100 years ago today marks the birthday of progressive Maine Governor and Senator Edmund Muskie. While Muskie is perhaps most famous for ushering in some of our nation's most important environmental laws, he was also a passionate advocate for civil rights.
In 1961, Muskie spoke before the Florida affiliate of the ACLU. His words then are just as relevant today.
This Is My Country
My father's father was a farmer in Russian-occupied Poland prior to the turn of the century. He shared the intense patriotism and love of liberty which has preserved the identity of my ancestors as a people through centuries of oppression. He early determined that his youngest son, my father, should have an opportunity to build a better and freer life than appeared possible under the czarist tyranny.
And so it was that, in his early teens, my father was apprenticed to a tailor. At the age of 17, having learned his trade, he left his home, embarking upon a new life, preferring the bright prospect of the unknown and unfamiliar freedom to his oppression darkened homeland.
What he found here forever justified his hopes and his father's faith. At his knee, I have heard him reminisce, for hours on end, out of the fullness of his heart, upon his boyhood life -- the close family ties which bound him to loved ones he was never to see again, the warmth at his father's house, the joys and pleasures of his childhood. It could not have been easy for him to leave them behind. He talked to me of these things because he wanted to relive them. But he had a deeper purpose.
Increasingly, as the years passed by, and my comprehension grew, he drove home his lesson. What he had lost had been more than offset by what he gained -- for himself, for his father, and for me. Here, if a man had ability, he could apply it in a manner of his own choosing. Here, if a man had an opinion, he could express it without fear of reprisal. Here, if a man disagreed with governmental policy, he could say so, and, more than that, he could do something about it by casting his ballot at the polls. Here, a man was completely free to reap the fruits of his own integrity, intellectual, and physical capacity, his own work. There were no heights toward which he could not strive. It mattered not what his national background, his religious or political beliefs, his economic status in life might be.
These beliefs were my father's life. He held them confidently through periods when he felt the lash of prejudice directed against those of foreign birth and of his creed. On the evening of my inaugural day as Governor of Maine, he turned to me and said, very simply, "Now I can die happy." A few months later the final chapter of his life was written. I am sure that, in the closing moments, he must have thought of the strange and wonderful destiny which had so astonishingly vindicated the beliefs which had uprooted his life.
In 1789, Benjamin Franklin described the America which was my father's life, when he wrote:
"God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man, may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface, and say, ‘This is my country.’ ”
Everyone in America is a member of a minority group. It may be economic, social, political, religious, racial, regional, or based upon national origin. It may not be such today as to set us apart in any unpleasant way. But it could tomorrow.
The character of our minority status may vary in its impact today upon our effective enjoyment of dignity, equality, security, and opportunity. It may not today constitute a disability in any of these respects. But it could tomorrow.
Our particular minority group may be joined today with others in a common cause or common prejudice or a common indifference with majority status. The accompanying power to affect the rights and privileges of minority groups not a part of the coalition is subject to abuse resulting from indifference, callousness, or deliberate intent. Today, as a member of the current majority, the possibility, or even the actuality, of such abuse may be of no concern to us. But it could be, if our particular minority group becomes the object of tomorrow's prejudice or indifference.
To those who say -- and there are such -- that certain national and ethnic groups are better and more desirable as Americans than others, let us ask: "Who is to make the selection, and at what point in history, and is the selection subject to revision as the majority coalition changes?"
To those who say that there are superior and inferior citizens, depending wholly upon race, national origin, religion, or color, let us ask: "Who is to make the selection and how can you be sure what your status will be when the majority coalition takes shape?"
I am not suggesting that the case for civil liberties should be based upon fear of each other.
I am saying simply this. Our differences have made our country great. They have done so because, increasingly, creative ability, intellectual capacity, and high moral and spiritual principles, wherever found, have been allowed to seek their highest attainable level.
I am also saying this. Our differences can destroy us; and the instruments for such destruction are prejudice, fear, indifference, hatred, and retaliation.
Is it better for us and our country that we seek reasons to like and trust each other? Or is it better that we seek reasons to fear each other?
In the 1860's, the Maine Legislature concerned itself with the problem of inducing settlements in the unpeopled townships of the State. An agent was sent to Sweden, with instructions to make vigorous efforts to establish a Swedish colony in Maine. Within 10 weeks he had brought to Maine 22 men, 11 women, and 18 children -- including a pastor, farmers, a civil engineer, a blacksmith, 2 carpenters, a basketmaker, a baker, a tailor, and a shoemaker. They carved a home out of the wilderness of northern Maine. New immigrants followed. Within 5 years the population had increased to 600 who had built a prosperous community of 130 houses, barns, 2 steam sawmills, 1 waterpower sawmill, and the incidental business establishments. At the end of 5 years, 133 men applied for citizenship.
A member of the Swedish Parliament wrote to the Governor of Maine as follows: "May the young colony of New Sweden grow and flourish, not only in material strength, but even in developing their moral and intellectual faculties. And may the new population thus add to your State and to your Great Republic a good and healthy element of moral power from the old world, and becoming imbued with the spirit of your free institutions, reflect that spirit on their native land.
"What we have lost in the old fatherland will then not have been lost to humanity: On the contrary, the trees have only been transplanted on a fresher soil, where they will thrive better, and give richer and more abundant fruits. God bless the harvest. God bless your land."
Civil liberty is the sunshine without which the crop will suffer. The enemy of civil liberty is prejudice. The cause of prejudice is fear -- fear of the unknown, fear that there is no real basis for mutual trust and confidence, fear that those discriminated against may abuse power and authority if given the chance.
If such fears are well-founded, there is no real basis for democratic institutions. All the evidence from our national history and experience indicates that they are not well-founded. The growth of our free institutions -- their effectiveness and strength -- has been in direct proportion to the expansion of civil liberties and their enjoyment by greater numbers of our people of more diverse and varied backgrounds, talents, and experiences. This has been our harvest. And it has been fruitful.
The cause of civil liberties, then, is not simply that of do-gooders, or of neighbors interfering without justification in the affairs of neighbors. It is the cause of all those who are concerned that our national climate be a healthy one.
Let those who support this cause, however, avoid self -righteousness. Let us not refuse to give the trust and confidence which we ask. Faith begets faith if buttressed by an accumulation of reassuring experiences.
There are some important assumptions whose validity we ought to consider:
1. Long-sustained habits of discrimination generate forces of stress and strain which, if allowed to explode, can produce as much evil as the discrimination itself.
2. The overwhelming majority of Americans share the basic belief in the worth and dignity of the individual. Those who deny it to others do so, in many instances, because of a belief that their own is threatened.
3. The forces of decency will, in the long run, prevail. If we deny the validity of this assumption, then we ourselves are in doubt as to the integrity of democratic institutions.
Obviously, these assumptions do not solve the problems created by prejudice and discrimination. They serve simply as a brake upon our impetuosity. They should not serve as an excuse for inaction.
Our goal must be to replace fear and distrust with understanding and trust.
How do we achieve it?
Communication -- as between equals -- is important.
Familiarity -- as among equals -- is important.
Education is important.
But how do we communicate, how do we get to know each other, how do we educate each other when there is stone wall resistance to even the slightest contact?
There are, of course, all of the arts which man has used to influence man since the beginning of time and which reach their full potential in a democracy -- the arts of persuasion, discussion, and debate -- the power of example and experience.
There is also the rule of law -- not as a primitive force, not as a harsh master, but as a stimulus, as a prod, as a standard of conduct.
We cannot legislate trust and understanding. We cannot legislate confidence. We cannot strike down fear by legislative decree. We cannot by a stroke of the legislative pen, create love and kindness in a human heart.
But we can, by wise legislation, create a climate in which men, separated by divisive differences, can learn to live together.
It is possible to establish rules to prevent abuses, to restrain the impulsive, to contain and eliminate excesses, to encourage responsible attitudes, to give support to moderation.
When men are equal before the law and are required to treat each other as such, they are more inclined to believe in such equality.
We have made legislative progress in this field in recent years. Some believe we have moved too fast; others that we have not moved fast enough. Without resolving that difference of opinion, I think it fair to say that we have moved ahead, that the movement has achieved constructive results, and that it gives promise of more progress.
In the long run, we must and will achieve basic civil liberties for all our people. Toward this end, we can do no better than to pray in the words of St. Francis:
"Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy."