Speech at the National Community Action Foundation Legislative Conference

Washington, DC | June 9, 1988

Many of our most complicated problems cannot be solved except by actions we must take in common. Together, we Americans can still be true to our original ideals and overcome our present difficulties. Individually we can only fail...Community Action is required to solve our current problems of drugs, homelessness, illiteracy, and fear of internal and foreign enemies.

David Bradley, Bob Coard , President of your National Community Action Foundation, all of you dues-paying Members of the National Community Action Foundation and Friends of OEO

Tersh Boasberg just a few minutes ago summed up the situation this morning when he said: -- "Sarge, times have surely changed... I used to eat breakfast with you for nothing... Now I have to pay $25. That's a lousy way to treat the "Friends of OEO".

This morning I'm the happiest person in the world.

My wife is well and energetic and loving and successful, beyond all imagining with her fabulous Special Olympics program.

My sons work hard, give themselves daily to public education in inner-city high schools or in programs for drop-outs and at-risk youngsters, or with mentally retarded persons in Big Brother programs; and my daughter is smart and beautiful on national TV news programs.

Then, right here, in this hotel I'm honored to be in a room filled with dedicated, experienced, hard-working, visionary, public-spirited American citizens.

Congratulations to all of you! You are the "cream of the crop", the persons most likely to save America from selfishness.

Unfortunately, I am the person least worthy to be talking to you this morning.

First of all, you know more about the subject of Community Action than I do. Sure, I was there at the beginning, but the successes you have achieved working in Community Action Agencies, over the years, are your successes not mine. Without you, there would be nothing to celebrate. Yet, here we are, with plans already developing, to honor 25 years of uninterrupted service to and with the poor, -- an event we could not even be thinking about if it were not for you!

"Friends of OEO", -- I salute you -- each and every one of you -- for your perseverance, your indomitable spirit, your courage, and your success.

Also, I should be listening, not talking. You know much more than I do about Community Action. You have even created a National Community Action Foundation. You finance a $450,000 per annum program of education about CAP, and you have led the fight to extend CAP into 960 individual local Community Action Agencies. In Maryland alone, there are thirteen (13) such Agencies.

Then, in David Bradley you have a President who knows all about the needs of the poor from the 1960s to this very year. He is a leader who has been involved in the struggle against poverty from the earliest days of his working life. We shall never stray far from our proper course as long as David Bradley is with us, and we are with him.

Of course, there are a dozen Senators, a plethora of Congressmen and women who could speak to you with greater authority and power and promise for the future than I can. And there are two people above all others who should be here, seeking your advice, pledging themselves to support the programs you are interested in, dedicating themselves publicly to the efforts you have been sustaining over the years. Those two people are George Bush and Michael Dukakis.

Let us agree that together we will make a maximum effort to challenge both nominees to express themselves unequivocally on behalf of the Community Action Programs. You have kept CAP alive by your work. It's time both candidates joined you in the fight for the future of CAP, for local control of programs where representatives of the poor themselves participate on equal terms with all other citizens of this Republic.

Now is the time for me to sit down. I have no startling new revelations to disclose. I am just an old-fashioned humanist who believes the ultimate test of good government is the degree to which it meets the needs of the least able, and inspires action by those most able to create a just and generous society.

Unfortunately, American society, or American political life over the last eight years has not had leadership dedicated to the creation of a just and generous society. The self-seekers and the self-satisfied have been given free reign to pursue their own objectives with little or no regard for the needs of the many who are unable, for whatever reason, to fend for themselves. Nothing, or almost nothing, capable of lifting the hearts and aspirations of the American people has been proposed or executed by the Reagan Administration. At most, Reagan has made middle-class or upper-crust Americans feel good about themselves and our country. No matter what has been happening in fact, he has made us feel we're the greatest. Sure, our budget deficits under Reagan have exceeded those of all the other Presidents combined! Sure, our tax bill for interest per annum on his national debt exceeds by 20 times the entire budget of the War Against Poverty. But we all know that when money lenders are content collecting their interest, too few care about the homeless or the poor children whose numbers increase annually. Never was the old saying more true than today: -- ... "The rich get richer while the poor have babies..."

Are these times, then, the worst of times? I think not. Calvin Coolidge was worse than Reagan, and Dukakis will certainly be better than Herbert Hoover. Why? Because there are millions of Americans today who are experts on poverty and know what to do to combat it.

Never forget that when LBJ pledged to start a "War Against Poverty", Barry Goldwater replied... "I've been all over America," he said," and I haven't seen any poverty anywhere"!!!

He was telling the truth. He hadn't seen any! He had never been where the poor lived. Nor had he read Michael Harrington's book, "The Other America"... And if John F. Kennedy hadn't read that book and others like it, we would never have started a War Against Poverty under L.B.J.

Today, however, we are more fortunate. Millions know about poverty, see it every day, and realize we cannot survive half slave and half free, economically. We will all survive and even rise together, or we shall all fail and even die together, economically.

Can Government alone get us out of poverty? No. Can business and economic development alone get us "the under-class" out of poverty? No.

Every permanent success in combatting poverty must be communal. Togetherness is essential.

Look at the Job Corps. It was and is best when business and government combine to make it work.

Look at "Head Start". Without volunteers and without the poor themselves and the parents of the poor cooperating with government, "Head Start" would have been just another hand-out program. With parents, with community leaders, with teachers as well as students, "Head Start" blossomed. "Head Start" like Job Corps should be twice or three times their present size. So should the Peace Corps and VISTA, and Foster Grandparents, and Upward Bound, and many other similar programs. Why did they work? Why do they work? Because they are all communal programs. They embody that elemental concept from the early days of the American Republic: -- "United We Stand, Divided We Fall." The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Commonwealth of Virginia were properly named, -- because they were Commonwealths, not private stake-outs. Community Action made this nation possible at its beginning; Community Action was essential to its survival in wartime; and Community Action is essential to its future.

No one was ever so wrong as Ronald Reagan was wrong when in his first inaugural address he said, … words to the effect, that "Government is not the solution to our problems ... Government is the problem..."

The truth, however, is this: --

Many of our most complicated problems cannot be solved except by actions we must take in common. Together, we Americans can still be true to our original ideals and overcome our present difficulties. Individually we can only fail.

Community Action, therefore, rests on profound philosophical and political realities. Especially, in an interdependent world. Community Action is required to solve our current problems of drugs, homelessness, illiteracy, and fear of internal and foreign enemies.

In the Peace Corps, I have had some fabulous experiences, but I suppose none will ever touch me more than the story I heard about a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. It epitomizes the spirit not only of the Peace Corps, but the spirit which should permeate our work in the campaign against poverty. The story goes that a Peace Corps Volunteer was walking down a dusty road outside of an African village up country. As he got near to the village, there was a mother and her child sitting alongside the road, the child said to the mother: "Look, Mother, there's a white man." And the mother said to the child: "No, darling, that's not a white man -- that's a Peace Corps Volunteer." That's what we're trying to work for in the War Against Poverty and in the Peace Corps. We're working toward the day when nobody will say: "Look, there's a white man," or "Look, there's a rich man," or “Look, there's a poverty-stricken man," but only: "Look, there's an American."