The National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (NECLC), founded in 1951 and known for many years simply as the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC), annually held a Bill of Rights Dinner which gathered together members and friends of the organization and provided a setting for the presentation of the group's Tom Paine Award, given once yearly since 1958 in recognition of distinguished service in the fight for civil liberty. The recipient of the 1963 award was singer/songwriter Bob Dylan who accepted the award on December 13 at the Dinner in New York, which also featured noted author James Baldwin.
(Bill of Rights Dinner program cover)
follows here is a most remarkable set of three documents: first, Bob Dylan's extemporaneous speech, probably typed out later from an
audio tape, then an eloquent letter in defense of Dylan and of youth itself from Corliss Lamont, who was then Chairman of the ECLC, and
finally, a most beautiful and poetic explanation by Dylan himself analyzing and expressing his tumult of feelings on the occasion.
I haven't got any guitar, I can talk though. I want to thank you for the Tom Paine award in behalf everybody that went down to Cuba. First of all because they're all young and it's took me a long time to get young and now I consider myself young. And I'm proud of it. I'm proud that I'm young. And I only wish that all you people who are sitting out here today or tonight weren't here and I could see all kinds of faces with hair on their head - and everything like that, everything leading to youngness, celebrating the anniversary when we overthrew the House Un-American Activities just yesterday, - Because you people should be at the beach. You should be out there and you should be swimming and you should be just relaxing in the time you have to relax. (Laughter) It is not an old peoples' world. It is not an old peoples' world. It has nothing to do with old people. Old people when their hair grows out, they should go out. (Laughter) And I look down to see the people that are governing me and making my rules - and they haven't got any hair on their head - I get very uptight about it. (Laughter)
And they talk about Negroes, and they talk about black and white. And they talk about colors of red and blue and yellow. Man, I just don't see any colors at all when I look out. I don't see any colors at all and if people have taught through the years to look at colors - I've read history books, I've never seen one history book that tells how anybody feels. I've found facts about our history, I've found out what people know about what goes on but I never found anything about anybody feels about anything happens. It's all just plain facts. And it don't help me one little bit to look back.
I wish sometimes I could have come in here in the 1930's like my first idol - used to have an idol, Woody Guthrie, who came in the 1930's (Applause). But it has sure changed in the time Woody's been here and the time I've been here. It's not that easy any more. People seem to have more fears.
I get different presents from people that I play for and they bring presents to me backstage - very weird, weird presents - presents that I couldn't buy. They buy - they bring me presents that - I've got George Lincoln Rockwell's tie clip that somebody robbed for me. (Laughter) I have General Walker's car trunk keys - keys to his trunk that somebody robbed for me. Now these are my presents. I have fallout shelter signs that people robbed for me from Philadelphia and these are the little signs. There's no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there's only up and down and down is very close to the ground. And I'm trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics. They has got nothing to do with it. I'm thinking about the general people and when they get hurt.
I want to accept this award, the Tom Paine Award, from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. I want to accept it in my name but I'm not really accepting it in my name and I'm not accepting it in any kind of group's name, any Negro group or any other kind of group. There are Negroes - I was on the march on Washington up on the platform and I looked around at all the Negroes there and I didn't see any Negroes that looked like none of my friends. My friends don't wear suits. My friends don't have to wear suits. My friends don't have to wear any kind of thing to prove that they're respectable Negroes. My friends are my friends, and they're kind, gentle people if they're my friends. And I'm not going to try to push nothing over. So, I accept this reward - not reward, (Laughter) award in behalf of Phillip Luce who led the group to Cuba which all people should go down to Cuba. I don't see why anybody can't go to Cuba. I don't see what's going to hurt by going any place. I don't know what's going to hurt anybody's eyes to see anything. On the other hand, Phillip is a friend of mine who went to Cuba. I'll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don't know exactly where —what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too - I saw some of myself in him. I don't think it would have gone - I don't think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me - not to go that far and shoot. (Boos and hisses) You can boo but booing's got nothing to do with it. It's a - I just a - I've got to tell you, man, it's Bill of Rights is free speech and I just want to admit that I accept this Tom Paine Award in behalf of James Forman of the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and on behalf of the people who went to Cuba. (Boos and Applause)
(receiving the award from Clark Foreman)
review referred to by Mr. Lamont in this letter was written by Robert
Shelton and appeared in The New York Times of October 28, 1963. It was a
review of a solo concert given by Bob Dylan at Carnegie Hall.
( D-R-A-F-T )
December 19, 1963
Many of our friends disapproved our choice of Bob Dylan for the Tom Paine award. Without defending his acceptance speech, I would like to tell you why we feel he deserved the award. Bob Dylan has sent us a message which more clearly conveys his feelings. It is enclosed and I urge you to read it carefully.
E.C.L.C. defends the right of all Americans to advocate their beliefs. This is not confined to ideology or political groups. It should certainly be extended to our own youth, who according to many experts are becoming increasingly alienated and lost in our present society.
Whether we approve or not, Bob Dylan has become the idol of the progressive youngsters of today, regardless of their political factions. He is speaking to them in terms of protest that they understand and applaud. (see the enclosed review from The New York Times).
E.C.L.C. feels that it is urgent to recognize the protest of youth today and to help make it understood by the older generation. Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie, the culture antecedents of Bob Dylan, were not appreciated by their society until they were very old. We think that it would be better to make the effort now to comprehend what Bob Dylan is saying to and for the youth. It is true that he is not as respectable as Lord Russell, the winner of last year's award, but neither was Tom Paine, and our history is too full of disregard for important messages which were unrespectable at the time.
The annual celebration of Bill of Rights Day is not just a fund-raising affair - although we hope that our friends will help us carry on our work - it is also an opportunity for us to present to our supporters the problems of our democracy which in their daily lives they are apt to over-look.
This year over 1400 people were at the largest civil liberties dinner on record. We appreciate the understanding and support we received from many of those present and we hope that others will gain from the reading of the enclosed message by Bob Dylan an understanding which his speech did not convey.
Mr. Dylan addresses by first name here are Clark
Foreman (ECLC Director) and Mairi Foreman (his wife), Phillip Luce, Edith Tiger (ECLC
Assistant Director), and Corliss Lamont (ECLC Chairman).
from Bob Dylan
(Sent to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee
when I speak of bald heads, I mean bald minds
my life runs in a series of moods
I am a restless soul
it is hard to hear someone you dont know, say
for no one can say what I meant t say
my life is lived out daily in the places I feel
I do not claim t be smart by the standards set up
but like an artist who puts his painting (after
I can not speak. I can not talk
no what I should've said was
I thought something else was expected of me
I should've remembered
I constantly asked myself while eatin supper
an so I found myself in front of the plank
when I spoke of Lee Oswald, I was speakin of the times
When I spoke of Negroes
when I spoke about the people that went t Cuba
my country is the Minnesota-North Dakota territory
yes it is a fierce feeling, knowin something you
I do not apologize for myself nor my fears
I am a writer an a singer of the words I write
no I do not apologize for being me nor any part of me
but I can return what is rightfully yours at any
also I did not know that the dinner was a donation
please send me my bill
I'll return once again t the road
I cant tell you why other people write, but I
but I hardly ever talk about why I write. an I
an I never ever talk about why I speak
ha! it's a scary world
I love you all up there an the ones I dont love,
(sgd) bob dylan
When Bob Dylan accepted the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee he might have suspected, had he checked out a little history, that he was among friends. So, what did he say to those purists who focus on the Bill of Rights, those who championed his right to free speech, those who had assembled in his honor?
With the typical sweet brashness of youth he dismissed his elders, totally innocent of the truth that they had long been dealing with the dilemmas of democracy, especially with free speech issues, decades before he was born. When the young waken to look at old problems with new eyes how can they know for certain just who among us has been working on solutions? Elders are braced for this. But the next thing was too much...
Bob Dylan's reference to Oswald was shocking in any context, especially hurtful to this audience still grieving for their assassinated leader. Perhaps in identifying with the three students who had been arrested for challenging the US ban on travel to Cuba, he had the mistaken perception that patriotic "freedom fighters" had been betrayed by Kennedy's failure to provide adequate air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion. He seemed to be suggesting that sometimes one must go to extreme lengths to fight the enemy, whatever the enemy is perceived to be. Was this a blanket indictment of the establishment? Life magazine labeled Dylan as "The Angry Young Folk Singer" in its April 10th report, and described his photo as having been taken at "a civil rights dinner."
Another matter of ethics might be explored here: that of exploitation. When an organization honors a celebrity, its intent to publicize its own cause thereby is obvious, even blatant. And when Dylan brought his fame to the microphone the double burden of translating civil liberties into a message for youth fell heavy on him; little wonder his perplexity at what was expected of him. The sea of bald heads he observed was testimony to the need for youth to first understand the importance of the Bill of Rights, and then to pick up and carry the cause. What a swirl of mixed emotions and distress on both sides of the podium on this occasion!
We wonder if Dylan has yet suffered the ironic indignity life bestows on the mature.
|John Henry Faulk, Dr. Corliss Lamont, and Bob Dylan|
|John Henry Faulk and Bob Dylan|
Be sure to visit
The Bill of Rights and the NECLC
for additional information on the
National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee.
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