A society, they say, can best be judged by its heroes. Its heroes reflect its values. Are they emperors and militarists? Are they movie stars and ballroom dancers? Do they appeal to the worst in men, or to the merely frivolous, or to the best?
I think we have been singularly blessed with heroes in our day — blessed at great cost sometimes — but nonetheless blessed.
I am still taken aback when I walk into a village hut on a distant continent and find a picture of John F. Kennedy on the wall, torn from a newspaper, or placed within the family album or collection of mementos.
What were the qualities of John F. Kennedy that not only affected us so deeply, but could reach into the most remote villages of Turkey, penetrate the mud huts of the altiplano of Peru, become meaningful to illiterate workers in Nepal?
His vital intelligence and capacity were respected, but what made him a hero was that he cared for the hungry, the dispossessed, that he was concerned about racial justice and the end of poverty. He was not a father protector, a medicine man who would solve all problems. He was a man who gave people confidence that problems could be solved and that they could solve them. He did not ask that people believe in him. He asked that people believe in themselves. This touches the deepest hope of all.
Pope John XXIII gave men new hope. He went around opening windows that had been closed for centuries. Windows that were closed between the clergy and the laity. Windows that were closed between the Vatican and the hospitals and prisons of Rome. Windows that were closed between the rich and the poor, the free and the persecuted. He spoke for freedom and humanity, and the world listened. The world was deeply affected. It sensed the love and goodness of John.
When he died, it was said, the ordinary people flocked to pray at his tomb — not for him, but to him. Today the world is different because he lived in it. It is better and freer. The church is doing things it would not have dreamed of doing a few years ago. Pope Paul VI has visited the Holy Land. The Vatican Council is forging new bonds among Latin Catholics themselves. The Holy See has intervened to try to save the lives of those condemned to death for breaking the apartheid laws in South Africa,
What an abundance of heroes we have had. Dag Hammarskjold, who sacrificed his life in the pursuit of peace and the vision of world community. Medgar Evers, who was cut down in the line of duty as he fought for racial justice and equal opportunities for all our people.
In other realms, we have Eero Saarinen, whose soaring architectural masterpieces continued to rise and give us beauty even after he was gone. And Robert Frost, who gave us dignity and joy in homely things, who prophesied for us:
"Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender."
If there is any one note our heroes seem to sound for us today, and especially for you, the new generation, it is a call for all of you to be heroes. St. Paul said that God would give us temptations, but he would always give us the means of overcoming them. Today, God is giving us some agonizing problems, but he is also giving us the means of solving them. He is giving us heroes, and he is making us heroes, in spite of ourselves.
In the Peace Corps we have our heroes, our Peace Corps Volunteers. They don't consider themselves heroes. They don't feel that way at all. But nonetheless they are bona fide, low-key, un-self-centered workers for justice and for peace — and those are the qualities of heroes.
We have had our heroes of the past, like Pennsylvania's great General, "Mad" Anthony Wayne, with his sword drawn decisively against the British and the Indians. But heroes on horseback are out of date. The cutting edge of this century is not the sword but the spirit, We need not the sword drawn but the spirit drawn against the ills of our time. The individual is summoned not to unsheathe his sword but to unsheathe his spirit.
In the Peace Corps we asked people to volunteer for work all over the world, not for money or glory, not even for comfort and convenience, but only to help others who needed and wanted their help. This means sacrifice, but it did not stop the volunteers. They were ready to unsheathe that vital sword of the spirit. More than 8000 Peace Corps volunteers have now served in 48 countries. By Christmas we shall have 10,000 working in 50 countries.
All of these people are heroes of the contemporary struggle for peace and justice, the American people recognize this by the admiration and respect they have shown for the idea and for the idealists who are putting it into practice.
The first two volunteers to be killed on the job were a Jew and a Protestant. They died in a Catholic country and the newspapers which editorialized on their deaths called them "martyrs.' One of them had written home in a letter to his parents just before:
"Should it come to it, I had rather give my life trying to help someone than to have to give my life looking down a gun barrel at them." This is a spirit of love, of sacrifice, and a spirit of doing.
In East Pakistan, a single Peace Corps worker engineered flood control works and supervised 1,000 village laborers in a successful effort to overcome rising waters that would have destroyed the rice fields of 10,000 families. In Nigeria, another volunteer is an instructor of local courts, training staffs in a large area to set up legal procedures to administer justice and keep the peace. Teachers, health and social workers, carpenters, bricklayers, architects, farmers, engineers, journalists and television experts:— these are our heroes all around the world. And when our heroes take vacations they climb Mount Everest or hitchhike across the Sahara.
Now we are starting a new program in this country, a program to wipe out the whole subculture of poverty. You are not poor, or you would not be here today, equipped with a splendid education, But one third of all American children are poor. They were born poor. No one can claim they got to be poor because they were lazy, shiftless, drunken or profligate. They have had no spokesmen, no lobby. We haven't even seen them we are so enclosed in our middle-class life. Yet there are 25 to 30 million poor — shut out, broken and demoralized.
Fortunately, today the poor of America finally have a voice. It is a remarkable, memorable fact that our government has so concerned itself with the poor — from the vision of John F. Kennedy, to the action of President Johnson, to the concrete legislation of our Congress — that I can come before you today to speak for the poor in our War against Poverty.
The poor are the hardest people in our society to reach. It is like going down in a diving bell. The farther you get down into this alienated subculture, the harder and harder it is to penetrate another foot. But we must bring the poor back into our society.
We can do it today because we have the wealth to do it. We have the knowledge of economics and the fiscal and monetary tools and techniques to do it. We have the new educational training techniques to do it. We have the means of communication and the mobility of population to do it. And finally for the first time in our history — we have the will to do it.
But this war cannot be waged or won by or from Washington. You will have to do it. The Peace Corps has its heroes. The war on poverty will have its heroes. You must be the teachers of remedial reading, the re-trainers for new jobs, the workers by the thousands to remake our society.
Jean Monnet, one of the great architects of a new Europe and the Common Market, said that to make people think of things in a new way, you must first-change their environment. That is what you can do for the poor. You can change their environment. You can give them new hope, new visions, new tasks. And at: the same time acquire these for yourselves.
We are thinking of things in a new way every day, so fast does our world change. It used to be that we had lots of time to do things. Today we must do everything all at once, practically in one generation. We see the swift compression of time all about us.
In my generation, we had no exciting Peace Corps work to do when we graduated from college. Today, you have this and many other challenging tasks before you. Even in the past few months we have started a new program in the Peace Corps which enables undergraduates to begin training for Peace Corps service. You see, this innovation has already "passed you by."
Science and technology change our whole outlook from one day to another. New industries spring up overnight.
Just five years ago, space activities were pretty much confined to science fiction. The total budget for space exploration in 1959 was $261 million. Today we are devoting $5,064 million and deploying the skills of many government agencies, 2,000 industrial organizations, 82 naval aircraft and ships, countless other military facilities, tracking stations around the world all requiring cooperation on a, global scale. We have made incredibly swift progress on international communications, weather control and arms surveillance in our space projects.
Yet we take all these things for granted. Perhaps you’ve heard about the little old lady who came up to the astronaut and said, "What’s all this nonsense about going to the moon? People ought to stay home and watch their television like the Good Lord intended them to."
Don’t just sit at home and watch television. Get out and be a history maker, not a history watcher. You must go now from watching, reading, studying to doing.
People are asking, for instance, "How are we going to save our cities?" How are we going to rescue them from racial ghettoes, from ugliness and loneliness? How are we going to change them from inhuman collectivities into genuine human dwelling places for the body and the spirit?
Well, I think the spirit of the Peace Corps can show us one way.
In Latin America, the poor people flock from the country into illegal "squatters" slums around the central city. Just the opposite situation of our situation. The center of the city in Latin America is often the best part where the wealthy people live. The poor live in slums in the suburbs around the center. The Peace Corps has been sending community development workers to help in these slums.
We found that if our Peace Corps workers live in pleasant places, if they work in the slums and then go home at 5 o’clock, they don’t get results. But if they live in the slums with the people they are actually working with, they make a, real impact.
They stay, the people begin to trust them and the trust soon becomes respect. At first the people of the slums just watch — this sort of thing has been going on for hundreds of years – the Peace Corps volunteers won't really stay....
But when the Volunteers do stay — when they pass muster — when after three to six months they are really accepted – it becomes clear that Peace Corps Volunteers don't want to use the people as the Communists want to use them. The Volunteers want to be used. And this is the big difference.
Recently one of our volunteers who had gone to live with the poor people in Lima, Peru, was elected to the board governing their slum area. This is harder than being elected president of the United States, believe me. To have this "gringo" American so fully accepted is unprecedented. This is the kind of election Americans have to win all over the world. This is the kind of history the Peace Corps is making, and we must go on making.
Here's another example:
A Peace Corps couple in these slums was expecting a baby. The doctors recommended that the wife go into the hospital for the birth, but she insisted on having the baby in the slums where they lived and worked. The single act of that girl was worth 10,000 speeches at the UN: By accepting this risk, she threw in her lot in the most fundamental way with the poor. She made herself one of them, so that 25,000 poor people in that slum knew it and will never forget it. Her deed was a deed of history making, not something coming over the radio or the television.
Now this is what we — what you — have got to do to save our own cities. You can't just take a job in the city, then quit at 5 o'clock and go home to your suburban retreat, leaving the slums and the city behind you. You must come into the cities, live with the people, be one with them again and restore our cities to humanity. You can't do it from the outside.
This is a challenge for you students graduating today. But I have a challenge for your esteemed faculty members, too. We can't let them go unchallenged, can we?
We have more than 600 Volunteers with advanced degrees in the Peace Corps today. They often live right in the dormitories, play soccer and drink beer with the students. They are one with them, too. Right now we could put 350 more people with advanced degrees from Pittsburgh right to work in the Peace Corps doing this intellectual work. You would make history. You would come back with more understanding and ability to teach than you will get if you spend the rest of your life writing dissertations.
You graduates are a new generation with new visions, new tasks, new hopes. You are freed to be heroes, to free others from poverty, from fear, from greed.
I give you the prayerful thoughts of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that great scientist and mystic, to speed you on your way:
"Humanity was sleeping — it is still sleeping – imprisoned in the narrow joys of its little closed loves. A, tremendous spiritual power is slumbering in the depths of our multitude which will manifest itself only when we have learned to break down the barriers of our egoisms and, by a, fundamental recasting of our outlook raise ourselves up to the habitual and practical vision of universal realities."
"Jesus, Saviour of human activity to which You have given meaning, Saviour of human suffering to which You have given living value, be also the Saviour of human unity; compel us to discard our pettiness, and to venture forth, resting upon You into the uncharted ocean of charity."