Standing as an Advocate, at Home and Abroad

“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.”
Sargent Shriver |South Bend, IN| March 21, 1974

Our Quote of the Week reminds us that we cannot be credible advocates for others abroad unless we treat our own people with humanity.

This week’s quote comes from the 1974 Speech at the University of Notre Dame on Civil & Human Rights. Avid followers of the Quote of the Week will remember that this is a speech we cite often. It is the first of two powerful lectures Shriver gave at the University Notre Dame at the time; you can see videos of both on our website, here and here.

In this speech, Shriver 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.

Shriver points out that we have fallen short in our efforts to uphold civil rights at home. In speaking about African American citizens, he says:

“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.”On the subject of international human rights issues, Shriver states that humanity’s most pressing challenges are not limited within any one set of borders, and that we need to work together as an international community in order to tackle them:
“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.”
With these words, we are reminded of the importance and urgency of protecting the well-being of all members of our human family.

Of course, this week’s quote makes 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.

From the ways in which we respond to repressive laws in other countries to the ways in which we deal with equity and equality at home, we must remember that when it comes to humanitarian and social issues, 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 to 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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