Civil Liberties —
the Individual and the Community
March 14, 1940 — Civic Opera House, Chicago Civil Liberties Committee, Chicago IL
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. They are always telling us what we can 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 because you have first-hand knowledge of the things you have had to do in Chicago, over the years, to preserve civil liberties. But I, perhaps, 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 the things that have happened to little people, I am more and more conscious of 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. 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 maintain freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. They disappear automatically. And so, in some countries where ordinarily these rights were inviolate, today they have gone. And in some other countries, even before war came, not only had freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech disappeared, but also freedom of religion. 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 that govern so many other peoples throughout the world, and therefore we have to guard the mainstays of democracy. Civil liberties emphasize the liberty of the individual. In many other forms of government the importance of the individual has disappeared. The individual lives for the state. Here, in our democracy, the government still exists for the individual. But that does not mean that we do not have to watch, or that we do not have to examine ourselves to be sure that we preserve, for all our people, the civil liberties which are the basis of our democracy. Now, we know, if we are honest with ourselves, that, in spite of all we have said, in spite of our Constitution, we do not have — many of us in this country — real civil liberties. For that reason, everywhere in this country, every person who believes in democracy has come to feel a real responsibility to work, to know his community, to know the people of his community, and to take the trouble — each one as an individual — to try to bring about for all our people a full observance of their civil liberties.
I think I shall tell you a little story that brought home to me how important it is that in every community there should be someone to whom people can turn — people who are in doubt as to what are their rights under the law — little people, who can’t understand what is 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 any more. 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 toward them. No opportunity was given them to learn the language of the country to which they had come, and no one took the trouble to tell them how to become citizens. And it seems that some of the employers who had encouraged these people to come over and work for them preferred that they should not know too much about the government of our country. In any case, I had contact with a family where the man had been here more than thirty-five years. The first time I went to see him in his house it came about this way. I was standing with a group of people, when 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 happy if you come to her house.” I said, “Where is her house?” “Up the run,” she answered. 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.” The woman was very much excited. She 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. 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, and when we came back to the kitchen, she said, “You eat with us?” I said, “No, I just had breakfast.” But 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 friends. The minute I crossed the threshold I knew something had happened in that house. It was quite dark. In a few minutes an old man came through from the back room. He said, “Mrs. Roosevelt, you have come. I have wanted to ask you something for a long time.” He said, “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 several times. What does it mean?”
There was nobody who stood out in the community whom he dared trust, to whom 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 no citizen. And they were living, those two people, by being allowed by the county to take in four old men who would otherwise have gone, I suppose, to the county poor house. Six people were living on the allowance of 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, had worked hard and contributed to the wealth of the country. It had never been anybody’s business, first of all, to see that he learned the English language well enough to find things out for himself; or, 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. No, the man couldn’t be on W.P.A. He could, though, 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 that is, perhaps, one of the greatest things civil liberties committees do: give people like that a feeling that there is someone who cares. And I wish we had one such group in every place throughout the country — one group of people who really care when things go wrong, when there is something which seems to them inexcusable.
There are many times when, even though there is freedom of the press and freedom of speech, it is hard to get a hearing for certain noble 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 exists among certain groups in our country today to consider that these are rights are only for people who think as they do, that they are not rights for the people who disagree with them. I believe that you must apply to all groups the same rights, to all forms of thought, to all forms of expression, the same liberties. Otherwise, you practically deny the fact that you trust the people to choose for themselves, in a majority, what is wise and what is right. And when you do that, you deny the possibility of having a democracy. You have got to be willing to listen, to allow people to state any point of view they may have or to say anything they may believe, and then to trust that, when everyone has had his say, when there has been free discussion and really free, uninfluenced expression in the press, in the end the majority of the people will have the wisdom to decide what is right. We have got to have faith, even when the majority decides wrongly. We must still hold to the fundamental principles that we have laid down and wait for the day to come when the thing that we believe is right becomes the majority way of the people.
Of course, that means that we must have a real belief that people have intelligence enough 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 can go on living in what we consider a normal and free way of life. 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 tells, in novel form, about the time that Czechoslovakia was taken over, to show what happened to little people. Some of those people were Communists. The authorities had certain types of treatment for people in Czechoslovakia who were considered dangerous to the new regime, and the whole description 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 — is a horrible one. 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 that now, just to make us realize how important it is that for no reason whatsoever should we allow ourselves to be dominated by fear so that we curtail civil liberties. Let us see that everybody who is really dangerous 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 — there can be no civil liberty.
Never before was it so important that every individual should carry his share of responsibility and see that we obey the laws, live up to the Constitution, and preserve every one of those precious liberties which leave us free as individuals. One of the things to which we have to be particularly alert today is the growth of religious prejudice and race prejudice. Those are two things which are a great menace, for 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 once sat at a desk in a political campaign. I was running an office for the National Committee of Democratic Women. Over my desk came literature and material which I did not suppose anyone would print in the United States, and much of it had been brought out by members of various denominations and religious bodies against other people of other religions. 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 were not forced to worship. That is a fundamental liberty. When religion begins to take part in politics, we violate a principle which we have set up, and that is the division between church and state. I think people should hold carefully to that principle.
As for having respect for the religion of other people, and leaving them to live their lives the way they wish, I believe we should teach every child to grow up with respect for all religions. Every child should know that his religion is his own, and that nobody else has the right to question it. Nor has he the right to question what others may believe in.
In addition to that, I think we should begin much earlier to teach all the children of our nation what a wonderful heritage of freedom they have — of 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, of how much this has served in the development of the land. Yet somehow I think we have failed in many ways to bring 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; there should never be a feeling that one strain is better than another. After all, we are all immigrants — all except Indians, who, we might say, are the only inhabitants of this country who have a real right to say that they own the country. I think that our being composed of so many foreign peoples is the very reason why we should preserve the basic principles of civil liberty. It should be easy for us to live up to our Constitution, but there are many groups among us who do not live up to what was written in that Constitution.
I am very much interested to find that in our younger generation there is a greater consciousness of what civil liberty really means. 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 problems. We don’t know the answers to many of the problems that face us today, and neither do the young people. But 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, but 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 that 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 of citizens in our democracy? That, we all have to face. Any citizen of this country is entitled to equality before the law; to equality of education; to equality at earning a living, as far as his abilities make that possible; to equality of participation in government, so that he may register his opinion in just the way that any other citizen can do. Now, those are basic rights, belonging to every citizen in every minority group. We have got, I think, to stand up and be counted when it comes to the question of whether any minority group is not to have those rights, because the minute we deny any of our basic rights to any citizen, we are preparing the way for the denial of those rights to someone else. Who is going to say it is not right today to do this or that? Who is going to say it is not right tomorrow? And where does it stop? We have to make up our minds as to 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.
I listened to the broadcast this afternoon with a great deal of interest. I had almost forgotten how hard the working man had to fight for his rights. I knew there was a time when hours were longer and wages lower, but I had forgotten just how long had been the fight for freedom — freedom to come together, to bargain collectively — freedom of association. Sometimes, until some particular thing comes to your notice, you think that those rights have been won for every working man. But then you come across a case, as I did the other day in the South, where someone has 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 — unless someone is always on the lookout, ready to take up the cudgel 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, you have acknowledged that you are no longer able to trust in your courts and in your law-enforcing machinery. Civil liberties are not very well off when anything like that happens.
So, I think, after listening to the broadcast today, I should 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, there was a long line of courageous people. And that is something to be proud of and something to hold on to. But its only value lies in the premise that we profit by it and continue the tradition in the future; that we do not let those people back of us down; that we have courage; that we do not succumb to fears of any kind; that we live up to the things we believe in; that we see that justice is done to the people under the Constitution, whether they belong to minority groups or not; that we realize that this country is a united country, in which all people have the same rights as citizens; and that we are grateful for that; and finally, that we trust the youth of the nation to herald the real principles of democracy-in-action in this country and to make this even more truly a democratic nation.
Source: “The Chicago Civil Liberties Committee: Address by Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt,” 1940. Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, NY.
Copyright 2022 by the Eleanor Roosevelt Estate. Used by permission. All rights reserved.