Reflecting on Civil Rights and Human Rights, 58 Years after the March on Washington

“If the United States is to stand as an advocate for human rights abroad, as I think it must, then we must act for civil rights at home. [...] A series of emerging issues before us cuts across the traditional distinctions between domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, we now face practical problems of a transnational nature which witness empirically to insights which poets and philosophers have expressed for centuries about the unity of the human family, its solidarity and its single destiny.”
Sargent Shriver |South Bend, IN| March 21, 1974

Our Quote of the Week was chosen in celebration of the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington (August 28, 1963), in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. It reminds us that if the United States is to have any kind of international authority in upholding human rights around the world, it must protect civil rights for all within its borders. The quote also calls us to tackle our most pressing challenges, both foreign and domestic, with one motivation: to nurture and protect the welfare, rights, and freedoms of our one, human family.

In 1974, Sargent Shriver was invited to speak at a conference on human rights at the University of Notre Dame. He gave two powerful lectures, which you can see here and here. Our Quote of the Week comes from the first of these two lectures. In this speech, he weaves together human rights and civil rights, and stresses the importance of exercising justice and spirituality when tackling social issues. He emphasizes the fact that respect for human rights must be universal and must be preserved both within our public institutions and in our private lives.

Throughout his life, Shriver stressed the importance of justice, dignity, and respect for all human beings. All of his efforts in institution-building reflected this principle. His work in the area of civil rights, his creation of the Peace Corps, his development of the War on Poverty programs, his work in the area of poverty law, his support of Special Olympics: all of these initiatives are rooted in the recognition that each human being is worthy of dignity and respect.

It may be said that Shriver’s stance on civil and human rights complemented Dr. King’s; we’ve written more about this topic here. In Dr. King’s “I have a dream speech”, we notice themes that are similar to Sargent Shriver’s;

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

With these words, we are reminded of the importance and urgency of upholding the promise the Declaration of Independence for all Americans.

Of course, this week’s quote stresses a broader point about civil and human rights. As the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, the United States is in a position to address injustice, poverty, inequality, conflict, and other social issues outside of its borders. But the only way we can do that with authority and with credibility is if we address them inside our borders.

Scrolling through today’s headlines, we realize that, both domestically and internationally, there is much work to be done in these areas. From the way in which we deal with refugees and immigrants to the strategies we adopt to protect voting rights at home; from the way we collaborate in ending the COVID-19 pandemic internationally to how we address criminal justice reform in our states, we must remember that when it comes to humanitarian and social challenges, borders do not matter -- only people matter.

Whether in our homes, our communities, our workplaces, in the halls of our local governments, or in our international endeavors, let’s set the expectation that we must preserve the dignity and rights of every human being above all else -- and let us act in ways that support this expectation.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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