Address at Fort Wayne, Indiana

April 10, 1968


Fort Wayne, IN

This generation did not create most of the conditions and convictions which have led us to this day, but this generation has the responsibility to resolve them. Leaders can explain and propose. But this problem will not yield to any man, even the president of the United States. It will yield only to the moral energy and belief of a free people.

Most people, of both races, do not wish violence and agree that we must do everything we can to protect the life and property of our people. Of course this is so. Yet while the necessary troops and police patrol our streets, we must also be aware that punishment is not prevention, nor is an armed camp a place of peace. Our nation today is beset by apprehension and fear, anger and even hatred. It is easy to understand the springs of such passion; even as we know the highest traditions of this country forbid them. But today’s difficult issue is not whether white Ameicans will help black Americans, but whether we will help ensure the well-being of every citizen. It is not whether white and black will love one another, but whether they will love America. It is not whether we will enforce the laws of the nation, but whether there is to be one nation…

There is no sure way to suppress men filled with anger who feel they have nothing to lose…

It is too easy to say that other minorities found their own way, even if that were completely true. For we must remember that the progress of many groups, including my own ancestors, the Irish, was not unmarked by violence, repression, and hatred. But none of these groups had a heritage which helped destroy tradition and culture and in which it was dangerous for a black man to presume to learning. Gradually and painfully Negroes themselves are overcoming this legacy, but it is not easy. Other minorities got their start by going west or working as laborers, so their sons could study to become mechanics, and their sons could become lawyers or even politicians. Today we live in a vast and complicated world of sprawling cities and huge industries, all of it moved by intricate technology and elaborate organization. It takes help for a poor man in a black ghetto to find a place in such a world. In fact, it is hard for all the rest of us. And, too, this is the only American minority with a black skin. I doubt there are many of us who, if they look honestly into their own heart, will not admit that this makes a difference.

So there is our problem. Among us are millions who wish to be part of this society—to share its abundance, its opportunity, and its purposes. We can deny this wish or work to make it come true. If we choose denial then we choose spreading conflict, which will surely erode the well-being and liberty of every citizen and, in a profound way, diminish the idea of America. If we choose fulfillment it will take work, but we will choose to improve the well-being of all our people; choose to end fear and heal wounds; and we will choose peace, the only peace that can last—peace with justice.

Once we make this choice, we know how to begin—[remembering that] laws and programs are only part of my answer. It is necessary to find ways to reopen and deepen the channels of communication between white and black America; and to halt the dangerous drift toward isolated enmity which may soon find us looking at each other across impassable barriers of suspicion and anger. This is a job for every American. At every level of national life from the White House to the local church and meetinghouse and in the homes of individual citizens, men and women of both races can try to meet and discuss their problems as well as their fears.

They would meet not merely in search of understanding—although that is important—but to find ways to devote their energy to this most critical American problem.

And in a deeper way, only through such shared enterprise can we demonstrate our willingness to open doors to the larger society—American society—which now seems so forbidding.

Income and education and homes do not make a nation. Nor do land and borders. Shared ideals and principles, joined purposes and hopes—these make a nation. And that is our great task: to make one nation out of two.

It is not written in the stars or ordained by history that we must be a nation torn by strife and teeming with troops and bayonets. It is not inevitable that each day—as I experienced last weekend in Washington—we must hear the constant shriek of sirens or see smoke rising from burning buildings.

Americans have always believed that if we faced our problems and worked at them, they could be resolved. And for the most part, they have been right. Those who now believe we have the power to do justice and to make our streets fit places where men can live and children play in tranquility, are also right.

The enemies of such an achievement are not the black man or the white man. The enemies are fear and indifference. They are hatred and, above all, letting momentary passion blind us to a clear and reasoned understanding of the realities of our land.

Here we are, white and black, together on one continent. If we can live together, the land will be fruitful for all its people. If not, much that we all cherish may be in danger. These are the only practical and realistic choices.