Speech at the University of Mississippi Law School Forum

March 18, 1966


Oxford, MS

Your generation—South and North, white and black—is the first with the chance not only to remedy the mistakes which all of us have made in the past but to transcend them. Your generation—this generation—cannot afford to waste its substance and its hope in the struggles of the past, for beyond these walls is a world to be helped, and improved, and made safe for the welfare of mankind…

Here in America…we must create a society in which Negroes will be as free as other Americans—free to vote, and to earn their way, and to share in the decisions of government which shape their lives. We know that to accomplish this end will mean great tension and difficulty and strife for all of us, in the North as much as in the South. But we know we must make progress, not because it is economically advantageous, not because the law says so, but because it is right.

Change is crowding our people into cities scarred by slums—encircled by suburbs which sprawl recklessly across the countryside; where movement is difficult, beauty rare, life itself more impersonal, and security imperiled by the lawless.

And beyond this, modern change is assaulting the deepest values of our civilization—those worlds within a world where each can find meaning and importance and warmth: family and neighborhood, community and the dignity of work.

Family ties grow weaker as the span between the generations widens. The community, a haven where each could once find warmth and significance, begins to dissolve as the streets of the cities rush in upon each other. Work becomes mechanical and routine, eroding the self-respect which individual effort once provided. And, especially here in the South, rapidly shifting relations between the races destroy old certainties and demand new attitudes and values.

And if our nation is changing, the world around us is moving even faster. Since I graduated from high school, the United States has fought in two world wars and is now involved in a third. Nuclear weapons have been invented and tested, and they have now spread to five nations. The great colonial empires of Europe have been dissolved, and more than seventy new nations have now been created. We begin to learn how to deal with one great hostile power, the Soviet Union; and then beyond its borders, the empire of China begins to grow in significance and in danger.

And in every continent—from Jaipur to Johannesburg, from Point Barrow to Cape Horn—men claim their right to share in the bounty which modern knowledge can bring, and they claim also the justice which they have heard proclaimed in that document which listed the inalienable rights of man. I have seen scrawled on the sidewalks of Indonesia, and on the walls of Africa and in Latin America, not “Workers of the world unite,” but “All men are created equal,” and “Give me liberty or give me death.” They draw their hope for change and for a better life from the example of the United States. They look to us for hope and for help. And the real question before you, before all young Americans, is whether we will help bring about that future, or whether we will not help and stand by.

In such a challenging world—such a fantastic and dangerous world—we will not find answers in old dogmas, by repeating out-worn slogans, or fighting on ancient battlegrounds against fading enemies long after the real struggle has moved on. We ourselves must change in order to master change. We must rethink our old ideas and beliefs before they capture and before they destroy us. For those answers America must look to its young people, the children of this time of change. And we look especially to that privileged minority of educated men and women who are the students of this country.

For the answers we seek must be found in the light of reason—by fact and logic and careful thought, unsustained by violent prejudices or by myths. And those are the answers which your education has equipped you—more than any other group in this country—has equipped you to find…

Plato said that if we are to have any hope for the future, that those who have lanterns will pass them on to others. You must use your lamps, the lamps of your learning, to show our people past the forest of stereotypes and slogans into the clear light of reality and of fact and of truth….

It is not enough to understand, or to see clearly. The future will be shaped in the arena of human activity, by those willing to commit their minds and their bodies to the task. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “God gives to each of us the choice between truth and repose. Take which you please. You cannot have both”…

You will go as ambassadors of the twentieth century to a past struggling toward the possibilities of the modern world. And in so doing you serve not only the man but the cause of national growth and of national independence, which is the foundation of a peaceful world order…

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “As life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at peril of being judged not to have lived.”

It is simple to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and private gain. It is more comfortable to sit content in the easy approval of friends and of neighbors than to risk the friction and the controversy that comes with public affairs. It is easier to fall in step with the slogans of others than to march to the beat of the internal drummer-to make and stand on judgments of your own. And it is far easier to accept and to stand on the past than to fight for the answers of the future.

But…Goethe told us that Faust lost the liberty of his soul when he said to the passing moment, “Stand, thou art so fair.” And there would be no surer way for us to lose our liberty and the true meanings of our heritage than to make the same mistake.

And each of us will ultimately be judged—and will ultimately judge himself—on the extent to which he personally contributed to the life of this nation and to world society of the kind we are trying to build.

Jefferson Davis once came to Boston and he addressed his audience in Faneuil Hall as “countrymen, brethren, Democrats.” Rivers of blood and years of darkness divide that day from this. But those words echo down to this hall, bringing the lesson that only as countrymen and as brothers can we hope to master and subdue to the service of mankind the enormous forces which rage across the world in which all of us live. And only in this way can we pursue our personal talents to the limits of our possibility—not as northerners or southerners, black or white—but as men and women in the service of the American dream.