Address at the Xavier Alumni Association Diamond Jubilee Banquet

"We believe that involvement of the poor is our way and Congress’ way of saying that the poor are not second-class citizens. The poor have a right, a human and a civil right to participate in shaping their own destiny. We believe that to listen to criticism and to respond to the needs of the people, especially the poor and the helpless, is the heart of democracy-- to not listen undermines democracy."
New Orleans, LA • February 12, 1966

On Christmas Eve the Governor of Arkansas issued a press release and sent me a copy, This is how the release started off:

“The Federal Government’s’ War on Poverty’ program, working in partnership with State Government, has had about the same effect as a ‘blue chip’ industry coming into-the state during the past year.”

Eight months before his release I had been invited to speak to a joint-session of the Arkansas legislature. That was March 8, 1965. I was the first Federal official ever invited to address the legislature. After I spoke there, some people said I might well be the last.

But the important event -- the really important event -- took place two days before I visited. In Little Rock, I spoke on a Monday -but on the Saturday before, Mrs. Faubus had a tea in the Governor’s mansion in Little Rock. You may remember that mansion -- its picture was on the first page of virtually every paper in the world back in 1957. But that Saturday, up the steps of that mansion, one by one, came ‘black and white together -- negroes and whites -- negro civil rights leaders and white segregationists. And together they had tea in the Governor’s mansion. Such a meeting had never before occurred in Arkansas history.

A few weeks after that, Governor Faubus dedicated the first Job Corps Center in Arkansas -- and one of the first in the nation. Speaking to his racially integrated audience, Governor Faubus extolled the Job Corps and asked us to open more.

So when Governor Faubus said that the poverty program in Arkansas was as good as getting a blue chip firm with a triple A credit rating, he was talking about more than dollars.

He was talking about more than the economic health of his State.

He was talking about the social health and the spiritual health of Arkansas. We’ve pumped more than 20 million dollars into Arkansas -and over two billion into programs across the nation. But some of the most important victories we’ve won can’t be measured in dollars.

Take the religious issue -- the Church-State issue.

Just three or four years ago, it was practically impossible for a Federal agency to give a direct grant to a religious group.

People said there was that wall between Church and State. But we said that wall was put there to keep Government out of the pulpit, not to keep the clergy away from the poor! That wall protects belief and even disbelief. It does not exclude compassion, poverty, suffering, injustice. That is common territory -- not exclusively yours, or mine -but everybody’s; With no wall between; And so we said, Reverend Mr. Jones, or Father Kelly or Rabbi Hirsh, if you’re not afraid to be seen in our company, we’re not afraid to be seen in yours -- because we are all about Our Father’s business.

So -- as of tonight --- we have given hundreds without violating the principle of separation of Church and State.

In doing so we’re fulfilling the mandate of Congress -- expressed in the law establishing our OEO -- to mobilize “all the resources of the Nation.”

And all denominations are working together. In San Antonio, Texas, a Jewish Synagogue rented a hall to a Lutheran Church group to conduct pre-school classes for kids from a predominantly Catholic area!

Take the race issue -- in mid September Martin Luther King, Sr., came to our office in Washington along with other members of the local Community Action Program -- white and black. The Mayor of Atlanta, Ivan Allen, was there -- a press briefing was scheduled for 4 P.M. As the hour approached, the biggest press assembly we ever had was milling around -- waiting to see whether “it” would really happen. And “it” did. Elevator doors opened and out stepped Herman Talmadge and Richard Russell of Georgia to shake hands and have their picture taken with negro leadership. White and black had joined hands in the War Against Poverty.

That has never happened before in the history of this country. And Senator Richard Russell had never come to the Executive Branch to announce any grant in all his years in Congress.

Take the birth control issue. Eighteen months ago, no public official could discuss it in public. Today, our Agency, OEO, is the first Agency in the history of the Federal. Government to give public money directly to private agencies for family planning purposes. We’ve been doing it for a year. We’re still the only one. And we’ve done it in a way which avoided arousing the sensitivities or religious convictions of any group -- so far!

Let’s turn for a second, to that hot political issue the Governor’s Veto. As of midnight last night the 50 different Governors had been standing behind us for 16 months calling “safe or out.” They’ve had over 8,000 chances on over 8,000 different specific grants to say “no,” And only four times have they said, “you’re out.”

And I did some figuring -- some long division -- on the way coming down, And I figured the percentage and suddenly realized: we’re purer than Ivory soap.

These aren’t dollar achievements, but two years ago, no one could have bought them with the entire Federal budget!

And there are other divisions -- deep spiritual divisions which are slowly healing. That’s what the issue called “involvement of the poor” is really all about.

Many poor people feel that nobody cares about them or understands them - that nobody really wants to help them or values their opinion. And some of them think this whole War on Poverty is just a farce, sop, something to keep them quiet. 

And so they withdraw -- in isolation, defeat, and in bitterness. And there are others who charge that involvement of the poor means class warfare -- they say we want the poor to fight City Hall or the County or the Governor!

None of these ideas is true.

We believe that involvement of the poor is our way and Congress’ way of saying that the poor are not second-class citizens. The poor have a right, a human and a civil right to participate in shaping their own destiny.

We believe that to listen to criticism and to respond to the needs of the people, especially the poor and the helpless, is the heart of democracy-- to not listen undermines democracy.

We won’t penetrate the wall of isolation and frustration unless we are willing to listen to statements like this one, given to us by Robert Coles about a 15-year old Boston boy -- from the Boston Ghetto-with a history of delinquency and poor language, but very bright. He was “discovered” by a Harvard student who was tutoring him. Listen to this boy:

“My father, he tried, and he tried. My mother, she tried, too. My father, he would put his head on the kitchen table and he would cry, all six foot three of him would cry. And my mother would tell him to stop, and say it wasn’t his fault: and we would stay alive somehow. But my brothers and I, we knew she wasn’t so sure. She tried to make it easy for us by lying, but we knew.”

Those are the voices we’re listening to. And we’re hearing the poor speak out, often for the first time, from every part of the country.

Three months ago, I was down at the bottom of Cataract Canyon -- that’s right next to the Grand Canyon. Two thousand feet down, that’s where the Havasupai Indians live. They have lived in this deep canyon since before the white man came to America. And they talk about us, the people who live on the surface, as the people on top. When I went down to the bottom of that canyon, do you know what those Indians wanted to know more than anything else? Could they have their own bank account and draw checks on that account themselves? All their lives they had been required to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and ask permission to use their own money. They were treated as children by the Great White Father who knew best. But now they have that bank account. They made their first withdrawal on November 22, 1965, from the First Navajo Bank in Kingman, Arizona. And I predict they’ll soon learn to get just as much in debt as the rest of us.

We are involving the poor in every aspect of the program,

  • By seeing that they are represented on the Boards of these programs,
  • By providing jobs for the poor in the administration of the program,
  • By education and training for greater opportunity.

Some people have called this a social revolution -- to give the poor a voice, to see that they have a say in shaping their own lives. Well, if it is a revolution, it’s not a revolution in the old sense -- like the French Revolution -- or the Russian Revolution -- class warfare spawned by hatred, bloodshed and barricades in the streets. The head of a small neighborhood settlement house in Washington put it this way:

He said, “This revolution is too good to waste only on people who hate.”

The people of good will in our country are the ones who are making this revolution work.

Sometimes I almost have to pinch myself when I repeat these facts to make sure I’m not dreaming. It reminds me of the story of the fellow who sold bonds for Israel. He was the best bond salesman in the whole country, and each year he won the prize. Finally they said this fellow is so good at describing what is going on in Israel, and selling these bonds, that we are going to have to give him a trip to Israel. So he went over to Israel and he saw all the trees that had been planted in Israel, all the hospitals that had been built, the roads that had been constructed and the irrigation that’s gone on. And he looked around there and his eyes grew as wide as saucers, and he said to his companion, “My God, all those lies I’ve been telling all the years are true.”

But the most important things that the War on Poverty has accomplished have been things nobody could have predicted would happen a couple of years ago. In fact, they would have told you straight up and down, “they’re impossible.”

But you here, at Xavier College, can understand what faith can do, inspire of skepticism and cynicism or even common sense.

I don’t suppose it made much sense to the Drexel Family -- that famous banking family of Philadelphia -- the founders of the great financial empire -- when Katharine Drexel heard Pope Leo say: “But why not be a missionary yourself, my child?” And she said: “I will.” Yet, because of her “I will” the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament are here celebrating their 75th Anniversary, Xavier College is here, and all of us are here.

I don’t suppose, either, that it made much sense when Bishop Perry was installed in New Orleans! Many people -- even Catholics – probably thought it would have much better sense -- and better “public relations” -if he had been installed in Harlem. And yet, he is here -- here to minister to all Catholics -- not just to negroes -- here, because faith can prevail if it is strong enough. And because he is here, New Orleans and Louisiana have become symbols of hope and progress to all Catholics, to all Americans, and yes, to all the world.

Right here in New Orleans, Bishop Perry is carrying out the vision of Pope John XXIII who wrote:

“The World is poisoned with an unhealthy nationalism based on race and blood in contradiction of the Gospel.

Free me from the races, oh God!
Free me from the races.”

And the impossible is happening, that vision is coming true right here in Louisiana -- here in your own home town,

Who can say the age of miracles is past!
This war will not be won by men of little faith.

One of the first grants we gave -- on November 24, 1964, was right here in Louisiana, to a small Agricultural Co-op. Do you know what that grant was for? It was to provide the capital needed to start a business producing fruitcakes. And I remember being asked: “Are you planning to fight the War on Poverty with fruitcakes for ammunition?” “Is Louisiana the place to give a grant the first go-round? Is a group organized by a Priest a logical recipient -- a prudent recipient -- when you have the Church-State issue to deal with? Is a parish in Louisiana, where segregation has always been and many say always will be, the best location to set up a Co-op and demand that it be integrated?”

But last year that Co-op produced over ten thousand dollars worth of fruitcakes -- it is now expanding into the doughnut business. And it is slowly getting to the point where it will show a profit. Tomorrow morning, God and weather permitting, I hope to be up there in what is called the parish of the poor, to hear mass said, and to celebrate what many have come to refer to as the Miracle of Acadania Neuf, the Miracle of Louisiana.

I remember when I first appointed Gillis Long as my Director of Congressional Relations, people protested -- and made some dire predictions.

They asked:

Why did you pick Gillis Long -- a Long from Louisiana -- a man who voted against the Civil Rights Act -- when the Congressional Committee you go before is chaired by Adam Clayton Powell?

Why do you pick a man who ran against Governor McKeithen in a hotly contested election - when Governor McKeithen can veto every project that goes into his state?

And I said to them, “Don’t prejudge people. Gillis Long believes in this program -- he has great ability.” Time proved the cynics wrong. Gillis Long performed magnificently. He was crucial to our success -with Congress and across the nation, He was truly a miracle worker.

I remember when we sent the first VISTA Volunteers into Louisiana, VISTA Volunteers are people of all ages who sign up for a Domestic Peace Corps. I worried about the Governor’s Veto. All the experts predicted that we would never get any VISTA Volunteers into the South because southern governors would object to “outsiders”. But when Hurricane Betsy struck we called the Mayor of New Orleans and said, “Do you need some help? Can we send some Volunteers?” We sent two. They were among our very first sent into the Deep South, when the whole program was still untested. And then we waited and held our breath because many experts said: “Governor McKeithen will veto the Project.” But he did not. He approved VISTA--- an act which took courage. But his courage paid off because Louisiana got Edith Fenn. Who is she? She’s a lady -- a VISTA Volunteer -- a 67-year old retired Federal employee. She came down in the midst of Hurricane Betsy. She worked around the clock. But she stayed! Even though the winds subside, and the newsmen depart, she stayed, because poverty stays. And stays. And stays. And Edith Fenn stayed.

And today there are more than a dozen VISTA Volunteers working in this state. And none of them has been kept out, VISTA-is a program that “bets on faith.” We prejudge no one and no situation. And our bets are paying off.

In San Francisco, VISTA Volunteers are working on something called a bail project. What does that mean, you ask? Well, when a man is arrested and charged with a crime, he is either put in jail to await trial or he puts up bail money, to go free. If he shows up at trial he is given the bail money back. If he does not, then he forfeits the money.

The poor don’t have the money to put up. As a result they have to stay in jail. Nationwide the average length of their detention before trial is 25 days! In some districts the poor wait in jail for a trial almost 3 months! These are men and women who are presumed innocent until proven guilty! Yet many of them lose their jobs, families break up and debts accumulate, until they become almost unbearable and the persons reputation in his community and in the eyes of his children is unalterably damaged.

Even more upsetting, statistical evidence shows that these men and women are far more likely to be convicted of the crime of which they are accused because they are not free to help prepare their own defense. And even if they are found guilty, they are likely to get a much stiffer sentence because they have lost their jobs and are poor parole risks. In San Francisco, 8 VISTA Volunteers were assigned to the San Francisco Bar Association Foundation to interview persons accused of a crime. The volunteers check their backgrounds and reputations, their family ties, their jobs, their ties to the community, to see if they can be released without bail. During the time that they are released, the defendants are free to keep working at their jobs, to provide for their families and to help prepare an adequate defense. Over the past 6 months -- simply on the say-so of a VISTA Volunteer -- 800 accused persons have been released. That’s an act of faith -- it’s a gamble -- but so far only 2 percent have failed to come back -- 98 percent of the defendants have cane back for trial. That means that the state did not have to feed and house 800 persons, that 800 individuals had a better chance to prepare their defense and to support their families and to maintain their reputations in their community. It’s an act of faith, a gamble, but it’s a gamble that VISTA Volunteers are making pay off.

It isn’t all glory, triumph and vindication -- for any of the VISTA Volunteers.

In Hobson City, Alabama, VISTA Volunteers in 6 months have -

  • Renovated an abandoned skating rink and turned it into a youth recreation center.
  • They have formed a youth club with more than 75 members.
  • They have formed a clearing house for information on such puzzling procedures as how to apply for social security, surplus food commodities and Medicare.
  • They have virtually completed arrangements for a new sewer system.
  • They have conducted remedial reading classes for both adults and youngsters.

What that report doesn’t tell you is contained in these words from a 22-yearold VISTA Volunteer from Burlington, Iowa, when she wrote:

“I didn’t mind the rats in my room. It was the rats in the piano that bothered me.”

And there are other stories too. Stories of the girl from Upper New York State who ran a nursery school in Southern California in a migrant camp. Running a nursery school sounds pretty routine, dull, ordinary, and maybe inconsequential.- But Nancy Starr started it because a woman came up to her and said a nursery school would help because, in the mother’s words: “the children get cranky when we lock them in the car all day to go cut grapes.”

We sent volunteers into the heart of Appalachia -- into the hollows of West Virginia.

In the very first group of VISTA Volunteers there was one 80.-year old woman, a retired clinical psychologist named Miss Brown. She came to West Virginia-to McDowell County -- and she started using her training to test some of the children and adults in the county. Now, administering routine tests to adults may sound pretty dull to you. But in the process she discovered a 36-year old West Virginian. His name was Earl Haggerman and he tested out with an I.Q. of 120, even though he had never even completed junior high school. She didn’t stop at that discouragement. She persuaded Earl to take the high school equivalency exam. He passed it and framed the certificate he got in his own house. And then some of his neighbors decided maybe education was for them too. And so they formed classes.

The next thing that happened, Earl decided to paint up his house and clean the trash around it and the next thing you knew, the hillsides all over that hollow were bright with freshly painted houses and all the trash cleaned away.

Today, Earl Haggerman is Director of the Community Center in his neighborhood -- and a chain reaction of that 80-year old woman -- a person everybody said we’d never accept in the VISTA Volunteers -- the chain reaction she started is still going strong.

That’s how we’re going to win this War on Poverty. By starting chain reactions. By keeping faith in what individuals on their own can do, simply by saying, “I will, I can do it.”

We need you to perform those simple acts of goodness that defy the odds, that change the world. As Leon Bloy, the French moralist said:

“Every man who performs a free act affects the whole moral universe. If he gives a poor man a penny grudgingly, that penny pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in the sun, crushes the firmament and compromises the universe...on the other hand, a charitable act, an impulse of real pity, sings for him the divine praises from the time of Adam to the end of the ages; it cures the sick, consoles those in despair, calms storms, ransoms prisoners, converts the infidel, and protects mankind,”

That’s why we need you in VISTA. Now, Today. There are presently only 12 volunteers from Louisiana in VISTA -- less than 1/10th of one percent.

That’s why we need you in Head Start this Summer -- in this city – on this campus. Head Start could be twice as large in New Orleans.

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. The story epitomizes the spirit not only of the Peace Corps, but of 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, and as he had gotten near to the village, there was a mother and her child sitting alongside the road, and 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.”

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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