52 Years Later, King’s Words Demand Renewed U.S. Efforts Against Hatred and Injustice

To maintain its status as an exemplary democracy, the United States must continue to combat bigotry and tackle its deficits regarding equality and access to justice.

By Mark P. Lagon, President and Andrew Oravecz, Executive Assistant

To maintain its status as an exemplary democracy, the United States must continue to combat bigotry and tackle its deficits regarding equality and access to justice.

Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr., is honored at Roosevelt Day Dinner sponsored by the Americans for Democratic Action at New York’s Hotel Astor. Presenting the 1961 Distinguished Award is Herbert H. Lehman, left; with them are Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and Robert Schwartz, New York State Chairman of ADA. Photo Source: USIA. 

Freedom House is commemorating 75 years as a leading organization committed to the protection of fundamental human rights, which are best secured through the robust institutions and practices of democracy. While primarily focused on the struggle for freedom abroad, we have also supported efforts to advance the American democratic experiment, including the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

In light of the controversies in this country over the past weeks and months, remarks made by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Freedom House’s Annual Dinner 52 years ago, on November 26, 1963, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel—just four days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—are truly striking. In his speech, Dr. King relates the aspirations of African Americans in 1963 to those of the country at large:

"Our goal is freedom. I believe we will win it because the goal of the Nation is freedom. Our destiny is tied up in the destiny of America."

True freedom and equal access to justice for African Americans matter—then and now—to the American experiment, especially given the legacy of slavery. In order to champion the fundamental rights of all people worldwide, the United States needs to be, in this and other ways, an exemplar of progress. And U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations like Freedom House need to be candid about conditions in the United States—which we do in part by rating and reviewing the country’s improvements and shortcomings in our flagship publications.

At the Freedom House dinner, Dr. King speaks of a hostile, polarized atmosphere in 1963 in the wake of events like the murders of African Americans in Mississippi and Alabama. He connects this climate to Kennedy’s shocking death, which has “something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the state bread of racism and the spoiled meat of hatred.

He cautions against acquiescence and apathy in the face of these problems, “[b]y our silence; by our willingness to compromise principle; by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice with the vaseline of gradualism.”

In honor of the man assassinated days earlier, he urged enactment of sweeping civil rights legislation:

"One of the greatest tributes that we can pay this noble servant of humanity is to work passionately and unrelentingly to enact the civil rights bill."

Passage of that legislation in 1964 brought the United States across an important threshold, and it has helped to propel progress since then.

Nonviolent civil society movements have played a consistent role in combating racially based hatred and violence in the last half-century, demanding that African Americans receive their full rights as human beings and U.S. citizens, legally and in practice. As a result, the hatred and violence of 52 years ago is much diminished. The American system’s resilient recourses and remedies will continue to yield self-correction and further reform.

But it is evident that such correction is still needed. Recent instances of inadequate access to justice, police bias and excesses, and crude political discourse about migrants and refugees, Muslims, and other minorities all remind us that clear thought and action are required to advance the American experiment as an example for the world.

Page 1 of King's speech. Click to read the full speech here.