Fifty years ago today, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, John Fitzgerald Kennedy accepted his party’s nomination for president.
Fifty years ago today, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, John Fitzgerald Kennedy declared that the Democratic Party sought power for the purpose of promoting "the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men."
It was a significant departure for the Democrats, and Kennedy made it by echoing the most radical promise of the most radical of the country’s founders.
“Let me say first that I accept the nomination of the Democratic Party,” began Kennedy. “I accept it without reservation and with only one obligation, the obligation to devote every effort of my mind and spirit to lead our Party back to victory and our Nation to greatness.”
“I am grateful, too,” he continued, “that you have provided us with such a strong platform to stand on and to run on. Pledges which are made so eloquently are made to be kept. ‘The Rights of Man’—the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men—are indeed our goal and are indeed our first principle. This is a Platform on which I can run with enthusiasm and with conviction.”
The platform Kennedy referenced borrowed from the language of Tom Paine — via Tom Jefferson — in order to propose a significant break with the party’s past on the issue of segregation.
After adopting a serious civil rights plank in 1948, at the behest of Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey (the man Kennedy beat for the party’s nod in 1960), the Democrats had backtracked toward more cautious language and positioning as its presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson, sought to retain the support of southern segregationists.
Pressured by the March on the Conventions Movement of labor leader A. Philip Randolph, veteran organizer Bayard Rustin and anti-poverty campaigner Michael Harrington, a trio of socialist stalwarts with whom the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had aligned, the convention adopted a platform that embraced the student sit-down demonstrations at segregated lunch counters, made a serious commitment to voting rights and abandoned deference to the false construct of “state’s rights.”
The platform closed with a statement of principles that placed Democrats – including their young nominee, whose own record on civil rights had been a tad less than inspired — firmly on the side of the movement to end “Jim Crow.
This new position distinguished the Democratic Party from its own compromised positions of the past and the compromised position that the Republican Party of Richard Nixon (as opposed to Abraham Lincoln) would adopt in that critical year of national transition.
Here is what the Democrats declared fifty years ago:
The Constitution of the United States rejects the notion that the Rights of Man means the rights of some men only. We reject it too.
The right to vote is the first principle of self-government. The Constitution also guarantees to all Americans the equal protection of the laws.