“Hatred is Not the Norm”: For a 1964 Multi-Faith Civil Rights Rally, Serling Pens “A Most Non-Political Speech”
One of the most gratifying aspects of being a Rod Serling fan is that you never have to separate the man from his work. He was a gifted writer, yes, but he was also an amazing human being — a man of high ideals who used his talents to try and make the world a better place.
I was reminded of that yet again when one of his daughters — Anne Serling, author of “As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling” — tweeted this meme:
You may be wondering the same thing I did: What was the event? Was this quote part of a longer address? And why did Dick Van Dyke read it?
I can answer two of the three, thanks in part to Anne herself. It was part of a multi-faith civil rights event called “Religious Witness for Human Dignity,” and it featured a keynote address by Martin Luther King Jr. And the quote above was from a 1,000-word address that Serling penned especially for the event.
Unfortunately, I don’t know why he didn’t deliver it himself, and neither does Anne. But when you read the address itself in full — which is the point of this post — you’ll see that he obviously poured his heart into it. It’s full of his unique mix of clear-eyed realism and unflagging optimism.
It helps to know the backdrop, historically speaking. At this time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed the U.S. House of Representatives and was being debated in the Senate. It won passage there as well, appropriately enough, on June 19 and was signed into law on July 2.
As far as I can tell, this is the first time Serling’s full speech has been published online. Anne was kind enough to send me a copy of a transcript that was printed in the July/August 1964 issue of The Episcopal Review. I transcribed the text below from that copy. I hope you find it as moving as I did.
Ladies and gentlemen, this may be the most non-political speech you ever hear. And, indeed, if you look for controversy, what I’m about to say conjures up little conflict.
We have reached a moment in time when restless men, dispossessed men, angry and impatient men, and anguished men look up and reach out for an elusive justice oft promised them, long denied them, but in the eyes of God and man’s conscience is their due and should be their expectation. I say this is non-political and non-controversial. We’re not talking now about miscegenation. Or whether a man can fence his yard. Or a hotdog vendor carefully select his customer. Or an innkeeper choose not to accommodate a particular traveler. These are the ramifications of the problem. They are not the problem. There have to be some bridges built; but first we have to acknowledge the rivers.
This is what I think is basic. This is what I believe to be the most common denominator in this spring of 1964. This must be first, the recognition and then the admission — that the dignity of human beings is not negotiable. The eminent worth of man has no pro and no con. And the desperate need for an understanding and a respect between all men is as fundamental as the process of breathing in and breathing out.
On this spring night we look toward Washington, D.C., and hear the the echoed overtones of a debate. We watch the struggle to invoke a cloture. We hear the voices of the willful foot-draggers and the hopeful sprinters as they trade and compromise and give battle for what they believe. But again, there is something happening on this earth transcendent of the Senates, the governments, the temporal voices of the champions of rights and the filibusters of wrong.
What is happening is that a whole world has suddenly become cognizant of its oneness. An idea of brotherhood has ceased to be an abstract. It has taken on a form and dimension and breadth and meaning. “Every man’s death diminishes me” — a lyrical stab at truth from another century. But in this nineteen hundred and sixth fourth year of our Lord, every man’s indignity, every man’s hunger, every man’s search for freedom, every man’s life reinforces me and revitalizes me and rededicates me. “We cannot be half-free and half-slave,” Mr. Lincoln said. And now, a hundred years later, we find that we cannot be half hungry and half content; half with dignity, half with shame; half with freedom, half with a simple yearning to be free; half with prerogatives, half asking for just a few; half superior, half denied the right to prove even equality.
“You cannot legislate human love.” Have you heard that phrase? “You cannot pass a law to stop people from hating“ — a battle slogan of those who don’t want to be bothered. A statement of philosophy from 20th century non-philosophers who would probably melt down the test tubes used to look for the microbes and the bacteria and the virus that caused cancer. Cancer is with us, so why fight it? Leave it to the individual patients. But don’t make waves. Don’t stir the river bed. And above all, don’t contemplate the beauty of this earth. The deeds of love. The small, gradual, but inexorable move upward of the human animal toward an enlightened moment in time when the person next door is the neighbor, the Negro is the darker neighbor, the South American is my Latin neighbor, the Japanese is my Oriental neighbor.
You can’t legislate against prejudice? You would rather perhaps accept it as part of the innate personality of the homo sapien? You would rather say that it’s with us, it’s here to stay, it’s part of the social phenomenon of our time. If this is the premise to be lived with, accepted, and — God help us — embraced, then let us throw away theology. Let us unencumber ourselves of the premise of God. Let us tear up our art, our literature, all of our culture, and let us retire to a rubble of our own making and manufacture barbed wire instead of stained glass.
Hatred is not the norm. Prejudice is not the norm. Suspicion, dislike, jealousy, and scapegoating — none of these things is the transcendent facet of the human personality. They are the diseases. They are the cancers of the soul. They are the infectious and contagious viruses that have bled humanity over the years. But because they have been and are, is it necessary that they shall be?
I think not. If there is one voice left to say “welcome” to a stranger; if there is but one hand outstretched to say “enter and share”; if there is but one mind remaining to think a thought of warmth and friendship, then there is also a future in which we will find more than one hand, more than one voice, and more than one mind dedicated to the cause of man’s equality.
Wishful, hopeful, unassured, problematic, and not to be guaranteed. This is all true. But again, on this spring evening of 1964, a little of man’s awareness has shown itself. A little of his essential decency, his basic goodness, his preeminent dignity, has been made a matter of record. There will be moments of violence and expressions of hatred and an ugly re-echo of intolerance, but these are the clinging vestiges of a decayed past, not the harbingers of the better, cleaner future. To those who tell us that the inequality of the human animal is the necessary evil, we must respond by simply saying that first, it is evil but second, it is not necessary. We prove it, sitting here tonight. We prove it by reaffirming our faith. We prove it by having faith in our reaffirmations.
Horace Mann said, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Let’s paraphrase that tonight. Let us be ashamed to live without that victory.
I’m sure that many Twilight Zone fans will recognize that Mann quote. The slogan of Serling’s alma mater, Antioch College, it had already been used in the episode “The Changing of the Guard.” What a fitting way to conclude this inspiring address. Let’s follow his advice and strive to light candles instead of cursing the darkness.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!