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.
It is the duty of the Congress to enact the laws necessary and proper to protect and promote these constitutional rights. The Supreme Court has the power to interpret these rights and the laws thus enacted.
It is the duty of the President to see that these rights are respected and that the Constitution and laws as interpreted by the Supreme Court are faithfully executed.
What is now required is effective moral and political leadership by the whole Executive branch of our Government to make equal opportunity a living reality for all Americans.
As the party of Jefferson, we shall provide that leadership.
In every city and state in greater or lesser degree there is discrimination based on color, race, religion, or national origin.
If discrimination in voting, education, the administration of justice or segregated lunch counters are the issues in one area, discrimination in housing and employment may be pressing questions elsewhere.
The peaceful demonstrations for first-class citizenship which have recently taken place in many parts of this country are a signal to all of us to make good at long last the guarantees of our Constitution.
The time has come to assure equal access for all Americans to all areas of community life, including voting booths, schoolrooms, jobs, housing, and public facilities.
The Democratic Administration which takes office next January will therefore use the full powers provided in the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 to secure for all Americans the right to vote.
If these powers, vigorously invoked by a new Attorney General and backed by a strong and imaginative Democratic President, prove inadequate, further powers will be sought.
We will support whatever action is necessary to eliminate literacy tests and the payment of poll taxes as requirements for voting.
A new Democratic Administration will also use its full powers—legal and moral—to ensure the beginning of good-faith compliance with the Constitutional requirement that racial discrimination be ended in public education.
We believe that every school district affected by the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision should submit a plan providing for at least first-step compliance by 1963, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
To facilitate compliance, technical and financial assistance should be given to school districts facing special problems of transition.
For this and for the protection of all other Constitutional rights of Americans, the Attorney General should be empowered and directed to file civil injunction suits in Federal courts to prevent the denial of any civil right on grounds of race, creed, or color.
The new Democratic Administration will support Federal legislation establishing a Fair Employment Practices Commission to secure effectively for everyone the right to equal opportunity for employment.
In 1949 the President’s Committee on Civil Rights recommended a permanent Commission on Civil Rights. The new Democratic Administration will broaden the scope and strengthen the powers of the present commission and make it permanent.
Its functions will be to provide, assistance to communities, industries, or individuals in the implementation of Constitutional rights in education, housing, employment, transportation, and the administration of justice.
In addition, the Democratic Administration will use its full executive powers to assure equal employment opportunities and to terminate racial segregation throughout Federal services and institutions, and on all Government contracts, The successful desegregation of the armed services took place through such decisive executive action under President Truman.
Similarly the new Democratic Administration will take action to end discrimination in Federal housing programs, including Federally assisted housing.
To accomplish these goals will require executive orders, legal actions brought by the Attorney General, legislation, and improved Congressional procedures to safeguard majority rule.
Above all, it will require the strong, active, persuasive, and inventive leadership of the President of the United States.
The Democratic President who takes office next January will face unprecedented challenges. His Administration will present a new face to the world.
It will be a bold, confident, affirmative face. We will draw new strength from the universal truths which the founder of our Party asserted in the Declaration of Independence to be "self-evident."
Emerson once spoke of an unending contest in human affairs, a contest between the Party of Hope and the Party of Memory.
For 7 1/2 years America, governed by the Party of Memory, has taken a holiday from history.
As the Party of Hope it is our responsibility and opportunity to call forth the greatness of the American people.
In this spirit, we hereby rededicate ourselves to the continuing service of the Rights of Man-everywhere in America and everywhere else on God’s earth.
Kennedy would not govern quite do boldly as the platform promised. It would take a March on Washington — organized by the same folks who marched on the convention — to prod him. And, even then, it would the assassinated president’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, who would begin to deliever on the pledges of the 1960 platform.
But the statement itself proved to be bothan effective call to action and a remarkably accurate outline of the left wing of the possible — one that today’s cautious Democrats would do well to revisit.