On February 2, 1955, New York Representative Adam Clayton Powell, then one of only three African Americans in the U.S. Congress, rose to argue that his colleagues should support two pending civil rights bills then before the House of Representatives. His speech appears below:
Mr. Speaker, the United States Congress is a 19th century body in a 20th century world. In the field of civil rights we are still conducting ourselves along the pattern of yesterday’s world. Tremendous changes are taking place in our country eradicating the concept of second-class citizenship. Yet the United States Congress has done absolutely nothing in this sphere. We are behind the times. We are a legislative anachronism. In an age of atomic energy, our dynamic is no more powerful than a watermill.
The executive and the judicial branches of our Government have passed us by so completely and are so far ahead that the peoples of our Nation do not even look to the United States Congress any longer for any dynamic leadership in the field of making democracy real. So many changes, tremendous changes, have taken place under our Supreme Court and under the leadership of President Eisenhower that many of the civil rights bills which I used to introduce are no longer of any value. This year, for instance, I did not introduced the bill to abolish segregation in the Armed Forces–it was not needed. Nor did I introduce the bill to guarantee civil rights in the District of Columbia-it was not needed.
I think it highly significant to point out that the appointment of my distinguished colleagues, Representatives Diggs, of Detroit, Mich., and Dawson, of Chicago, Ill., to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the District of Columbia Committee, respectively, was due entirely to the changing climate.
Two years ago the leadership of this House, Republican or Democrat, would not have dared to place a Negro on either of these two committees because both were committees which dealt with segregation.
Our Veterans’ Administration rigidly maintained the bars of segregation, especially in our veterans’ hospitals. Two years ago, this Capital was a cesspool of democracy where not only I, as a Negro congressman, was banned from a public places but also visiting chiefs of state and their representatives, if their skin happened to be dark. But under the vigorous leadership of H.V. Higley, Administrator of Veterans’ Affairs, there is no longer any segregation in any veterans’ hospital. And under the leadership of District Commissioner Samuel Spencer, from Mississippi, if you please, this Capital has become a glorious place, truly representative of the finest of our American way of life. And, again I repeat, all of this was done without the help of the Congress and ofttimes done in spite of the opposition of the Congress.
For 10 years, my colleagues and I have introduced civil rights amendment after amendment, civil rights bill after bill, pleading, praying that you good ladies and gentlemen would give to this body the glory of dynamic leadership that it should have. But you have failed and history has recorded it.
I am proud to be a Member of the Congress of the United States. I am proud to be a Member of the legislative branch of the United States Government and I know you are too. But I beseech you to transform this emotion of pride into the deed of leadership. This is an hour for boldness. This is an hour when a world waits breathlessly, expectantly, almost hungrily, for this Congress, the 84th Congress, through legislation to give some semblance of democracy in action. Our President and our Supreme Court cannot do all this by themselves and, furthermore, we should not expect it. We are derelict in our duty if we continue to plow looking backward. No man is fit for this new world, for this new kingdom of God on earth, who plows looking backward. And it is coming with or without us. Time is running out, ladies and gentlemen; Asia has almost slipped from our grasp and Africa will be next. There is no guaranty of our position in Europe. Only a resolute three-pronged drive can make democracy live, breather, and move now. Only legislative, judicial and executive action can completely guarantee the victory of the free world.
The legislative branch-this Congress-must immediately change its childish, immature, compromising, 19th century attitude and not just become a part of the 20th century world but a leader.
Therefore I ask all of you, on both sides of the aisle, to support this year the bill to eradicate segregation in interstate transportation; to support the omnibus civil rights bill offered by Representative Emanuel Celler, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Prompt hearings on these bills should be held immediately and swift passage with a minimum of friction should be brought about. We should have a bipartisan approach to domestic democracy or our bipartisan foreign policy approach will be utterly meaningless.
The fair employment opportunities bill did languish in the Committee on Education and Labor, of which I am a member, under the chairmanship of both the Republican and the Democratic leaders, and that should immediately be considered.
The opponents of a fair employment opportunities bill state that they do not believe that the Federal Government should intrude in States rights. I do not agree with them, but until such time as we do pass a national FEPC, I am introducing today an FEPC bill for the District of Columbia. There can be no argument of violation of States rights now. An FEPC bill for the District of Columbia would automatically allow this Congress to become a part of the glorious, victorious, forward march of our executive and judicial branches in the District of Columbia.
We who believe in civil rights urge first: Unity of thought and action for the passage of an interstate antisegregation bill to ban segregation on all interstate carriers. This bill has been introduced by the gentleman from Massachusetts, Representative Heselton. Also I have introduced a companion bill.
Last year when the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce was considering legislation to end segregation in interstate travel, a 29 year old witness appeared. He was Lt. Thomas Williams, formerly of the United States Air Force. Lieutenant Williams had volunteered for duty when he was 19 years old. He served in the Air Force with merit until 1953 when he was dropped following his arrest in the State of Florida because he refused to move from a so-called white section of an interstate bus. That young man, in the uniform of his country, was jailed and fined even though the United States Supreme Court had told carriers to end racial segregation. That case is still before the courts on appeal. After he was dropped by the United States Air Force, Lieutenant Williams was so eager to serve his country that he enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard. He served for nearly a year. About 2 weeks ago, while flying a jet plane, he was killed serving his country before he had a chance to see democracy come to pass.
We believe in the second place in unity of though and action towards the passage of an omnibus civil-rights bill.
We believe in the third place in unity of thought and action for the passage of though and action for the passage of a fair employment opportunities act.
I would like to serve notice that some of us intend after a reasonable time of waiting for our committees and our committee chairmen to act to use every parliamentary device we can to bring before this Congress civil-rights bills of worth and value. We intend to use, after a reasonable period of time, Calendar Wednesdays and discharge petitions. I trust that the leadership will give us cooperation and that we will not be stymied by the use of counter parliamentary methods to prevent us from bringing Calendar Wednesday forward.
On this day, when we bow our heads and hearts in the memory of one of the greatest human beings that ever lived, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, may we not use some of the breadth of his greatness in our hearts and minds, realizing those great words of his that “We have nothing to fear but fear.”
So let us be strong.
We are not here to play, to dream, to drift.
We have hard work to do, loads to life.
Shun not the struggle that is God’s gift.
Be strong. It matters not how deep entrenched the wrong.
Nor how hard the battle goes, nor the night how long.
Faint not, fight on.
Tomorrow will come the dawn.