which does not heed the demands of its people. Therefore, the essential humanity of men can be protected and preserved only where government must answer--not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, or a particular race, but to all its people. And even government by the consent of the governed, as in our own Constitution, must be limited in its power to act against its people so that there may be no interference with the right to worship, or with the security of the home; no arbitrary imposition of pains or penalties by officials high or low; no restriction on the freedom of men to seek education or work or opportunity of any kind, so that each man may become all he is capable of becoming. These are the sacred rights of Western society. These were the essential differences between us and Nazi Germany as they were between Athens and Persia. (Address, Day of Affirmation, University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966).


What is the price tag on equal justice under law? Has simple justice a price which we as a profession must exact? Helplessness does not stem from the absence of theoretical rights. It can stem from an inability to assert real rights. The tenants of slums, and public housing projects, the purchasers from disreputable finance companies, the minority group member who is discriminated against--all these may have legal rights which--if we are candid--remain in the limbo of the law. (Speech, University of Chicago Law School, Chicago, Illinois, May 1, 1964).

The ultimate relationship between justice and law will be an eternal subject for speculation and analysis. But it may be said that in a democratic society law is the form which free men give to justice. The glory of justice and the majesty of the law are created not just by the Constitution--nor by the courts--nor by the officers of the law--nor by the lawyers--but by the men and women who constitute our society-who are protectors of the law as they are themselves protected by the law. (Address, Law Day Ceremonies of the Virginia State Bar, Virginia, May 1, 1962).

Laws and speeches do not build schools. They do not put capable teachers in the schools. And they do not give children the food, the clothing, the books and the encouragement they need if they are to stay in the shiny new school we build. Laws by themselves will not make a land reform--if farmers do not also have access to credit and technical assistance and fertilizers. Laws and economic aid and reforms by themselves will not create jobs--unless someone is determined to use these economic resources to create the jobs. Laws by themselves will not insure farm workers the minimum wage--unless we act to insure that the laws are enforced. And all our economic, social, and material progress will be for nothing if we do not at the same time move toward increasing freedom, toward a society where all can freely speak and act to share in the decisions which shape their lives (Remarks, Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro, November 25, 1965).

Justice is land for those who live by farming--and all the world has seen that free farmers on their own land are the surest means to an abundant agriculture. Justice is a decent education for every child--and only with education for all is it possible to create a modern economy...(Statement before Peruvian Students, November, 1965).


Leadership in freedom depends on fidelity and persistence in those shaping beliefs-democracy, freedom, justice-which men follow not from the enslavement of their bodies but from the compulsion of their hearts. We must cope with real dangers, overcome real obstacles, meet real needs, but always in a way which preserves our own allegiance to the fundamental principles and promises of the American Constitution. Otherwise we will preserve the shadow of progress and security at the expense of the substance of freedom here in America and all around the world. (Speech, Columbus, Ohio, October 8, 1966, Democratic State Committee Dinner).


Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change...I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world. (Address Day of Affirmation, University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966).


It is not given to us to right every wrong, to make perfect all the imperfections of the world. But neither is it given to us to sit content in our storehouses--dieting while others starve, buying 8 million new cars a year while most of the world goes without shoes. We are simply not doing enough. (Senate Speech, July 21, 1966).

Let none of us forget that we are living in a time of infinite possibilities. Both domestically and in international relations, America has never before in history had a greater chance to fulfill the dreams of men through the ages--dreams of individual freedom, national prosperity, and world peace. (Speech, The American G.I. Forum, Chicago, Illinois, August 23, 1963).


Nations, like men, often march to the beat of different drummers, and the precise solutions of the United States can neither be dictated nor transplanted to others. What is important is that all nations must march toward increasing freedom; toward justice for all; toward a society strong and flexible enough to meet the demands of all its own people, and a world of immense and dizzying change. (Address, Day of Affirmation, University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966).


I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil. Government belongs wherever evil needs an adversary and there are people in distress who cannot help themselves. (Speech, Athens, Georgia, May 6, 1961)

There are children in the United States with bloated bellies and sores of disease on their bodies. ... There are children in the United States who eat so little that they fall asleep in school and do not learn. We must act, and we must act now. ... These are our responsibilities. If we cannot meet them, we must ask ourselves what kind of a country we really are; we must ask ourselves what we really stand for. We must act--and we must act now. (Speech, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, April 4, 1968)


It is the essence of responsibility to put the public good ahead of personal gain… (1963)


The responsibility of our time is nothing less than to lead a revolution--a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; humane if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough--but a revolution which will come whether we will it or not. We can affect its character: we cannot alter its inevitability...America is, after all, the land of becoming--a continent which will be in ferment as long as it is America, a land which will never cease to change and grow. We are as we act. We are the children and the heirs of revolutions and we fulfill our destiny only as we advance the struggle which began in Santa Fe in 1580, which continued in Philadelphia in 1776 and Caracas in 1811--and which continues today. (Statement Before Peruvian Students, 1965).


It should be clear that, if one man's rights are denied, the rights of all are in danger--that if one man is denied equal protection of the law, we cannot be sure that we will enjoy freedom of speech or any other of our fundamental rights. (Address, joint Defense Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rithh, Chicago, Illinois, June 21,1961).


All great questions must be raised by great voices, and the greatest voice is the voice of the people-speaking out-in prose, or painting or poetry or music; speaking out-in homes and halls, streets and farms, courts and cafes-let that voice speak and the stillness you hear will be the gratitude of mankind. (Address, 10th Anniversary Convocation Center for Study of Democratic Institutions of the Fund for the Republic, New York City, January 22, 1963).

More and more of our children are estranged, alienated in the literal sense, almost unreachable by the familiar premises and arguments of our adult world. And the task of leadership, the first task of concerned people, is not to condemn or castigate or deplore-it is to search out the reason for disillusionment and alienation, the rationale of protest and dissent--perhaps, indeed, to learn from it. And we will learn most, I think, from the minority who most sharply articulate their criticism of our ways. And we may find that we learn most of all from those political and social dissenters whose differences with us are most grave; for among the young as among adults, the sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country. (Address, Dinner, Americans for Democratic Action, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania February 24, 1967).

There is discrimination in New York, the racial inequality of apartheid in South Africa and serfdom in the mountains of Peru. People starve in the streets of India; a former Prime Minister is summarily executed in the Congo; intellectuals go to jail in Russia; thousands are slaughtered in Indonesia; wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils; but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, the defectiveness of our sensibility toward the sufferings of our fellow human beings at home and around the world. It is these qualities which make of youth today the only true international community. More than this I think that we could agree on what kind of world we want to build. It would be a world of independent nations, moving toward international community, each of which protected and respected basic human freedoms. It would be a world which demanded of each government that it accept its responsibility to insure social justice. It would be a world of constantly accelerating economic progress-not material welfare as an end in itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of each human being to pursue his talents and his hopes. It would, in short, be a world we would be proud to have built. (Address, Day of Affirmation, University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966).

Our answer is the world's hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress. This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, or the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. It is a revolutionary world we live in, and thus, as I have said in Latin America and Asia, in Europe and in the United States, it is young people who must take the lead. Thus you, and your young compatriots everywhere have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived. (Address, Day of Affirmation, University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966).


“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Robert F. Kennedy
Capetown, June 6th 1966