John F. Kennedy photo

Address in Honolulu Before the United States Conference of Mayors.

June 09, 1963

Mayor Lee, Mayor Blaisdell, distinguished guests, Governor Burns, Members of the Congress, the Senate and the House, ladies and gentlemen: Aloha.

I want to express appreciation to all of you for being generous enough to commence this meeting, in a sense, a day early and giving me an opportunity to say a few words to you.

I have come a good many thousands of miles because I thought that this represented the best opportunity for me to talk to some of my fellow executives who bear great responsibilities, as do those of us who work in Washington, for the welfare of our country, the welfare of our States, and the welfare of our communities. I talk to you today not only as President of the United States, but also as a citizen of the District of Columbia, where the President bears some of the responsibilities which are ordinarily borne by a mayor in other parts of the country.

I am here, in short, to discuss with you a problem which is not local, but national, not northern or southern, eastern or western, but a national problem, a national challenge, a problem and challenge, and responsibility, and opportunity which will be before us all in the coming months and, indeed, in the coming years. And I am talking about the problem of race relations, the relations of one American to another, wherever he may live and wherever he may work.

I would ask that any mayor who believes that there is no problem in his city to talk to those who once believed the same, and then look at his own unemployment, his own juvenile delinquency, his own school dropouts, his own housing, his own community problems.

Federal action, including additional Federal legislation, can help. And I think State action can help. But in the last analysis, what happens in Birmingham, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or Atlanta depends in large measure upon the leadership of those communities. We will back you up, we will work with you in every way possible, but the mayor of every metropolitan city, in every section of America, must be aware of the difficult challenges he now faces and will face in the coming months.

I am asking you, in short, to be alert, not alarmed. The demonstrations of unrest in Birmingham, in Boston, in Jackson, in Greensboro, Nashville, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and elsewhere can be expected in many other cities in the next few months, North and South. Students will be out of college and out of high school. Large numbers of Negroes will be out of work. The events in Birmingham have stepped up the tempo of the nationwide drive for full equality-and rising summer temperatures are often accompanied by rising human emotions.

The Federal Government does not control these demonstrations. It neither starts them, directs them, nor stops them. What we can do is seek through legislation and Executive action to provide peaceful remedies for the grievances which set them off, to give all Americans, in short, a fair chance for an equal life. I would hope that every mayor here would recognize the assistance they would be provided by those legislative proposals which would help move these disputes off the streets and into the courts, erase all doubts as to the validity of conflicting legal documents, doctrines, and arguments, require all merchants in all cities at the same time to take the same action, so that none will hang back for fear of being first, or being penalized for moving out in advance of his competitors and, finally, to meet the rising tide of discontent with nationwide, appropriate action, without waiting for city-by-city or store-by-store or case-by-case solutions.

Such legislation is, therefore, in your interest, and I hope will have your support. But the final responsibility both now and after such legislation is enacted will rest with you, as mayors on the local level.

The problem is growing. The challenge is there. The cause is just. The question is whether you and I will do nothing, thereby inviting pressure and increasing tension, and inviting possible violence, or whether you will anticipate these problems and move to fulfill the rights of your Negro citizens in a peaceful and constructive manner. I ask that you act with wisdom and foresight in these matters, not merely to maintain the luster of American ideals, not merely for the peace of our country, but for the good of your own community.

The financial history of those communities which have been beset with racial disturbances shows that they attract less capital and less business. As a Birmingham businessman said, after investment in new plant and expansion had declined some 80 percent in a few years: "We've become known as a city of reaction, rebellion, and riot--and because of that we're not gaining industry as fast as we should."

It is not enough to say that there are difficult problems in every section of the country. The Vice President and I have been impressed in the past few years, and especially in the past few weeks, by how much can be done by those determined to get something done. We have met with employers who were pleasantly surprised to find how peacefully their hiring practices could be integrated. We met last week with merchants from all sections of the United States, from every major city who had, without delay or difficulty in some cases, desegregated their public accommodations, including lunch counters, hotels, and theaters. We shall be having more meetings in the next few days with labor and religious leaders, with Government and business leaders.

It is clear to me that the time for token moves and talk is past, if we are going to meet this problem and master it, that these rights are going to be won, and that it is our responsibility, yours and mine, to see that they are won in a peaceful and constructive way, and not won in the streets.

I would suggest, therefore, at least five areas where you can take important action. First, every city can and should establish, preferably through official action by the mayor or the governing body, and I know that a good many of you, in fact most of you, have already done this, to establish a biracial human relations committee.

I hear frequently talk that some of the difficulty in some of the communities is caused by outsiders. Well, this is one country. People can move from one city to another, especially those with strong convictions, and I think that the best way to meet the problem, if this is what disturbs you, is to establish communication within the community itself, to make sure that there is understanding among all groups, what it is they want, what it is they need, what it is they feel they are entitled to, and then I feel that we can solve it on a local level and not so much by discord and tension; in other words, to identify community tensions before the crisis stage is reached, to improve cooperation and communication between the races with the responsible leadership on both sides, to advise local officials and merchants and organizations as to what steps they can take and what problems they will face to insure prompt progress.

Second, every local government can and should make sure that its own ordinances and practices are in accordance with constitutional law. The Supreme Court has made it clear beyond dispute that no local ordinance requiring segregation is constitutional, whether it applies to schools, zoning, restaurants, or places of amusement, either privately or publicly owned, nor can segregation be required without ordinance at a municipal golf course, playground, swimming pool, or other city-owned facilities. In short, every instance or institution of segregation sanctioned by local legislation or public action is clearly invalid, and you should move to abolish it.

There will be a difficult period of transition for some, but, and I quote the Court 2 weeks ago, "The basic guarantees of our Constitution are warrants for the here and now; not merely hopes for some future enjoyment."

Third, every local government can and should follow nondiscriminatory practices in the employment and promotion of its municipal workers. No group of taxpayers or voters should be excluded from the payrolls of your police, fire, school, and other departments. No city government can expect to understand the views of its Negro citizens and no Negro community can be expected to look favorably upon the city government unless men and women of all races are employed at all levels, supervisory as well as custodial, in all parts of that government.

Fourth, every local government can and should enact equal opportunity ordinances to spell out the civil rights of those who live in that community, ordinances on equal employment and opportunity, and housing, and equal access to public accommodations. Such measures are not the exclusive concern of the Federal Government. On the contrary, where local leaders have assumed this responsibility, and we can point in the last 12 months to community after community in the South which has done this, with astonishingly successful results, there has been remarkably little difficulty with racial problems. Where local governments have abdicated this responsibility and left it to the Federal Government, there has been far too much difficulty.

Fifth, and I think this may prove to be, in time, the most important thing we can all do, and every city can do this immediately, I urge each of you personally to undertake a special campaign this summer in your own community to lessen unemployment among the unskilled of both races by reducing school dropouts. I must say we are going to be faced in this country in the next 10 years with one of the most serious problems in our history, and that is the millions of young boys and girls who are coming onto the labor market, who have dropped out of school, who are unskilled at a very time when the number of jobs suitable for unskilled labor is sharply diminishing because of automation. This problem is our most serious problem that we face in the area of unemployment. What possible skill can a boy or girl who has been in school 5, 6, 7, or 8 years bring to the labor market? We need millions of people who are well trained, high schools, junior colleges, and colleges, but we don't need those who have been to school for only a short time, and it is a regrettable fact that in some States over 40 percent of the nonwhite population have been to school for 5 years or 6 years. And they don't stay in one city or State, but they move through the country, and they constitute a hard core of unemployment which is going to cause us increasing difficulty in the years ahead.

If all of you in all sections of the country can make a major drive this summer to see if we can get back all the boys and girls who are eligible for school into our schools in September, and keep them there, they are going to be able to contribute a good deal more as citizens, and what is more, an uneducated parent makes an uneducated child. There is nothing more wasteful than to lose the opportunity to educate a boy or girl. He then is in the labor market for 30 or 40 years, frequently on relief, frequently in trouble, frequently living in a depressed section of your community, costing this country millions of dollars in the final analysis--when they could be profitable, responsible, and respected citizens--and bringing up children themselves who are also uneducated. And so it follows generation after generation, and we never catch up. So I would hope that we could make a national drive this summer to meet this problem of school dropouts.

I hope you tell them that their chances for steady employment depend upon their staying in school. Tell them that unemployment among those between 16 and 21 is already 1 million, and there is going to be more on the way, for, as I say, the number of young job seekers grows as the demand for unskilled labor decreases.

I have not proposed to you any step that the Federal Government is unwilling to take in its own area of jurisdiction. We have undertaken to eliminate segregation and discrimination in Federal employment, in federally financed housing and construction, in Federal recreation areas, in our cafeterias, and other facilities. The proportion of Negroes holding Federal jobs is much too low. We have been going through our figures in recent weeks; it is much too low. The proportion of those working in responsible jobs among those holding Government contracts is much too low. It shows that passing a law is not enough.

Today it is unlawful for any manufacturer who holds a Government contract to practice discrimination, and yet the percentage of Negroes who hold white-collar jobs on those contracts which are covered by the National Government is a fraction of their percentage of the population.

In other words, even though we have had in the last 2 1/2 years 1700 complaints from Negroes who say they are being discriminated against and 70 percent of those have been solved in favor of the applicant, nevertheless, that doesn't do the job at all. It requires a concentrated effort by the employer, by the union, by the National Government, the Governors, and the States to bring along and make possible the hiring of these boys and girls, these men and women who in many cases have been culturally deprived, and who, therefore, do not compete as well as they should and, therefore, are left behind.

This is a problem which is going to be important for us all, and the very fact that the law covers them has not done the job at all in this area. We are going to have to do much better. And it does indicate that the mere passage of legislation is not the answer to our problem. We aim to change this as quickly as possible, and nationwide. As a matter of fact, in the past 2 1/2 years we have increased by a third in the Federal Government the number of Negroes who are holding jobs in the higher grades, and still it is below what it should be.

We have supported equal rights in the courts and in the Congress and will shortly prepare further steps.

Your responsibilities, of course, are more localized, but we also in Washington are responsible for a city--the District of Columbia. The fact of the matter is there are more Negroes in the District of Columbia than almost any city in the United States. There is no southern mayor who can say "this is a problem we understand that you do not understand," because in Washington, D.C., nearly 54 percent of the population is Negro. Much has been written about crime and race relations in Washington, and much of it is untrue, but we are concerned about the District problem. This is a problem that we face, and that is why I do not come here today suggesting that one section of the country has any right to point the finger at any other section of the country. This is a problem for us in Washington--north and south, east and west.

We are concerned about our problems and we are trying to do something about them. All places of public accommodation in the Nation's Capital have been opened, and very little difficulty has come from it, to customers of all races. Equal employment is the policy of the District Government as it is of the Federal Government. There is no racial bar to any public school in Washington.

The District Commissioners have announced their intention to enact a fair housing ordinance if the Congress does not. We are actively intervening to open up more jobs, and jobs are perhaps the key to all of these problems. We are opening up more jobs particularly in the building trades unions. And we have urged the Congress to provide home rule for the District so that all of our citizens can participate more effectively and responsibly in the burdens of government.

Moreover, by striving to improve the quality of life for all of our residents, Negro and white alike, we are helping to ease the economic and other pressures which would otherwise increase tensions. We are prepared to work with you on similar Federal local programs--to improve public welfare, to root out juvenile delinquency, to eradicate urban blight, to increase youth employment, to assist urban mass transit, to promote mental health.

The United States of America has 3 percent of its children mentally retarded. Sweden has 1 percent. That is what we pay for in slums and in secondary living, and it is concentrated in many cases--the mental retardation--among the minority groups.

We want to provide more recreation and health facilities and to war on organized crime.

These measures, some of which are barely underway, I think, can prove effective in the District of Columbia. I know on a nationwide basis they have for the most part been supported by this conference.

The elevation of all these urban redevelopment problems, I believe, can be most effectively maintained by the creation of a new Cabinet post to concern ourselves with life in the cities, which is already long overdue.

In conclusion, my fellow chief executives, may I say this: The improvement of race relations and the fulfillment of human rights is a continuing problem and continuing challenge. I do not propose to limit our mutual concern to one brief address. I hope to meet with many of you in the White House in the near future. I must say I was impressed by the willingness of so many mayors to move ahead in this area. Yesterday I read where Mayor David Schenck of Greensboro--and this is a story in the New York Times--appealed to all of the businessmen of the community in North Carolina and said, "I say to you who own and operate places of public accommodation in the city, the hotels, motels and restaurants, that now is the time to throw aside the shackles of past customs. Selection of customers purely by race is outdated, morally unjust, and not in keeping with either democratic or Christian philosophy." So spoke the Mayor of Greensboro, N.C. and I think it is good advice for all of us.

Justice cannot wait for too many meetings. It cannot wait for the action of the Congress or the courts. We face a moment of moral and constitutional crisis, and men of generosity and vision must make themselves heard in every section of this country. I do not say that all men are equal in their ability, their character, or their motivation, but I say they should be equal in their chance to develop their character, their motivation, and their ability. They should be given a fair chance to develop all the talents that they have, which is a basic assumption and presumption of this democracy of ours.

On your return from this conference, you can set an example in your communities to which the timid can rally and which those clinging to the past cannot ignore. I ask you to join with me, as a fellow American, as a responsible citizen, as one who occupies a position of responsibility, as one who must, in the final analysis solve these problems which cannot be solved in Washington; to recognize the rights of all Americans in guiding along constructive channels, in working along in constructive ways as a free society must to attain a peaceful revolution which will not only avoid disaster, but, much more importantly, fulfill our highest obligations.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke in the Lawn House at the Hawaiian Village Hotel in Honolulu. In his opening words he referred to Mayor Richard C. Lee of New Haven, Conn., presiding officer; Mayor Neil S. Blaisdell of Honolulu; and Governor John A. Burns of Hawaii.

John F. Kennedy, Address in Honolulu Before the United States Conference of Mayors. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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