Guilty Bystanders
by James Farmer

[Eighteen days after the March on Washington, six Black children were murdered in Birmingham — four little girls in the church bombing and two boys, one killed by cops, the other shot by whites returning from a Klan rally. Mass meetings were held across the country to mourn and protest. James Farmer of CORE gave the following address to a rally of more than 10,000 outside the Foley Square offices of the Department of Justice in New York City. (As published in Liberation, October 1964)]

Brothers and sisters, I could not take my eyes off that inscription on that building to the side: "The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government." The true administration of justice in Birmingham, Alabama, in Mississippi, in Louisiana, and in Georgia...

The deaths of the six children were not the first atrocities which have been committed against persons who are merely asking for freedom. I saw state troopers in Gadsden, Alabama, with their fearsome electric cattle prods, prodding children and old men and women. I saw people who had been arrested for peacefully asking for freedom, jailed and beaten.

"The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government."

There in Louisiana, in Plaquemine, horses used as weapons. I understand the same thing happened in New York yesterday. In Plaquemine, children were trampled by horses. One girl still lies in a hospital after having been stepped upon by a horse ridden by a state trooper. ...

The bigots all over the South have seen a green light and they are pulling out their violence and their brutality. They are trying to stop you — they are trying to stop all of us in the fight for freedom. We have not been stopped by dogs. We have found that when the dogs bite our people in Birmingham or in Mississippi, we bleed all over the country. We have found that the fire hoses that roll women over in the streets merely build up the demand for freedom in New York, and Chicago, and California.

They have tried to stop us with injunctions and restraining orders. There in Louisiana, before and during and after the days I spent in jail, I was served with one restraining' order after another — issued, my friends, not by a state court, but by a federal court of the United States of America. That didn't stop us. After all, we've been under a restraining order for three hundred and fifty years now. They are not going to stop us with the bombs either. ...

Thus far, this has been a very cheap revolution. We have not suffered much in the revolution. Not many people have died. A few have been beaten, a few have been jailed, but the long haul lies in front of us, and many more people will suffer before it is over. That suffering, yes, is bound to come.

Wallace is to blame, but Wallace is not alone to blame. I accuse the Department of Justice and the President of the United States for their inactivity. They must share the blame with the demented fool who threw that bomb. The Department of Justice says that it has no statutory authority to get troops into Birmingham, and yet the administration refuses to push for Title III [of the draft Civil Rights Act], which would grant statutory authority to the Department of Justice to move. They cannot have it both ways: they cannot say, "We are on the side of the angels, but we don't have the authority," out of one side of the mouth, and then out of the other side of the mouth say, "We need no further authority."

If the Federal Government cannot protect its citizens today, my friends, the Federal Government ought to say so. It should say so to the world, and it would be a horrible admission. They have the authority, and the right, and we demand that troops go into Birmingham and wherever the rights of citizens are being trampled upon.

Now you are here, of course, to mourn and to grieve for the death of our little children. But mourn not the blessed dead. Mourn rather the tortuous living.

Mourn the agonized babies of black skin who have a life expectancy in our country that is ten years less than babies of lighter skin; they too are being killed.

Mourn the babies unborn who have less of a chance to be born alive for their skins are black and their mothers, in many cases, under-nourished, for they're poor and work too hard. It is a bomb of prejudice and bigotry that is killing them.

Mourn our children in Harlem and in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Oh, you don't near the bomb blast, but mourn those who must live with cockroaches and with rats. Mourn those who are victimized by disease germs. The slumlords who allow such conditions to go on are just as guilty as the fools and beasts of Birmingham.

Mourn too the child of black skin, who when he grows up may get the training for a job but will not be able to work at that job. Instead, will be confined to pushing a broom and a mop. Mourn him too, for the bomb is killing him.

Yes, my friends, the bomb is bigger than Birmingham. The bomb is as big as our country. Mourn not those alone. Grieve too for the Negro who says: "I have it made. I will get me a car as big as your house and have me a good time and die." Mourn him. He helped to throw the bomb too.

Mourn those of us who have not registered and do not vote in New York City. We too are helping to make the bombs — the bombs of the future. On Election Day, the man who is not registered and who stands on a street corner thinking thoughts far away — that man with idle hands is manufacturing the bombs for a hundred Birminghams. Mourn him.

Mourn all of us who have not been involved in this fight. Oh, you come to a rally. You will go home after the rally is over. But have you done your bit for the children of Birmingham? The best thing you can do for the children of Birmingham is to become an intimate part of this movement ...

We all share the guilt. The guilt is America's. Every Negro who has walked into a segregated waiting room shares the guilt for the continuation of Jim Crow. An African friend of mine was asked, "What think of the American Negro?" His answer was, "What does, the American Negro think of himself?

So what do you think of yourselves, my brothers and sisters, black and white? What do you think of yourselves when you allow Jim Crow to go on, and accept segregation? What do you of white skins think of yourselves when a Negro moves into your neighborhood or your apartment house? You don't throw a bomb, like the beasts of Birmingham, but you pack your bags and silently steal away into the night.

How long will it go on? How long will this nation tolerate segregation and discrimination, which kills little children in Birmingham? I'll tell you how long. As long as you let it. As long as you try to be an innocent bystander in a time of great social upheaval. There are no innocent bystanders now. If you are a bystander, you are guilty. If you are a bystander, you are helping the bigots in their evil deeds. You are helping to preserve the status quo. You are helping to cut ten years off the lives of one-tenth of our population. You are helping to kill babies who have not yet been born.

The call is Freedom Now, and I believe, my friends, that I will live to see the day when the six children of Birmingham who gave their lives will be leading a giant movement throughout this country of black and white, of persons who say, "We have had enough! Bring an end to Jim Crow!"

And if the administration will not move, then the administration will be replaced.

Copyright © James Farmer, 1963.

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