Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks at the White House Conference on Equal Employment Opportunities

August 20, 1965

Chairman Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.:

I always feel stimulated and inspired a little bit just to repeat that name--Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. And I know that your father and your mother would be very happy if they could observe how your talents are being used in this critical hour in our national history.

I think they would feel the same way about my fellow workers in the cause of equal opportunity, and I know you don't want me to salute you very long--in view of that sun out there--but I do salute you, one and all.

I commend you for coming here, in the heat of a Washington August, to give us your insights into one of America's most critical problems. We asked you to come here for your country's sake--because we believe that it is a problem beyond the capacity of any single one of us in this Capital, or any single group of us, to ever solve alone. We need your help--and I am glad that you have responded out of a sense of duty to both your country and to humanity.

Last year we were given the indispensable legal means for solving this problem. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--guaranteeing equal employment opportunities-is a key to hope for millions of our fellow Americans. With that key we can begin to open the gates that now enclose the ghettos of despair.

But I would remind you this morning that it is just a key. It will open the gates only for those who are willing to shoulder the responsibilities, as well as the rights that it offers. The key itself cannot provide the skills and the determination that the economy of this Nation requires. It cannot reverse at once those melancholy currents by which millions are swept along--in slum houses, in crowded schools, in the desolate streets where unemployment and boredom lead hopeless men to crime and to violence.

But none of that solemn history could ever be changed without this key.

If there is one thing I think we have learned from the civil rights struggle, it is that the problem of bringing the Negro American into an equal role in our society is more complex, and is more urgent, and is much more critical than any of us have ever known. Who of you could have predicted 10 years ago, that in this last, sweltering, August week thousands upon thousands of disenfranchised Negro men and women would suddenly take part in self-government, and that thousands more in that same week would strike out in an unparalleled act of violence in this Nation?

Our conscience cries out against the hatred that we heard last week. It bore no relation to the orderly struggle for civil rights that has ennobled the last decade. Every leader in that struggle has condemned this outrage against the laws of the land. And during the few days that preceded it, I had spent all week at the White House visiting individually with Dr. King, Mr. Farmer, Dr. Roy Wilkins, Mr. Philip Randolph--all talking about the great meeting that we had to have here later in the fall, because the cities of this Nation and the Negro family in this Nation are two of our most pressing, most important problems. Well, the bitter years that preceded the riots, the death of hope where hope existed, their sense of failure to change the conditions of life--these things no doubt led to these riots. But they did not justify them.

I hope that every American who believes in equal opportunity for his fellow men, understands this distinction that I have made. For we shall never achieve a free and prosperous and hopeful society until we have suppressed the fires of hate and we have turned aside from violence--whether that violence comes from the night riders of the Klan, or the snipers and the looters in the Watts district. Neither old wrongs nor new fears can ever justify arson or murder.

During the past decade more of my energy has been spent on protecting and preserving and writing into law, through the legislative halls, the rights of all Americans than I have spent on any single subject or any half-dozen subjects.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957--night after night after night, I slept in my Senate chair. I did not see my family for weeks. The Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965--these were the advances in whose cause were enlisted men of goodwill from every part of the country. A good many of them sacrificed their political life in this cause. I see some of them out there now. The road to passage of all of these bills was a long one, and a winding one, and a tortuous one. But they were conceived and they were enacted, the first in almost a century. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years ago, but it was a proclamation and never a fact. And these measures, one by one, were conceived and enacted to protect the rights of American citizens that were set forth in the American Constitution, and in the minds and the hearts and the spirits of our Founding Fathers.

But I must remind you, and all the world, this morning, that with these rights comes responsibility.

And with responsibility there goes obligation.

We cannot, and we must not, in one breath demand laws to protect the rights of all of our citizens, and then turn our back, or wink, or in the next breath allow laws to be broken that protect the safety of our citizens. There just must never come the hour in this Republic when any citizen, whoever he is, can ever ignore the law or break the law with impunity.

And so long as I am your President I intend to preserve the rights of all of our citizens, and I intend to enforce the laws that protect all of our citizens--without regard to race, religion, region, or without fear or favor.

A rioter with a Molotov cocktail in his hands is not fighting for civil rights any more than a Klansman with a sheet on his back and a mask on his face. They are both more or less what the law declares them: lawbreakers, destroyers of constitutional rights and liberties, and ultimately destroyers of a free America. They must be exposed and they must be dealt with.

It is our duty--and it is our desire--to open our hearts to humanity's cry for help. It is our obligation to seek to understand what could lie beneath the flames that scarred that great city. So let us equip the poor and the oppressed--let us equip them for the long march to dignity and to well-being. But let us never confuse the need for decent work and fair treatment with an excuse to destroy and to uproot.

Ours is an open society. The world is always witness to whatever we do--sometimes, I think (results of the cooperation of some of my friends) to some things we don't do. We would not have it otherwise. For the brave story of the Negro American is related to the struggle of men on every continent for their rights as sons of God. It is a compound of brilliant promises and stunning reverses. Sometimes, as in the past week when the two are mixed on the same pages of our newspapers and television screens, the result is baffling to all the world. And it is baffling to me, and to you, and to us. And always there is the danger that hours of disorder may erase the accumulated goodwill of many months and many years. And I warn and plead with all thinking Americans to contemplate this for a due period.

Yet beneath the discord we hear another theme. That theme speaks of a day when Americans of every color, and every creed, and every religion, and every region, and every sex can be trained for decent employment, can find it, can secure it, can have it preserved, and can support their families in an enriching and a rewarding environment.

For those who have been denied equal access throughout the years to public facilities, I am proud to say that this administration has led the way in ripping down the barriers of discrimination.

To those who have been denied the precious right to vote that ought to go with American citizenship, this administration is opening the polling booths again and is registering them by the thousands so they can exercise that right.

For those who have been denied an equal opportunity to learn, through Head Start, through elementary, secondary, vocational, and higher education, the Johnson administration is trying to turn hope into reality.

And to those who have been trapped in the dark ghettos that are barren of playgrounds for their little children, and barren of decent homes for their families, eroded by the monotony of each day's existence, I promise them that as long as I am here every day I am going to be working to see that that, too, is changed.

In education, in housing, in health, in conservation, in poverty, in 20 fields or more, we have passed, and we will pass, far-reaching programs heretofore never enacted that are rich in hope and that will lead us to a better day.

We will do all this through the work of men and women like you--men and women who believe both in equal opportunity and equal responsibility and obligation. And unless this work wins the day, and unless we are successful in what we are trying to do, we may all be consumed, without discrimination, by the fires of hate and bigotry.

You have been asked to come here because you are already enlisted in this--what I consider the most important cause of our time.

I welcome you. I am grateful for your energy and your purpose. For our cause is the liberation--the liberation of all of our citizens in all of our sections in all of our Nation through peaceful, nonviolent change.

And we shall overcome, and I am enlisted for the duration.

Earlier in the spring, I asked the very able and dedicated Vice President, who has given his life to promoting equality among all races and religions and regions, to head up a blue-ribbon Cabinet task force to see what we could do about 2 million youngsters, most of whom came from broken homes, a good many of whom slept with the rats every night--if they slept at all--all of whom were without jobs, without education, without food, to see if he couldn't, with the help of the Cabinet and with the help of the businessmen and labor men of this country, find jobs for these men, so that they could wipe away this monotony and have useful work, constructive work for their talents this summer.

We were ambitious. Perhaps not as ambitious as that great man of vision, Franklin Roosevelt, when he said, "We will build 50,000 planes a year." And they ridiculed him. But we said we must get 500,000 jobs for these young people this summer.

Our late beloved President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, started programs that brought thousands and thousands of youngsters into private and into public employment and made them closer to their country and to their Government. And so, in his memory, and faced with this crisis, the Vice President, at my direction, undertook this assignment.

Before his target date approached, he said, "We have reached the goal already." That is what every United Fund head in the country likes to hear, every Red Cross drive. He had reached the goal. And I said, "Well, let's just get a better goal--750,000."

Now, he's coming home tomorrow. This is supposed to be a secret. And I guess we'll get a little publicity on it, if I tell it off the record. But I do want to observe that he's already placed 800,000, and I am going to raise the goal on him tomorrow, although we're in mid-August, and tell him, "Let's go to 1 million."

So, the unemployment of young people has taken a nosedive. The employment has skyrocketed. But if we reach our goal of 1 million, that we never dreamed of a few weeks ago, we will have done only 50 percent of our job, because we started out with 2 million to deal with.

Our unemployment is at the lowest it has been for 7 years. But we can't sit back in our rocking chairs and be happy and satisfied as long as there is 1 million, or 100, who have energy and are willing to work, that are denied work.

So to you who have given your time and talents to come here, on behalf of this country I thank you.

We have problems of foreign policy. But the foreign .policy of this country is going to be: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And I said to Secretary Rusk and his staff yesterday, every one of them, the foreign policy of this country is to educate all of our people to give every child all the education he can take; find work for every human being that is willing to work; find medical care so that we will preserve their bodies and keep them on the payroll and on the tax roll as long as we can.

Education, health, move them out of the slums and the poverty, provide housing, and beautify the land and make it something that is truly symbolic when we say "America the Beautiful," because we want this to be a good world.

And when other nations look at us and see what we are doing at home, they must know that people that do those things with their own folks are not going to treat other people very badly.

Now, the African continent, the Western Hemisphere, the European continent--we reviewed each one of them one by one, the hundred-odd nations that we have relations with. And those relations, I am glad to say, are better than one could really expect under all the problems that face a complex world.

We do have a serious situation in Viet-Nam. We need to get to a negotiating table. We need, in the words of Isaiah, to "reason together." And I pray every night that the day will come when others will be willing to accept our proposals and join us in our hope of satisfying these problems and dealing with these difficulties by talking instead of fighting.

There are some that will use this problem in Viet-Nam to lock the door of opportunity on housing, and on education, and on space, and on health, and on conservation. But they are singing an old song. They're living in another century. The people of America are progressive, prudent folks that are on the march and they know that we cannot lead the world if we lead them in ignorance, and illiteracy, and poverty, and disease.

While on the one hand we are going to protect our liberties and defend our convictions and plead for an opportunity to live in peace, we are never going to neglect the education of our little ones, or the salvation of our lame or our halt or our palsied, or even forget the countryside, because people work better, longer, faster, produce more in a land that we like to call "America the Beautiful."

Thank you for what you are doing for it, thank you more for what you are going to do.

Note: The President spoke at 12:23 p.m. on the South Lawn at the White House. In his opening words he referred to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. During his remarks he referred to Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, James Farmer, National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality, Roy Wilkins, Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Dean Rusk, Secretary of State.

On August 5, 1965, the White House announced the program for the White House Conference on Equal Employment Opportunity which was held in Washington on August 19-20 (I Weekly Comp. Pres. Does., p. 50).

For the President's statements following the riots in the Watts district of Los Angeles, see Items 426, 453.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks at the White House Conference on Equal Employment Opportunities Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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