John F. Kennedy photo

Remarks Recorded for the Ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Commemorating the Centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation

September 22, 1962

I take great pleasure in greeting you on this centennial commemoration of one of the most solemn moments in American history. One hundred years ago today Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He thereby began the process which brought a final end to the evil of human slavery, which wiped out from our Nation what John Quincy Adams called the great stain upon the North American Union. But the Emancipation Proclamation was not an end. It was a beginning. The century since has seen the struggle to convert freedom from rhetoric to reality. It has been in many respects a somber story. For many years progress towards the realization of equal rights was very slow. A structure of segregation divided the Negro from his fellow American citizen. He was denied equal opportunity in education and employment. In many places he could not vote. For a long time he was exposed to violence and to terror. These were bitter years of humiliation and deprivation.

Looking back at this period, one must observe two remarkable facts. The first is that despite humiliation and deprivation, the Negro retained his loyalty to the United States and to democratic institutions. He showed this loyalty by brave service in two world wars, by the rejection of extreme or violent policies, by a quiet and proud determination to work for long-denied rights within the framework of the American Constitution.

The second is that despite humiliation and deprivation the Negro has never stopped working for his own salvation. There is no more impressive chapter in our history than the one in which our Negro fellow citizens sought better education for themselves and their children, built better schools and better houses, carved out their own economic opportunities, enlarged their press, fostered their arts, and clarified and strengthened their purpose as a people.

In doing these things, the Negroes enlisted the support of many of their fellow citizens both North and South. But the essential effort, the sustained struggle, was borne by the Negro alone with steadfast dignity and faith. And in due course the effort had its results. The last generation has seen a belated, but still spectacular, quickening of the pace of full emancipation. Twenty-five years ago the Nation would have been unbelieving at the progress to be made by the time of this centennial, progress in education, in employment, in the even-handed administration of justice, in access to the ballot, in the assumption of places of responsibility and leadership, in public and private life.

It has been a striking change, and a change wrought in large measure by the courage and perseverance of Negro men and women. It can be said, I believe, that Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves, but that in this century since, our Negro citizens have emancipated themselves.

And the task is not finished. Much remains to be done to eradicate the vestiges of discrimination and segregation, to make equal rights a reality for all of our people, to fulfill finally the promises of the Declaration of Independence. Like the proclamation we celebrate, this observance must be regarded not as an end, but a beginning. The best commemoration lies not in what we say today, but in what we do in the days and months ahead to complete the work begun by Abraham Lincoln a century ago. "In giving freedom to the slaves," President Lincoln said, "we assure freedom to the free." In giving rights to others which belong to them, we give rights to ourselves and to our country.

Note: The President's remarks were recorded at the White House on September 20 for broadcast as part of the centennial ceremonies held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on the morning of September

John F. Kennedy, Remarks Recorded for the Ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Commemorating the Centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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