More than three hundred people testified before the platform and resolutions committee during six days of hearings at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Reacting to eventual nominee Adlai Stevenson’s casual suggestion that the Democratic platform should endorse the Brown v. Board of Education decision, southern segregationists argued vehemently in opposition. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and labor leaders George Meany, Walter Reuther, and A. Philip Randolph were among those who testified in favor of a strong civil rights plank.
King’s testimony, originally scheduled for 10 August, was postponed until the following day. John W. McCormack, chair of the committee and majority leader of the House of Representatives, scheduled King as the day’s first witness and asked him to offer a prayer as well. In his testimony, King urges the committee to ensure that “the Federal Government take the necessary executive and legislative action to implement the desegregation decisions of the Supreme Court,” perhaps even to the point of withholding federal funds from public schools “where there is willful refusal to comply” with court-ordered desegregation. King left immediately afterward to receive an award that evening in Buffalo from the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. The convention adopted a compromise plank that did not specifically support the Supreme Court’s rulings but did condemn “the use of force to interfere with the orderly determination of these matters by the courts.”
DR. KING: Oh God our Gracious Heavenly Father we thank Thee for the privilege of assembling here this morning.
We thank Thee for all of the opportunities of life and as we stand together today and discuss vital matters confronting our Nation and confronting the world, we ask Thy guidance be with us in all of our deliberations and help us at all times to seek to do those things which are high, noble and good, and to make our Nation a great Nation, a nation that follows all of the noble precepts of the Christian Religion and all of the noble precepts of democracy.
Grant, O God that as we move on we will move toward that city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God. Amen.
CHAIRMAN MCCORMACK: You are now recognized, Dr. King.
DR. KING: Mr. Chairman, Members of the Platform and Resolutions Committee of the Democratic Party:
First I might say that I am very happy to have the opportunity of being here this morning and making this presentation and I want to express my appreciation to the Committee for affording me this opportunity.
As you know, I come from Montgomery, Alabama, and I come representing the Negro citizens of that City as President of the Montgomery Improvement Association.2
We, the Negro citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, wish to stress the urgent need for strong federal action in the area of civil rights. There is hardly any issue confronting the nation today more crucial than the question of civil rights. To overlook this issue would mean committing both political and moral suicide. The question of civil rights is one of the supreme moral issues of our time.
Many tragic occurrences have taken place in the South in recent months to place in jeopardy the basic rights guaranteed every citizen by the Constitution. Elements in the South have risen up in open defiance. The legislative halls of the South ring loud with such words as “nullification” and “interposition.” Methods of defiance range from the economic reprisals of the deep South to the tragic reign of bombings, beatings and mob rule. Many noble citizens are losing jobs because they stand in accord with the decisions of the Supreme Court on desegregation.
But, even more, all types of conniving methods have been used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. Foremost among the civil rights of citizens in a democracy is the right to participate in the government through free exercise of the franchise, yet in the attempt to achieve this basic right of democracy, numerous persons have confronted insuperable difficulties. Some have even been killed because they sought to qualify as registered voters.
Most of these glaring denials of basic freedoms are done in the name of “States’ Rights.” But States’ Rights are only valid as they serve to protect larger human rights. We have no opposition to state government, and we are not at all advocating a centralized government with absolute sovereign powers. But we do feel that the doctrine of States’ Rights must not be made an excuse for insurrection. Human rights are prior to and therefore more basic than States’ Rights, and whenever human rights are trampled over by States’ Rights, the Federal Government is obligated to intervene for the protection.3
The Federal Government has a basic responsibility to guarantee to all of its citizens the rights and privileges of full citizenship. The state of affairs in the South has come to such a point that the only agency to which we can turn for protection is the Federal Government. Without this protection we will be plunged across the abyss of mob rule and tragic anarchy. We are sorry that the situation is such that we must mention these unpleasant things. But candor and realism impel us to stress the desparateness of the situation. We face a situation in which the hard facts are that law and order have broken down insofar as the protection of the Negro and the enjoyment of his rights as a citizen are concerned.
The Negro in his efforts to achieve the securing of his rights is determined to employ only the orderly processes of law. We will act within the framework of legal democracy without violence or force. We will not succumb to the temptation of flirting with retaliatory violence or indulging in hate campaigns.
In seeking a strong civil rights plank we are not seeking to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to help him as well as ourselves. The festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. We realize that the present tension is not so much between white people and Negro people, but between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory for civil rights, it will be a victory not merely for 16,000,000 Negroes, but a victory for justice and democracy.
We must make it clear that we stand firmly against any form of segregation. Segregation is evil. Segregation is not only rationally inexplicable, but morally scandalous. The underlying philosophy of segregation is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of democracy and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them lie down together. If democracy is to live segregation must die.
We are mindful of the fact that there are those who are calling for a doctrine of moderation. Now, if moderation means pressing on toward the goal of justice with wise restraint and calm reasonableness, then moderation is a great virtue which all men should seek to achieve in this tense period of transition. But if moderation means slowing up in the move toward justice and capitulating to the whims and caprices of the guardians of a deadening status quo, then moderation is a tragic vice which all men of good will must condemn.
In the light of the foregoing, we urge the platform committee to seriously consider including the following recommendations in the Democratic platform:
1. That this party pledge itself to the support of all of the Civil Rights legislation necessary to protect the full citizenship rights of Negroes.
2. That the Federal Government take the necessary steps to insure every qualified citizen the right to vote without threats and intimidation.
3. That the Federal Government take the necessary executive and legislative action to implement the desegregation decisions of the Supreme Court.
4. That the Federal funds be witheld from public schools and public facilities where there is wilful refusal to comply with the Supreme Court’s desegregation decisions.
5. That there be a revision of the Senate rule on cloture, thus restoring the rule of the majority and thereby removing the chief stumbling block to passage of civil rights legislation.4
In conclusion, I must say once more that the issue of civil rights is one of the supreme moral issues of our time. It is true that a firm stand for civil rights would tremendously increase our prestige in international affairs, and eliminate a convenient tool in the hands of Communistic propaganda. But the motive for making justice a reality in America must not be merely to compete with totalitarian powers. It must be done not merely because it is diplomatically expedient, but because it is morally compelling. The adoption by this Convention of a strong civil rights plank will aid us in emerging from the bleak and desolute midnight of man’s inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.
1. Donald Bruce Johnson and Kirk Porter, eds., National Party Platforms, 1840-1956 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956), p. 542. King’s associates were disappointed with the platform.
2. These introductory comments, as well as the prayer, do not appear in King’s prepared text. Otherwise, his testimony as transcribed by the secretary of the committee does not vary significantly from his prepared text. See also “Statement Before the Democratic National Convention, Committee on Platform and Resolutions,” 11 August 1956.
3. In his prepared text King ended this sentence with the phrase “of all its citizens.”
4. A letter to the committee from King and a biracial group, including such southern white liberals as Anna Holden and James McBride Dabbs, made recommendations similar to those in King’s testimony but called on the Democratic Party to pledge federal assistance to local officials assigned to bring public schools into compliance with Brown (King et al., “Letter to the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Committee on Platform and Resolutions,” August 1956). The adopted platform concurred that federal support would be required to combat racial discrimination and urged revision of Senate cloture rules. ‘‘While we were expecting a much better civil rights plank,” organizer Benjamin McLaurin of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters told King, “I suppose we will have to make ourselves satisfied with the splinter that we got” (McLaurin to King, 28 August 1956).
PDNC-MBJFK, Proceedings of the Democratic National Convention, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, Mass., Box 104.