A Most Non-Political Speech
This letter was written in 1964 and to the best of my knowledge, it is complete and the same as it was written back then. I was in a bit of a shock when I realized that this was not written today but written in 1964. I don’t think I need to make any comments regarding the contents you are about to read. It speaks for itself as it did in 1964 and it speaks just as clearly in 2023.
Ladies and gentlemen, this may be the most non-political speech you ever hear. And, indeed, if you look for controversy, what I’m about to say conjures up little conflict.
We have reached a moment in time when restless men, dispossessed men, angry and impatient men, and anguished men look up and reach out for an elusive justice oft promised them, long denied them, but in the eyes of God and man’s conscience is their due and should be their expectation. I say this is non-political and non-controversial. We’re not talking now about miscegenation. Or whether a man can fence his yard. Or a hotdog vendor carefully select his customer. Or an innkeeper choose not to accommodate a particular traveler. These are the ramifications of the problem. They are not the problem. There have to be some bridges built; but first we have to acknowledge the rivers.
This is what I think is basic. This is what I believe to be the most common denominator in this spring of 1964. This must be first, the recognition, and then the admission — that the dignity of human beings is not negotiable. The eminent worth of man has no pro and no con. And the desperate need for an understanding and a respect between all men is as fundamental as the process of breathing in and breathing out.
On this spring night we look toward Washington, D.C., and hear the echoed overtones of a debate. We watch the struggle to invoke a cloture. We hear the voices of the willful foot-draggers and the hopeful sprinters as they trade and compromise and give battle for what they believe. But again, there is something happening on this earth transcendent of the Senates, the governments, the temporal voices of the champions of rights and the filibusters of wrong.
What is happening is that a whole world has suddenly become cognizant of its oneness. An idea of brotherhood has ceased to be an abstract. It has taken on a form and dimension and breadth and meaning. “Every man’s death diminishes me” — a lyrical stab at truth from another century. But in this nineteen hundred and sixth fourth year of our Lord, every man’s indignity, every man’s hunger, every man’s search for freedom, every man’s life reinforces me and revitalizes me and rededicates me. “We cannot be half-free and half-slave,” Mr. Lincoln said. And now, a hundred years later, we find that we cannot be half hungry and half content; half with dignity, half with shame; half with freedom, half with a simple yearning to be free; half with prerogatives, half asking for just a few; half superior, half denied the right to prove even equality.
“You cannot legislate human love.” Have you heard that phrase? “You cannot pass a law to stop people from hating“ — a battle slogan of those who don’t want to be bothered. A statement of philosophy from 20th century non-philosophers who would probably melt down the test tubes used to look for the microbes and the bacteria and the virus that caused cancer. Cancer is with us, so why fight it? Leave it to the individual patients. But don’t make waves. Don’t stir the riverbed. And above all, don’t contemplate the beauty of this earth. The deeds of love. The small, gradual, but inexorable move upward of the human animal toward an enlightened moment in time when the person next door is the neighbor, the Negro is the darker neighbor, the South American is my Latin neighbor, the Japanese is my Oriental neighbor.
You can’t legislate against prejudice? You would rather perhaps accept it as part of the innate personality of the homo sapien? You would rather say that it’s with us, it’s here to stay, it’s part of the social phenomenon of our time. If this is the premise to be lived with, accepted, and — God help us — embraced, then let us throw away theology. Let us unencumber ourselves of the premise of God. Let us tear up our art, our literature, all of our culture, and let us retire to a rubble of our own making and manufacture barbed wire instead of stained glass.
Hatred is not the norm. Prejudice is not the norm. Suspicion, dislike, jealousy, and scapegoating — none of these things is the transcendent facet of the human personality. They are the diseases. They are the cancers of the soul. They are the infectious and contagious viruses that have bled humanity over the years. But because they have been and are, is it necessary that they shall be?
— Rod Serling