A former speechwriter for President Clinton (who contributes a foreword) Gottheimer attributes the inspiration for his book to his White House days: “While rummaging through the bookshelves of the White House Library … I could not find one book to put on my office shelf, no single volume containing the fiery rhetoric of DuBois, the drawling prose of Lyndon Johnson, or the measured verse of Berry Friedan. This collection was crafted to be a central source of civil rights speeches for writers, activists and students of history.”
The anthology’s title is taken from Robert Kennedy’s notable speech to the National Union of South African Students in Cape Town on June 7, 1966: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
In American movements for justice and equality, the ripples began early and never stopped coming. In 1789, three quarters of a century before Lincoln freed the slaves, an unnamed Negro, whose words are presented here, paraphrased Shakespeare to ask: “Has not a Negro eyes? Has not a Negro hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions … If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die?”
Ripples of Hope is more than a repository of texts. It allows readers to see how decades- and centuries-old themes still reverberate and echo today. In the first of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s many speeches, delivered at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, she declared the root principle that “woman herself must do this work … Man cannot speak for her because he has been educated to believe that she differs from him so materially that he cannot judge of her thoughts, feelings, and opinions by his own.” From the same rostrum 150 years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton picked up the same idea: “Stanton was inspired, along with the others who met [in 1848], to rewrite the Declaration of Independence and they boldly asserted that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.’” All men and women, apparently an idea that never troubled the confidence or consciences of the Founding Fathers.
While the movement for gender equality has produced many fiery, well-known orators like Stanton, other civil rights struggles have left quieter, though no less poignant, legacies. Though they were hard-working, law-abiding immigrants, Asian Americans long endured widespread, deeply entrenched, but mostly accepted suspicion of the “Yellow Peril.” Despite having built the transcontinental railway, achieved a successful agricultural economy, and made many other signal contributions to the national life, it was not until long after World War II that a strong civil rights movement on their behalf came into being. Even then, it was different from other such efforts, being mostly led by militant student organizations and having few recognized spokesmen.
Gottheimer includes congressional testimony from a Nisei journalist, James Omura, opposing Japanese American internment during World War II, when U. S. citizens were crammed into the equivalent of concentration camps: “Are we to be condemned merely on the basis of our racial origin? Is citizenship such a light and transient thing that that which is our inalienable right in normal times can be torn from us in times of war … [W]e should not be prejudged and … racialism should not be the yardstick by which our loyalty is measured.”
Ripples of Hope reminds us, too, that as late as the 1950s, Mexican Americans and most Latinos “were denied the rights of citizenship, worker protections and equal access to basic education and health care”–even while their labor was highly valued, particularly in the Southwest. Only after the charismatic Cesar Chavez of California, in 1962, formed the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers of the AFL-CIO) could a harvesters’ strike he led against San Joaquin Valley grape growers spread into a nationwide civil rights movement for Chicanos. After a hunger strike in 1968, Chavez–too weak to speak–sent this message (read aloud by the Rev. James Drake) to his followers and to the nation:
“It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life … the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.”
Martin Luther King made just such a sacrifice and still was able to say on the last night of his life that God had “allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight … I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Just one night later, before a hushed crowd of blacks in Indianapolis, where he was to have made a campaign speech, Robert Kennedy broke the terrible news that Dr. King, who “dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings,” had been murdered. Then Kennedy added what often has seemed so futile, in America as elsewhere: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks said so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
This familiar story and King’s martyrdom owes much to a less-remembered black–A. Philip Randolph, who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and forced the Pullman Company and the railroads to accept it. Randolph organized a black “march on Washington” for July 1, 1941, to protest racial segregation in defense industries. Fearing the consequences as World War II threatened, FDR asked him to call off the march. Randolph flatly refused. Whereupon the president signed Executive Order 8802, a true landmark document prohibiting racial discrimination in the hiring of defense industry workers. The modern civil rights movement for blacks may be said to have begun at that point.
That movement could be said to have climaxed–though there was much left to be done–on the night of June 11, 1963. Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, had just refused to permit two black students to enter his state’s university. President Kennedy took to television and declared from the bully pulpit: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution … [T]his nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free … We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people.”
No other president had termed racial conflict “a moral crisis;” never had the federal government so openly taken a stand for the rights of all its citizens. And though it was left for Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, to push through the great Civil Rights Act of 1963 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (as well as to tell Congress in the familiar words of the black spiritual, “We shall overcome”), JFK’s proclamation of a “moral crisis” may well have been the turning point in the basic civil rights campaign of our history.
Basic, but not final. As Mary Frances Berry notes in an afterword, the speeches in this collection “bring to life the unfortunate reality that the goal of equal opportunity for all remains elusive.”