In a speech at the University of Hartford in 2004, Sargent Shriver told the gathered students, "It is futile to wait just for leaders to improve society. All of history's great changes - nonviolent changes - came from below, not from above. It comes from us, and often from the least of us." Shriver understood and deeply supported the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, because he recognized that the secondary status of minorities was inherently unjust. And he championed their cause from the very beginning of his career in public service, because as he stated above, he knew that the driving force for change would come from the people, not their leaders.
In fact, Shriver spent much of his public life pushing elected leaders to do the right thing, and open the doors that needed to be opened. In the 1950s, as head of the Chicago Board of Education and the Catholic Interracial Council, Shriver led the successful fight to integrate the city's public and parochial schools.
In 1960, when Martin Luther King was arrested in Georgia and sentenced to four months of hard labor for a traffic violation, Shriver urged Presidential candidate John Kennedy to publicly offer his support for King, and call his wife, Coretta Scott King, to make his personal commitment to freeing the civil rights leader. Although many Kennedy supporters howled that such an action would lead to the loss of Southern votes, Shriver successfully persuaded the Senator. Kennedy made the call, and Shriver leaked the story to the news media. The expression of support led to a huge swing of minority votes to Kennedy's camp, and to the minister's release and vocal support for the candidate.
Shriver believed the cause of civil rights was inextricably connected to economic status - that freedom without economic opportunity was still second-class citizenship. After JFK's assassination, Shriver was named head of Lyndon Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity, becoming a leader and advocate for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but also for programs that provided new opportunities for employment and training. He headed Johnson's "War on Poverty," leading to the launch of such programs as Head Start, the Job Corps, and VISTA.
Shriver understood that an America that segregated its citizens along any lines - social, racial, economic, justice - was not truly democratic. His gift was in inspiring others to see their role in effecting change. For example, he created the structure for Legal Services for those too poor to afford them, or denied those services because of the color of their skin. He also approached the cause from the opposite end, spending countless hours talking to individual lawyers and to legal organizations, pushing them to participate, to do more, to take responsibility for the justice system in which they worked.
Shriver's deep, real belief in the equality of all men and women rested on the same spiritual bedrock as Reverend King. For that reason, the fight for civil rights held a central place in his heart, and his fight for the oppressed in society will always be honored and remembered.