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PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S LEGISLATIVE PROGRAM ON CIVIL RIGHTS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE WEST
For the first time in our nation since Reconstruction, a President has presented to the Congress a comprehensive, workable, and far-reaching proposal in the field of civil rights.
In backing the introduction of H.R. 7152 (S.1731), the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1963, President Kennedy reminded the nation that just as all citizens in our democracy have duties and responsibilities which they must assume, so they also have certain rights, which they can demand.
It is not a prerogative of a citizen to decide whether he obeys laws, pays taxes, answers military draft, etc. And it is not a prerogative of a citizen to withhold constitutional rights from another. These are simple facts, and yet, somewhere in our preoccupation with new national problems, we seem to have forgotten the original objectives of our founding fathers.
In restoring the nation to its original pathways, President Kennedy may inherit the bitter opposition of those who have long since deviated from our national ideals; but he will surely earn the respect and support of men and women some of whom may even be annoyed by what they feel to be inconveniences and troublesome fears, but who are basically fair and morally just.
H.R. 7152 as introduced has seven basic titles (or programs) designed to eliminate or reduce racial discrimination in voting, public accommodations, education, employment, and Federally assisted programs. These are:
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The other three titles are less controversial.
TITLE V extends the life of the present Civil Rights Commission an additional four years.
TITLE VII establishes the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity as a permanent body and provides it with a statutory base.
TITLE IV creates a Federal mediation service (the Community Relations Service) to be headed by a Director appointed by the President.
These seven titles constitute an over-all comprehensive program of handling complex race relations in our American life.
It is at once apparent that neither alone is strikingly strong for none compels immediate action in a field of firmly established rights — and many civil rights supporters in a particular field or section of the country may be somewhat disappointed with individual sections of the bill.
The strength of the bill, however, lies in its comprehensiveness and its soundness, as distinguished from a "pie-in-the-sky approach" which holds out an illusion of correcting all ills but leading to bitter disappointment in the end. Perhaps any one of a number of very strong bills in any one of the field (voting, schools, employment, etc.) might be passed but this would prove inadequate. This limited and fragmented approach is part of the Republican strategy of "eating and having their cake;" being for civil rights yet being credited with defeating the major civil rights legislation.
The basis of the President's proposal is twofold: the urgency of the situation and the necessity to act.
Race relations in America have reached a crisis stage and violence once imminent is now common. This danger pervading our daily lives challenges our security, both domestic and foreign, and the moral fabric of the nation.
The necessity of the situation arises out of the suspension of constitutional rights which we have tolerated for more than a hundred years while we amended our moral precepts to accommodate our pocketbooks and our social convenience.
If in our race relations, even in the West, we were simply guided by our Constitution, Anglo-American Jurisprudence, and our Judaic and Christian precepts ... there would be no great problems.
Perhaps then we would not have written many ugly chapters in western history never to be forgotten by our citizens of Oriental, Mexican, Indian, and Negro ancestry.
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At first glance the bill might seem to have very limited application in western states and its importance lost among the complexities of such problems as conservation, industrialization, urbanization, and education.
Discrimination in our states has been of a wide variety, although spotted, and often difficult to recognize. Despite the general absence, with some exceptions, of laws requiring segregation, de facto school segregation, limited access to places of public accommodations, and employment discrimination — all covered under the bill — do exist in many tangible ways, and in some jurisdictions even the right to vote is far from being encouraged.
While it would be extremely unfair and misleading to classify civil rights and liberties in the West with the almost inhumane and widely accepted practices in some of our southern states, the gap between our ideals and practices is more than enough to justify a need for Federal legislative action.
It is obvious that our growth, now almost unlimited in its potential and subjected to successive waves of many new and diverse people, can be materially affected by what effective tools are made available for dealing with our human resources.
Again, one of the great collateral benefits of the Civil Rights Act is the fact its voting and registration provision may help to correct a political imbalance which has favored the Deep South and given its political leaders, elected by disfranchising the opposition, a dominance in American politics since 1876. A long overdue correction of this unfair representation can materially increase the political and economic strength of the West and redound to the benefit of the nation.
Alternatives to the President's proposal are unthinkable, differing as they must from our basic concepts of liberty, equality, and justice as expressed in our Constitution and supported, even if not always practiced, throughout our nation's history.
Certainly, radicalism in either direction offers no solution. It is not our system nor our form of government; it is not our Constitution not our moral code, that need changing. It is their implementation that needs new emphasis and dynamic encouragement.
The situation calls more appropriately for "conservatism" — the conservation of those rights, those ideals and principles to which we are committed as a nation.
And "conservation" is not a stranger to westerners.
Just as we seek to conserve our natural resources, so also we must seek to conserve our human resources, to control the flood tides of race hatred, to use the high potential energy of diverse cultures, and to develop the western spirit of fairness and respect for individual dignity.
New frontiers and troublesome heights have never daunted the imagination and courage of westerners; neither will we be turned back by these new trails ... that lead to better human relations and a more peaceful world.