“Essential Human Freedoms”



PM, January 6, 1941, pp.1 and 8


The New York Times, January 7, 1941, p1

On Monday, January 6, 1941, 78 years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented his message on the state of the Union to the 77th Congress. The speech was heard by millions of people world wide, developed into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and reverberates today. Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address is perhaps better known as his “Four Freedoms” speech. The four freedoms are: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. (The four freedoms didn’t enter the speech until the fourth draft.) The entire speech can be read and heard here, (the four freedoms start at about 32 minutes into the 37 minute speech). Below are several excerpts from the State of the Union Address (“as recorded by The New York Times“) and a few photos made by John Vachon that contain “essential human freedoms” and were made in 1941, in the United States.

What I seek to convey is the historic truth that the United States as a nation has at all times maintained opposition – clear, definite opposition – to any attempt to lock us in behind an ancient Chinese wall while the procession of civilization went past. Today, thinking of our children and of their children, we oppose enforced isolation for ourselves or for any other part of the Americas. […]

I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world – assailed by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace. […]

Therefore, the immediate need is a swift and driving increase in our armament production. Leaders of industry and labor have responded to our summons. […]

I also ask this Congress for authority and for funds sufficient to manufacture additional munitions and war supplies of many kinds, to be turned over to those nations which are now in actual war with aggressor nations. Our most useful and immediate role is to act as an arsenal for them as well as for ourselves. They do not need manpower but they do need billions of dollars’ worth of weapons of defense. […]

The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living. […]

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples:
We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.
We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.
We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

I have called for personal sacrifice, and I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. In my budget message I will recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying today. No person should try, or be allowed to get rich out of the program, and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide the legislation.
If Congress maintains these principles the voters, putting patriotism ahead of pocketbooks, will give you their applause.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his [or her] own way – everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind or world attainable in our own time and generation. […]

Since the beginning of our American history we have been engaged in change, in a perpetual, peaceful revolution, a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly, adjusting itself to changing conditions without the concentration camp or the quicklime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.
This nation has placed its destiny in the hands, heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is in our unity of purpose.
To that high concept there can be no end, save victory.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Washington, D.C., The New York Times, January 7, 1941


John Vachon, Woman in a picket line before Mid-City Realty Company in south Chicago, July 1941 (87.2003)

In 1941, in response to a planned March on Washington by 100,000 African Americans demanding “the right to work and fight for our country,” President Roosevelt mandated a national policy of non-discriminatory hiring in defense industries and government work. Although he instituted the Fair Employment Practices, the commission was less effective than had been hoped. However, the much-celebrated victory encouraged activism such as that shown in John Vachon’s 1941 pictures of picketers against unfair housing and employment practices at the Mid-City Realty Company and as Bowman Dairy. (87.2003)


John Vachon, Carrying a sign in front of a dairy company, Chicago, July 1941 (89.2003)


John Vachon, Picket line in front of the Mid-City Realty Company, Chicago, July 1941 (86.2003)

Vachon photographed this group of predominately black picketers protesting high rents and low wages outside the Mid-City Realty office. Vachon’s 1942 pictures are apparently the only records of overt militancy in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War information’s (FSA/OWI) Chicago coverage. (86.2003)

The continuing importance, relevance, and timelessness of FDR’s speech can be seen in the “For Freedoms” project. For Freedoms was “founded in 2016 by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman.” ICP is presenting the exhibition: For Freedoms: Where Do We Go From Here?, from February 8, 2019 through April 28, 2019. “The exhibition also serves as an active space in which members of For Freedoms, nonprofits, and the public are invited to discuss the importance of civic engagement and develop educational programming based on the project.”

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