Address at Law Day Ceremonies, University of Georgia

May 6, 1961


Athens, GA

For the first time since becoming attorney general, over three months ago, I am making something approaching a formal speech and I am proud that it is in Georgia…They have told me that when you speak in Georgia you should try to tie yourself to Georgia and the South, and even better, claim some Georgia kinfolk. There are a lot of Kennedys in Georgia, but as far as I can tell, I have no relatives here and no direct ties to Georgia, except one. This state gave my brother the biggest percentage majority of any state in the union, and in this last election that was even better than kinfolk.

We meet at this great university, in this old state, the fourth of the original thirteen, to observe Law Day.

In his proclamation urging us to observe this day, the president emphasized…that to remain free, people must “cherish their freedoms, understand the responsibilities they entail, and nurture the will to preserve them.” He then went on to point out that “law is the strongest link between man and freedom.”

I wonder in how many countries of the world people think of law as the “link between man and freedom.” We know that in many, law is the instrument of tyranny, and people think of law as little more than the will of the state or the party—not of the people.

And we know too that throughout the long history of mankind, man has had to struggle to create a system of law and of government in which fundamental freedoms would be linked with the enforcement of justice. We know that we cannot live together without rules which tell us what is right and what is wrong, what is permitted and what is prohibited. We know that it is law which enables man to live together, that creates order out of chaos. We know that the law is the glue that holds civilization together.

And we know that if one man’s rights are denied, the rights of all are endangered. In our country the courts have a most important role in safeguarding these rights. The decisions of the courts, however much we might disagree with them, in the final analysis must be allowed and respected. If we disagree with a court decision and thereafter irresponsibly assail the court and defy its rulings, we challenge the foundation of our society…

Respect for the law—in essence that is the meaning of Law Day—and every day must be Law Day or else our society will collapse…

Let me speak to you about three major areas of difficulty within the purview of my responsibilities that sap our national strength, that weaken our people, that require our immediate attention.

In too many major communities of our country, organized crime has become big business…tolerating organized crime promotes the cheap philosophy that everything is a racket…

It is not the gangster himself who is of concern. It is what he is doing to our cities, our communities, our moral fiber…

The third area is the one that affects us all the most directly—civil rights. The hardest problems of all in law enforcement are those involving a conflict of law and local customs. History has recorded many occasions when the moral sense of a nation produced judicial decisions, such as the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which required difficult local adjustments.

I have many friends in the United States Senate who are southerners. If these southern friends of mine are representative southerners—and I believe they are—I do not pretend that they believe with me on everything or that I agree with them on everything. But, knowing them as i do, I am convinced of this:

Southerners have a special respect for candor and plain talk. They certainly don’t like hypocrisy. So, in discussing this third major problem, I must tell you candidly what our policies are going to be in the field of civil rights and why.

First let me say this: The time has long since arrived when loyal Americans must measure the impact of their actions beyond the limits of their own towns or states. For instance, we must be quite aware of the fact that 50 percent of the countries in the United Nations are not white; that around the world, in Africa, South America, and Asia, people whose skins are a different color than ours are on the move to gain their measure of freedom and liberty…And these people will decide not only their future but how the cause of freedom fares in the world.

In the United Nations we are striving to establish a rule of law instead of a rule of force. In that forum, and elsewhere around the world our deeds will speak for us…

When parents send their children to school this fall in Atlanta, peaceably and in accordance with the rule of law, barefoot Burmese and Congolese will see before their eyes Americans living by the rule of law.

The conflict of views over the original decision in 1954 and our recent move in Prince Edward County [Virginia] is understandable. The decision in 1954 required action of the most difficult, delicate, and complex natures, going to the heart of southern institutions…

It is now being said that the Department of Justice is attempting to close all public schools in Virginia because of the Prince Edward situation. That is not true, nor is the Prince Edward suit a threat to local control.

We are maintaining the orders of the courts. We are doing nothing more or less. And if any one of you were in my position you would do likewise, for it would be required by your oath of office. You might not want to do it, you might not like to do it, but you would do it. For I cannot believe that anyone can support a principle which prevents more than a thousand of our children in one county from attending public school—especially when this step was taken to circumvent the orders of the court.

Our position is quite clear. We are upholding the law…

In this case—in all cases—I say to you today that if the orders of the court are circumvented, the Department of Justice will act.

We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move.

Here on this campus, not a half year ago, you endured a difficult ordeal. And when your moment of truth came, the voices crying “force” were overridden by the voices pleading for reason.

And for this, I pay my respects to your governor, your legislature, and most particularly to you, the students and faculty of the university of Georgia. And I say, you are the wave of the future—not those who cry panic. For the country’s future you will and must prevail.

I happen to believe that the 1954 decision was right. But my belief does not matter—it is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law. And we both respect the law. By facing this problem honorably, you have shown to all the world that we Americans are moving forward together—solving this problem—under the rule of law.

An integral part of all this is that we make a total effort to guarantee the ballot to every American of voting age—in the North as well as in the South. The right to vote is the easiest of all rights to grant. The spirit of our democracy, the letter of our constitution and our laws require that there be no further delay in the achievement of full freedom to vote for all. Our system depends upon the fullest participation of all its citizens.

The problem between the white and colored people is a problem for all sections of the United States. And as I have said, I believe there has been a great deal of hypocrisy in dealing with it. In fact, I found when I came to the Department of Justice that I need look no further to find evidence of this.

I found that very few Negroes were employed above a custodial level. There were 950 lawyers working in the Department of Justice in Washington and only ten of them were Negroes. At the same moment the lawyers of the Department of Justice were bringing legal action to end discrimination, that same discrimination was being practiced within the department itself…

The federal government is taking steps to correct this.

Financial leaders from the East who deplore discrimination in the South belong to institutions where no Negroes or Jews are allowed, and their children attend private schools where no Negro students are enrolled. Union officials criticize southern leaders and yet practice discrimination within their unions. Government officials belong to private clubs in Washington where Negroes, including ambassadors, are not welcomed even at mealtime.

My firm belief is that if we are to make progress in this area—if we are to be truly great as a nation—then we must make sure that nobody is denied an opportunity because of race, creed, or color. We pledge, by example, to take action in our own backyard—the Department of Justice—we pledge to move to protect the integrity of the courts in the administration of justice. In all this, we ask your help—we need your assistance.

I come to you today and I shall come to you in the years ahead to advocate reason and the rule of law.

It is in this spirit that since taking office I have conferred many times with responsible public officials and civil leaders in the South on specific situations. I shall continue to do so. I don’t expect them always to agree with my view of what the law requires, but I believe they share my respect for the law. We are trying to achieve amicable, voluntary solutions without going to court. These discussions have ranged from voting and school cases to incidents of arrest which might lead to violence.

We have sought to be helpful to avert violence and to get voluntary compliance. When our investigations indicate there has been a violation of law, we have asked responsible officials to take steps themselves to correct the situation. In some instances this has happened. When it has not, we have had to take legal action.

These conversations have been devoid of bitterness or hate. They have been carried on with mutual respect, understanding, and good will. National unity is essential, and before taking any legal action we will, where appropriate, invite the southern leaders to make their views known in these cases.

We, the American people, must avoid another Little Rock or another New Orleans. We cannot afford them. It is not only that such incidents do incalculable harm to the children involved and to the relations among people. It is not only that such convulsions seriously undermine respect for law and order and cause serious economic and moral damage. Such incidents hurt our country in the eyes of the world…

For on this generation of Americans falls the full burden of proving to the world that we really mean it when we say all men are created free and are equal before the law. All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.

To the South, perhaps more than any other section of the country, has been given the opportunity and the challenge and the responsibility of demonstrating America at its greatest—at its full potential of liberty under law.

You may ask, will we enforce the civil rights statutes? The answer is: Yes, we will…

We can and will do no less.

I hold a constitutional office of the United States government, and I shall perform the duty I have sworn to undertake—to enforce the law, in every field of law and every region.

We will not threaten, we will try to help. We will not persecute, we will prosecute.

We will not make or interpret the laws. We shall enforce them—vigorously, without regional bias or political slant.

All this we intend to do. But all the high rhetoric on Law Day about the noble mansion of the law, all the high—sounding speeches about liberty and justice, are meaningless unless people—you and I—breathe meaning and force into it. For our liberties depend upon our respect for the law.

On December 13, 1889 Henry W. Grady of Georgia said these words to an audience in my home state of Massachusetts:

This hour needs the loyalty that is loyal to one section and yet holds the other in enduring suspicion and estrangement. Give us the broad and perfect loyalty that loves and trusts Georgia alike with Massachusetts— that knows no South, no North, no East, no West, but endears with equal and patriotic love every foot of our soil, every state of our union.

A might duty, sir, and a mighty inspiration impels every one of us tonight to lose in patriotics consecration whatever estranges, whatever divides. We, sir, are Americans—and we stand for human liberty!

Ten days later Mr. Grady was dead, but his words live today. We stand for human liberty.

The road ahead is full of difficulties and discomforts. But as for me, I welcome the challenge, I welcome the opportunity, and I pledge my best effort—all I have in material things and physical strength and spirit to see that freedom shall advance and that our children will grow old under the rule of law.