Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks to a Group of Civil Rights Leaders

April 29, 1964

Archbishop O'Boyle, Reverend Blake, Rabbi Miller, and Bishop Smith:

We are delighted to welcome you to this, your house, the first house in the first land of the world, because from the time of the ancient Hebrew prophets and the dispersal of the money , men of God have taught us that social problems are moral problems on a huge scale. They have demonstrated that a religion which did not struggle to remove oppression from the world of men would not be able to create the world of spirit. They have preached that the church should be the first to awake to individual suffering and the church should be the bravest in opposing all social wrongs.

This tradition is deeply imbedded in America's history. During the middle of the 19th century, men of God, men of all faiths, men of the North, men of the South, took to pulpits, to press, yes, even out into the public squares to demand an end to the moral evil of slavery. As a consequence, we took the chains off the slaves.

Many who followed this path suffered for it. Many were then condemned by their congregation. Many were deprived of their positions. Churches were burned and physical violence was often the reward of those who in that time spoke freely and provided leadership. But long ago their efforts were a significant force in not only ending slavery in this country, but in reshaping our society. By their actions they not only restored dignity and hope to millions of Americans, they immeasurably elevated and strengthened the churches which they served.

Today, as we meet here a century later, we are faced with and we are given another great opportunity. Today, as we meet here, again the problem of racial wrongs and racial hatreds is the central moral problem of this Republic. Today, as we meet here in the first house of the land, again hostility and misunderstanding and even violence awaits the man who attempts to translate the meaning of God's love into the actions and the thoughts of this world and this time.

Today, again the hope for happiness of millions of Negro Americans is going to be profoundly affected by your efforts. And today, again, religion has one of those rare, historical opportunities to renew its own purpose, to enhance the dignity of its own social role, to strengthen its institutions, and its heritage.

Our most immediate need is to pass the civil rights bill now before the Congress. A hundred years ago Lincoln freed the slaves of their chains, but he did not free the country of its bigotry. A hundred years ago Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but until education is unaware of race, until employment is blind to color, emancipation will be a proclamation, but it will not be a fact.

This bill is intended to help our communities find peaceful solutions to problems of human relations. Many of these communities have asked for the provisions in this bill so that the same standards can be applied to all businesses serving the public, and so the taxpayers can be given assurance that public funds will be administered equitably.

None of the provisions in this bill would create preferential treatment for one race or another. This would be a direct violation of the bill itself.

None of these provisions would interfere with the rights of businessmen to set up their own standards for the dress, for the conduct, and for the qualifications of their patrons and their employees.

Thirty States and numerous cities already have varying public accommodation statutes and ordinances. These cover nearly two-thirds of the country's population, and business establishments in these States are still flourishing.

All that this bill will do is to see to it that service and employment will not be refused to individuals because of their race or their religion or where their ancestors were born. This bill is going to pass if it takes us all summer, and this bill is going to be signed and enacted into law because justice and morality demand it.

But laws and government are, at best, coarse instruments for remolding social institutions or illuminating the dark places of the human heart. They can deal only with the broadest and the most obvious problems, constantly guarding against segregation in schools but not against the thousands of incidents of discrimination and hatred which give the lie to what is learned there in the schoolroom.

They can call for the highest standards of moral conduct, but those standards are only tortuously imposed on a community which does not accept them, for laws do not create moral convictions. Those convictions must come from within the people themselves, and it is your job, as men of God, to reawaken the conscience of your beloved land, the United States of America.

It is your job as prophets in our time to direct the immense power of religion in shaping the conduct and the thoughts of men toward their brothers in a manner consistent with compassion and love. So help us in this hour. Help us to see and do what must be done. Inspire us with renewed faith. Stir our consciences. Strengthen our will. Inspire and challenge us to put our principles into action.

For the future of our faith is at stake, and the future of this Nation is at stake.

As the Old Testament pleads, "Let there be no strife, I pray, between you and me, and between my herdmen and your herdmen, because we are brothers." So do we plead today.

Yes, we are all brothers, and brothers together must build this great Nation into a great family, so that a hundred years from now in this house every man and woman present today will have their name pointed to with pride because in the hour of our greatest trial, we were willing to answer the roll and to stand up and be counted for morality and right.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 1 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. His opening words referred to the Most Reverend Patrick A. O'Boyle, Archbishop of Washington and chairman of the Interreligious Committee on Racial Relations, the Reverend Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and the Reverend B. Julian Smith, Bishop of the First Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches, and Rabbi Uri Miller, president of the Synagogue Council of America.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks to a Group of Civil Rights Leaders Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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