I recently finished an anthology of twentieth-century speeches just south of 500 pages. It was fascinating to hear some of the most influential policy makers of the last one hundred years speak on matters of war, poverty, race, and inequality; many of the words are just as timely now as in the generation they were spoken.
As I read, certain excerpts on issues we currently face stuck out. Rather than expanding on them, I curated them by issue. These powerful words speak for themselves.
The 2020 Election
Richard Nixon: As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. we see Americans dying on distant battlefields...we see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish: did we come all this way for this:? Listen to the answers to that question. It is another voice, it is a quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators. They are not racists or sick; they are not guilty of the crime that plagues the land; they are black, they are white; the are native born and foreign born; they are young and they are old. They are good people. They are decent people. Like Theodore Roosevelt, they know that this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless its a good place for all of us to live in. America is in trouble today not because her people have failed, but because her leaders have failed. And what America needs are leaders to match the greatness of her people. And this great group of Americans--the forgotten Americans and others--know that he great questions Americans must answer by their votes in November is this: whether we shall continue for four more years the policies of the last four years.
Edward Kennedy: Now is the time. Some men see things as they are and say, why? We dream things that never were and say, why not? Now is the time.
Vaclav Havel: The best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would also be wrong to expect a general remedy from them only. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.
Richard Nixon: I see a day when the President of the United States is respected and his office is honored because it is worthy of respect and honor. I see a day when every child in this land, regardless of his background, has a chance for the best education that our wisdom and schools can provide, and an equal chance to go just as high as his talents will take him...that child in that great city is more important than any politician's promise. He is America, he is a poet, he is a scientist, he is a great teacher, he is a proud craftsman, he is everything we have ever hoped to be and everything we dare to dream about.
Dignity and Worth of the Individual
Robert Kennedy: At the heart of that Western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society.
Robert Kennedy: We must recognize the full human equality of all our people--before God, before the law, an in the councils of government. we must do this not because it is economically advantageous-although it is; not because the law of God and man command it--although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.
Robert Kennedy: 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 that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Salman Rushdie: What is my single life worth? Despair whispers in my ear: Not a lot.' But I refuse to give in to despair.
Salman Rushdie: Our lives teach us who we are.
Eugene V. Debs: I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
FDR: The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and our fellow-men.
Barry Goldwater: Now those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth, and let me remind you they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyranny. Absolute power does corrupt, and those whose seek it must be suspect and must be opposed...I see a a day when all the Americas--North and South--will be linked in a mighty system--a system in which the errors and misunderstandings of the past will be submerged one by one in a rising tide o prosperity and interdependence. .
Roy Jenkins: A few people, whether out of political opportunism or personal inadequacy, have deliberately whipped up prejudice, playing on fear and ignorance, and blaming the immigrants for problems which were none of their making--but stemmed from previous parsimony in housing, schools and welfare services. Of course there are some who have legitimate individual grievance against an immigrant, just as white men can have against white men, or black men against black men. But this is not the root of the problem. the root is community prejudice, and it is that with which, whether it springs from fear or inadequacy or less reputable motives, we have to deal.
Super PACs/Citizens United
FDR: We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Nelson Mandela: There must be an end to white monopoly on political power, and a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems to ensure that the inequalities of apartheid are addressed and our society thoroughly democratized.
FDR: In the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor--the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and ,because he does so, respects the rights of others--the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.
Emmeline Pankhurst: What we want is the combined intelligence of man and woman working for th salvation of the children of the race."
Betty Friedan: Men will only be truly liberated to love women and to be fully themselves when women are liberated to have a full say in the decisions of their lies and their society.
Harold Evans: A free press provide an indispensable feedback system from governed to the governing, from consumers to producers, from the regions to the center, and not least from one section of the bureaucracy to another. It is one of the strengths of a society with a competent and plural system of free communication that feedback happens automatically.
Clarence Darrow: Every human being's life in this world is inevitably mixed with every other life and, no matter what laws we pass, no matter what precautions we take, unless the people we meet are kindly and decent and human and liberty-loving then there is no liberty. Freedom comes from human beings, rather than from laws and institutions.
Stanley Baldwin: What the world suffers from--and I have said this before--is a sense of fear, a want of confidence, and it is a fer held instinctively and without knowledge very often...we have never known mankind go back on a new invention. There are some instruments so terrible that mankind has resolved not to use them.
FDR: So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory."
FDR: In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want--which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants--everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is unity of purpose."
JFK: For courage--not complacency--is our need today-leadership--not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.
JFK (speaking in Berlin): Freedom is indivisible and when one man is enslaved who are free? When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe.
Bishop George Bell: What we do in war--which, after all, lasts a comparatively short time-affects the whole character of peace, which covers a much longer period.
LBJ: In this age when here can be no losers in peace and no victors in war, we must recognize the obligation to match national strength with national restraint.
LBJ: We often say how impressive power is. But I do not find it impressive at all. The guns and the bombs, the rockets and the warships, are all symbols of human failure. The are necessary symbols. They protect what we cherish. But they are witness to human folly. A dam built across a great river is impressive. A rich harvest in a hungry land is impressive. The sight of healthy children in a classroom is impressive. These--not mighty wars--are the achievements which the American Nation believes to be impressive...this generation of the world must choose: destroy or build, kill or aid, hate or understand.
Nelson Mandela: The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery...the present Government has always sought to hamper Africans in their search for education...he other main obstacle to the economic advancement of the Africans is the industrial color bar by which all the better jobs of industry are reserved for whites only...poverty and the breakdown of family life have secondary effects. Children wander about...because they have no schools to go to,...this leads to a breakdown in moral standards...to growing violence which erupts, not only politically but everywhere...the only cure is to alter the conditions under which the Africans are forced to live, and to meet their legitimate grievances."
LBJ: We will carry on the fight against poverty and misery, and disease and ignorance, in other lands and in our own.
LBJ: The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,..The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.
LBJ: Dignity cannot be found in a man's possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position: it really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others.
Nelson Mandela: I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity.
MLK: There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'when will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negros basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
MLK: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
In a day where our national leadership demoralizes many of us, may we take comfort in the legacy we come from. Our past has much darkness and evil in it, but it also has hope in people who truly dared greatly and dreamed of a more equal and safe world.
This Thanksgiving, I am most grateful for the great leaders of our past 100 years: FDR, Truman, Wilson, MLK, JFK, Bobby Kennedy.
May we all work to elect policy makers who reflect something greater than self-interest. May we all work to elect policy makers who work for the common good.