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.
What 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.
Transcript of Bob Dylan's remarks at the Bill of Rights dinner at the Americana Hotel on December 13, 1963:
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)