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Preserving Civil Libertiesby Eleanor Roosevelt

Preserving Civil Liberties

Chicago IL

March 14, 1940

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am glad you gave an award to the press tonight, because that gave them the opportunity to tell us just what they could do. Now we have come here tonight because of civil liberties. I imagine a great many of you could give my talk far better than I could, because you have had first-hand knowledge in the things you have had to do in Chicago over the years to preserve civil liberties. Perhaps, however, I am more conscious of the importance of civil liberties in this particular moment of our history than anyone else, because as I travel through the country and meet people and see things that have happened to little people, I realize what it means to democracy to preserve our civil liberties.

All through the years we have had to fight for civil liberty, and we know that there are times when the light grows rather dim, and every time that happens democracy is in danger. Now, largely because of the troubled state of the world as a whole, civil liberties have disappeared in many other countries. It is impossible, of course, to be at war and to keep freedom of the press and freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. They disappear automatically. And so in many countries where ordinarily they were safe, today they have gone. In other countries, even before war came, not only freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech disappeared, but freedom of religion disappeared. And so we know that here in this country, we have a grave responsibility. We are at peace. We have no reason for the fears which govern so many other peoples throughout the world; therefore, we have to guard the freedoms of democracy.

"Civil Liberties" emphasizes the liberty of the individual. In many other forms of governments the importance of the individual has disappeared. The individual lives for the state. Here in a democracy, the government still exists for the individual, but that does not mean that we do not have to watch and that we do not have to examine ourselves to be sure that we preserve the civil liberties for all our people, which are the basis of our democracy.

Now, you know if we are honest with ourselves, in spite of all we have said, in spite of our Constitution, many of us in this country do not enjoy real liberty. For that reason we know that everywhere in this country every person who believes in democracy has come to feel a real responsibility to work in his community and to know the people of his community, and to take the trouble to try to bring about the full observance for all our people of their civil liberties.

I think I will tell you a little story that brought home to me how important it was that in every community there should be someone to whom people could turn, who were in doubt as to what were their rights under the law, when they couldn't understand what was happening to them. I happen to go every now and then to a certain mining community and in that mining community there are a number of people who came to this country many years ago. They have been here so many years that they have no other country. This is their country. Their children have been born here. They work here. They have created great wealth for this country, but they came over at a time when there was not very much feeling of social responsibility about giving them the opportunity to learn the language of the country to which they had come, or telling them how to become citizens, or teaching about the government of this country.

I had contact with a family where the man had been here over thirty-five years, and the first time I went to see him in his house it came about this way: I was standing with a group of people, and a young girl with arms full of packages came along the road. She stopped to look at me and said, "Why, you are Mrs. Roosevelt. My mama say, "She is happy if you come to her house'." I said, "Where is her house?" "Up the run." So I walked with her and when I got to the house a Polish woman was sitting at the table. The girl walked in and said, "Mama, this is Mrs. Roosevelt," and the woman got up and threw both arms around me, and I was kissed on both cheeks. She told me she had been expecting me to come for a long time. She wanted me to come because she wanted me to see how really nice her house was, and we went through the four rooms, and it was nice. She had made crochet pieces which decorated every table. The bedspreads were things of real beauty. We admired everything together. We came back to the kitchen and she said, "You eat with us?" and I said, "No, I just had breakfast." She wouldn't let me leave without eating something, so we had a piece of bread there together.

Six months later I came back, and I went again to visit my friend. The minute I crossed the threshold, I knew something had happened in that house. It was quite dark. In a few minutes the old man came through from the back room, and he said; "Mrs. Roosevelt, you have come. I have wanted to ask you something for a long time. The mine, it close down, no more work. I work on W.P.A. for a time, and then they tell me I no citizen. Mrs. Roosevelt, I vote. I vote often. Why I no citizen?"

There was nobody that stood out in the community that he dared trust, that he felt he could go to find out what his rights were, or what he should do. Well, of course, it was true he had never become a citizen. His children were born in this country; they were citizens, but he was not. And they had lived, those two people, by being allowed by the county to take in four old men who would have gone otherwise to the county poor house. Six people were living on the allowance for those four old men. The allowance was pitifully small. As I looked at the stove at what they were going to have for supper, I realized the woman wouldn't again say, "Sit down and eat." There wasn't enough for a stranger, and that was the breakdown of her morale. It hurt you.

Something was wrong with the spirit of America that an injustice like that could happen to a man who, after all, worked hard and contributed to the wealth of the country. It should have been somebody's business, first of all, to see that he learned the English language well enough to find things out for himself. Secondly, when he was in trouble, to fight for his rights and to tell him how to go about to remedy what was wrong. I felt there was something wrong with any community where you had to wait many months for a stranger to come to listen to your story and help you straighten out what was a manifest injustice. He couldn't be on W.P.A. He could start out to become a citizen, and he could get relief and, at least, have the feeling that there was an interest on the part of someone in justice. I think that is, perhaps, one of the greatest things that the civil liberties committees do, and I wish we had one in every place throughout the country--one group of people who really care when things go wrong and do something when there is an infringement of the individual's rights.

There are many times when even with freedom of the press and freedom of speech, it is hard to get a hearing for certain causes. I often think that we, all of us, should think very much more carefully than we do about what we mean by freedom of speech, by freedom of the press, by freedom of assembly. I sometimes am much worried by the tendency that you find today in our country only to think that these are rights for the people who think as we do. Some people seem to think these rights are not for people who disagree with them. I believe that you must apply to all groups the right to all forms of thought, to all forms of expression. Otherwise, you practically refuse to trust people to choose for themselves what is wise and what is right, and in doing that you deny the possibility of a democratic form of government. You have to be willing to listen or to allow people to state any point of view they may have, to say anything they may believe, and trust that when everyone has had his say, when there has been free discussion and really free expression in an influenced press, in the end the majority of the people will have the wisdom to decide what is right. We have to have faith that even when the majority seems to decide as we think wrongly, we still believe the fundamental principles that we have laid down, and we wait for the day to come when the thing that we believe is right becomes the majority decision of the people.

Well, of course, that means that we have to have a real belief that people have sufficient intelligence to live in a democracy, and that is something which we are really testing out in this country today, because we are the only great democracy, and we are the only great democracy that is at peace and that can go on and live in what we consider a normal and free way of living. It is only here that people don't have to tremble when they say what they think. I don't know how many of you have read a book that I have been reading, but I think it is a most vivid picture of the kind of fear that has gradually come to all the people of Europe. It is Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn, a young woman who was a war correspondent. The story was put in novel form and is about the taking over of Czechoslovakia. Certain people in Czechoslovakia were considered dangerous to the new regime--and the whole description is horrible of what they call "going underground," living in hiding, afraid to speak to each other, afraid to recognize each other on the streets, for fear they would be tortured to death. Only great fear could bring people to treat other people like that, and I can only say that it seems to me that we should read as vivid a story as this now, just to make us realize how important it is, that for no reason whatsoever, we allow ourselves to be dominated by fears so that we curtail civil liberties.

Let us see that everybody who is really in danger in our community has, at least, his or her day in court. Constituted authority has to work under the law. When the law becomes something below the surface, hidden from the people, something which is underground, so to speak, and over which the people no longer hold control, then all of us are in danger.

_______________ The minute we deny any rights... to any citizen, we are preparing the way for the denial of those rights to someone else. _______________ Never before was it so important that every individual should carry his share of responsibility and see that we do obey the laws, live up to the Constitution, and preserve everyone of those precious liberties which leave us free as individuals. One of the things that we have to be particularly alive to today is the growth of religious prejudice and race prejudice. Those are two things which are a great menace because we find that in countries where civil liberties have been lost, both religious and race prejudice have been rampant. I think it would be well for us, if we could define what we mean when we say that we believe in religious freedom.

I sat at a desk in a political campaign once. I was running the office dealing with women for the National Democratic Committee. Over my desk came literature and material which I did not suppose any one would print in the United States, and much of it was written and published by people who belong to various religious denominations. It seems to me that the thing we must fix in our minds is that from the beginning, this country was founded on the right of all people to worship God as they saw fit, and if they do not wish to worship, they are not forced to worship. That is a fundamental liberty. When religion begins to take part in politics, we violate something which we have set up, which is a division between church and state.

As far as having respect for the religion of other people and leaving them to live their lives the way they wish, we should teach that to every child. Every child should know that his religion is his own and nobody else has the right to question it. In addition to that, I think we should begin much earlier to teach all the children of our nation what a wonderful heritage they have for freedom. For freedom from prejudice, because they live in a nation which is made up of a great variety of other nations. They have before them and around them every day the proof that people can understand each other and can live together amicably, and that races can live on an equal basis, even though they may be very different in background, very different in culture. We have an opportunity to teach our children how much we have gained from the coming to this land of all kinds of races, how much it has served in the development of the land. Somehow I think we have [also] failed in many ways in bringing it early enough to children how great is their obligation to the various strains that make up the people of the United States. Above all, there should never be race prejudice here; there should never be a feeling that one strain is better than another. Indians are the only real inhabitants of the country who have a right to say that they own this country! I think this is the reason that we should preserve freedom of mind on the things which are basic to civil liberties. And it should be easy for us to live up to our Constitution.

I am very much interested to find that in our younger generation, however, there is a greater consciousness of what civil liberties really mean, and I think that is one of the hopeful things in the world today, that youth is really taking a tremendous interest in the preservation of civil liberties. It is a very hard period in the world for youth because they are faced with new kinds of problems. We don't know the answers to many of the problems that face us today and neither do the young people, and the problems are very much more important to the young because they must start living. We have had our lives. The young people want to begin, and they can't find a way to get started. Perhaps that has made them more conscious of civil liberties. Perhaps that is why when you get a group of them together you find them fighting against the prejudices which have grown up in our country, against the prejudices which have made it hard for the minority groups in our country.

The other night someone sent up a question to me: "What do you think should be done about the social standing of the Negro race in this country?" Well now, of course, I think the social situation is one that has to be dealt with by individuals. The real question that we have to face in this country is what are we doing about the rights of a big minority group as citizens in our democracy. That we have to face. Any citizen in this country is entitled to equality before the law; to equality of education; to equality at earning a living, as far as his abilities have made it possible for him to do; to equality of participation in government so that he or she may register their opinion in just the way that any other citizens do. Now those things are basic rights, belonging to every citizen in every minority group, and we have an obligation, I think, to stand up and be counted when it comes to the question of whether any minority group does not have those rights as citizens in this country. The minute we deny any rights of this kind to any citizen, we are preparing the way for the denial of those rights to someone else. We have to make up our minds what we really believe. We have to decide whether we believe in the Bill of Rights, in the Constitution of the United States, or whether we are going to modify it because of the fears that we may have at the moment.

Now I listened to the broadcast this afternoon with a great deal of interest. I almost forgot what a fight had been made to assure the rights of the working man. I know there was a time when hours were longer and wages lower, but I had forgotten just how long that fight for freedom, to bargain collectively, and to have freedom of assembly, had taken. Sometimes, until some particular thing comes to your notice, you think something has been won for every working man, and then you come across as I did the other day a case where someone had taken the law into his own hands and beaten up a labor organizer. I didn't think we did those things any more in this country, but it appears that we do. Therefore, someone must be always on the lookout to see that someone is ready to take up the cudgels to defend those who can't defend themselves.

That is the only way we are going to keep this country a law-abiding country, where law is looked upon with respect and where it is not considered necessary for anybody to take the law into his own hands. The minute you allow that, then you have acknowledged that you are no longer able to trust in your courts and in your law-enforcing machinery, and civil liberties are not very well off when anything like that happens; so I think that after listening to the broadcast today, I would like to remind you that behind all those who fight for the Constitution as it was written, for the rights of the weak and for the preservation of civil liberties, we have a long line of courageous people, which is something to be proud of and something to hold on to. Its only value lies, however, in the fact that we profit by example and continue the tradition in the future. We must not let those people back of us down; we must have courage; we must not succumb to fears of any kind; and we must live up to the things that we believe in and see that justice is done to the people under the Constitution, whether they belong to minority groups or not. This country is a united country in which all people have the same rights as citizens. We are grateful that we can trust in the youth of the nation that they are going on to uphold the real principles of democracy and put them into action in this country. They are going to make us an even more truly democratic nation.


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