Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks at the Final Meeting of the President's Commission for the Observance of Human Rights Year 1968.

December 04, 1968

Governor Harriman, members of the Commission on Human Rights, ladies and gentlemen:

That is one the briefest speakers I ever had precede me. That just shows you what will happen to you after you have been away from home for awhile.

At Cape Kennedy, American spacemen ready themselves for travel to the moon. In Paris, delicate questions of peace and stability in Southeast Asia are now being negotiated. Across the world, medical scientists transplant human organs with a boldness that few have ever believed. And in January, a new President will lead our Nation.

With all of these historic events taking place, why do we have a Presidential commission for the observance of human rights this year?

Well, officially 1968 has been designated as Human Rights Year by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Officially, this is the 20th anniversary of the issuance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But putting aside official justification, Americans truly and personally identify with human rights as few nations in history ever have.

We were born as a nation on a declaration of political rights which also stated universal and timeless ideals that we believe apply to all men, in all places, at all times--life, liberty, and happiness.

Americans know by painful experience that the protection of human rights often requires their defense against force or subversion or terror.

Our greatest Presidents are remembered best for their successes in human rights, whether it was freeing an enslaved minority from bondage, or whether it was guaranteeing the self-determination of a small and a defenseless nation.

Twenty years ago, President Harry Truman told the Congress at a very troubled time in our history: "We in the United States are working in company with other nations who share our desire for enduring world peace and who believe with us that, above all else, men must be free."

Indeed, men must be free above all else-free to be protected equally by the law, free to choose a career or a job or a neighborhood or a way of life or a religion, free to hold and have their property protected.

Men must be free from violence or the threat of violence, free from dictatorial or arbitrary government. And men also must be free of fear--fear of hunger, disease, secret police, ignorance, poverty, bigotry.

In the last two decades there have been significant victories for human rights in the expansion of human opportunity, though much, much work remains before us.

Segregation in the Armed Forces was ended by Executive order. Segregation in the public schools was outlawed by our highest court led by the magnanimous and courageous Chief Justice who addressed this Conference.

Discrimination and outright segregation are being turned back in employment, in public places, in housing, in government aid programs, in juries, in voting through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. And I believe we had more than 600 observers in this last national election without incident.

And who could have believed that a few years ago--that you could go through an election in all of the 50 States and we wouldn't have complaints about people being denied this great right, through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and through the Fair Housing Act of 1968?

When we established the President's Commission for the Observance of Human Rights last January, I wanted very much for it to be a significant commission.

I selected as your Chairman a man whose public acts have honored his country for more than three decades--the beloved Ambassador, Averell Harriman.

The Vice Chairman, Anna Roosevelt Halsted, is a distinguished lady who carries on the tradition of the two most outstanding champions of human rights in all American history--Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

I asked the Commission to help deepen our commitment to the defense of human rights and to enlarge our people's understanding of the principle of human fights as expressed in the Universal Declaration, the Constitution, and in the laws of the United States.

I believe that your year-long efforts have helped to take human rights discussions out of the textbooks and you have moved them into the classrooms, into the communities, into the State and local government, into labor unions and businesses, into the press, and into radio and television.

So I think it is quite fitting that this Conference on Continuing Action for Human Rights should take place in the last days of 1968.

I am so glad I am here to be a part of it. I am so happy that it means enough to Governor Harriman, or Ambassador Harriman, that he would leave Paris and come here at this critical time.

Internationally, six treaties dealing with human rights guarantees still remain unapproved by the United States Senate. I hope I may be pardoned if I express the hope that action will soon be taken in the United States Senate on those.

As we meet here, the world faces another challenge to human rights. It is the most basic challenge and therefore the most dangerous. It is the violent threat to our sense of community--riots and violence torment our cities all over the globe. Schools and colleges are prevented from educating students.

I saw a report the other day where universities in more than 25 of the leading nations had been taken over.

Laws are flouted. Moral and political leaders are struck down by assassination. Every society today is emerging and discovering new divisions, new separations, and new alienations.

We just cannot allow the centrifugal forces at work to break up the democratic societies which so many have labored so long to build and to perfect.

We must do everything that we can, therefore, to help restore a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and a sense of respect, so as to make real the ultimate human right which is really respect for life itself.

For the time that you have given, and the dedication that you have applied--as I said to Governor Harriman, if he could come across the Atlantic to attend this meeting, I thought I should come around the circle to greet him here. I came across to thank each and every one of you for your interest, for your purpose, and for what you are doing.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 5:55 p.m. in the International Conference Room at the Department of State to the National Conference on Continuing Action for Human Rights. In his opening words be referred to W. Averell Harriman, former Governor of New York and U.S.. representative to the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam. During his remarks he referred to Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States.

The President also referred to Executive Order 9981 of July 26, 1948 "Establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services" (13 F.R. 4313; 3 CFR, 1943-1948 Comp., p. 722); and to the U.S.. Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, declaring racial segregation in the public schools unconstitutional (United States Supreme Court Reports, 1954, 349 U.S.. 294, 99 L. Ed. 1083).

The President's Commission for the Observance of Human Rights Year 1968 was established by Executive Order 11394 of January 30, 1968 (4 Weekly Comp. Pros. Docs., p. 173; 33 F.R. 2429; 3 CFR, 1968 Comp. p. 97).

An interim report of the Commission was submitted to the President on November 6, 1968 (4 Weekly Comp. Pres. Docs., p. 1578).

The Commission's final report, transmitted to the President on January 30, 1969, is entitled "To Continue Action for Human Rights" (Government Printing Office, 62 pp.).

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks at the Final Meeting of the President's Commission for the Observance of Human Rights Year 1968. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/236578

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