Address to the United Negro College Fund Symposium

"We--you and I--President Johnson, the Congress and all the American people—must bend our energies to the tasks before us. Poverty and hunger, injustice and illiteracy must be fought because it is right that we fight them. And being right and possible, it becomes our duty as men."
New York City • March 31, 1964

The last time I appeared on a program for your organization in Chicago the Montgomery bus boycott held the attentions of the nation and the world. I well recall introducing a young minister in his late twenties--Martin Luther King--whose subject was, “We’ve come a long, long way--but we’ve got a long, long way to go.”

The topic of tonight’s program proves that we’ve still got a “long, long way to go”. Although it’s already a decade since the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision, we still have to talk about “tokenism.”

But don’t be misled. I like the topic of this evening’s symposium. It is one about which I have no confusion--I am against it!

Webster defines “tokenism” as “a partial payment made as a token of intention to pay the remainder of the debt later”. To us here it has a clearer meaning--a newer meaning; one born out of today’s struggles and descriptive of today’s problems. In truth, tokenism is “partial payment of a debt” long overdue. But these words like “Uncle Tom” or “Jim Crow” connote something more--an American injustice.

Whether it is opportunities for jobs, education, housing or a better life generally, any group of American citizens given a “token” of such blessings is cheated. That is why I am against “tokenism”, because I’m against cheating. It’s that simple.

Yet we unfortunately are guilty of widespread cheating in America. Too many of our citizens have little more than a token opportunity to participate fully in many areas of our national life. A child’s life expectancy at birth--how he is raised; his neighborhood; his home and his school; how much a man can earn; how he earns it, and how he is permitted or required to spend it--are matters frequently dictated by irrelevant, personal characteristics.

Race, and to a lesser degree, religion, or sometimes even geography, frequently dictates the extent of a person’s freedom or opportunity.

But racial and religious groups are not our only minorities. There is an even larger minority--the poor; the poverty stricken; the deprived of every race and color; of every religious belief; and in every section of our country.

A booming economy has raised the living standards of a majority of our citizens. Our national income is at an all time high. But we still have our nine million families, black and white, with only a token participation in this good fortune--who are shut out from the economic benefits most Americans enjoy. They are the American poor. And eleven million of them are children.

Indeed the very technological advances responsible for the affluence of most has helped increase the miseries of the unskilled and the uneducated.

Among the poor--the unskilled and uneducated, there are too many Negroes. Individual Negro income is less than 60 percent of his white fellow citizen. Here in New York State, even with a Fair Employment Practices Law, in 1947 the Negro’s median income was only 72 percent as much as a white worker. By 1959, although the earnings of all workers had increased, the Negro was paid only 70 percent as much as the white man. The gap had widened.

In education too the Negro has suffered. As late as 1957, 80 percent of white male Americans had completed at least eight years of schooling. Less than 50 percent of the non-white males had the same amount of education. The contrast in high school educational statistics is even starker--41 percent to 16 percent--and what the Negro gets is often inferior.

Here are a few more significant figures. The lifetime earnings expectation of a white man with less than eight years schooling is $157,000. For the Negro it is $95,000. For the white man with a grammar school education, it is $191,000; for the Negro, $123,000. For the white man of 12 years schooling, 3253,000; for the Negro, $151,000. For the college educated white man, $395,000; for the Negro, $185,000.

The figures speak for themselves. The gap between Negro and white income has gone up as education increases.

But, grinding poverty is not simply a problem of racial discrimination; although racial injustice is among its causes. It is a national problem, affecting men of every color.

Many Civil Rights leaders in looking back on the New Deal realize that Franklin Roosevelt’s programs for the solution of the nation’s economic problems, contributed more to the advancement of the Negro minority than any programs since the days of Abraham. Lincoln. In attempting to solve the problems of the largest minority--the unemployed, the poor, and the unskilled, Roosevelt contributed to the solution of the Negro’s problems.

Now, once again under the leadership of a great President, we have turned our attention to the solution of the problems of America’s largest minority--our people in poverty. In so doing we will make an important step toward the complete emancipation of the Negro.

To deal with this problem President Johnson has called for “a national war on poverty” and a new and comprehensive program has been submitted, to the Congress.

“The war on poverty,” the President said in his message to Congress, “is not a struggle simply to support people, to make them dependent on the generosity of others. It is a struggle to give people a chance. It is an effort to allow them to develop and use their capacities as we have been allowed to develop and use ours.”

Last August almost a quarter million Americans gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in a dramatic demonstration of their determination to eliminate the unjust discriminations which still plague us.

From the list of demands formulated on that occasion I remember, particularly, Demand No. 7. It called for, and I quote, “a massive Federal program to train and place all unemployed workers, Negro and white, on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”

The fulfillment of this demand is the objective of President Johnson’s program. How will we do this? This is what the President said in his message:

“It will give every American community the opportunity to develop a comprehensive plan to fight its own poverty--and help them to carry out their plans.

“It will give dedicated Americans the opportunity to enlist as volunteers in the war against poverty.”

The President’s program, for which almost one billion dollars is requested, will give high priority to helping the young.

And there are compelling reasons for this. In October 1963, 730,000 young men and women between the ages of 16 and 21 were both out of school and out of work. This figure grew by 22 percent in a one-year period. Unemployment statistics, however, do not tell the whole story.

Many teenagers, Negro and white alike, are employed in low-paying, dead-end jobs which are beneath their potential abilities. Almost a million young people in this country today desperately need training and guidance if they are to develop those abilities. They are undertrained, undereducated and underemployed.

If this situation is not changed, we will have, in five years, almost one and a half million unemployed youth without adequate education and training, without jobs of any sort and without a future. This not only condemns them to poverty--it is a loss to the entire nation of their productive skill and what they can contribute to our national life.

To meet this critical problem--to enable the youth of today to escape the poverty of tomorrow--to break the vicious cycle which continues poverty from generation to generation--we have given top priority, in our new legislation, to the nation’s young men and women.

Through a national job corps, 100,000 underprivileged young men will enter camps around the nation. They will receive work experience, training and basic education. They will graduate from these camps better able to look ahead to a future of productive and rewarding work. These camps are not compulsory. They are for those who want a chance, and are willing to work to get that chance.

But many will not be able to enter camps. For them we have other programs. A Work Training program will provide jobs, in their own communities, for thousands of young American men and women to stabilize their lives and help get them on with their careers.

This will not only help them. It will help communities which badly need part-time help for such vital services as libraries, hospitals and recreation programs. These jobs will not be “make-work”. They will be a real and a necessary service.

For college students we have a Work-Study program, providing part time jobs so that students who want to go to college, who have the capacity to go to college, can go to college. No one should be kept from a college education because he is poor. Neither he, nor America can afford it.

But the problem is not one of youth alone. Poverty exists among young children and the very old, among unemployed minors and women who support families, in city blocks and in entire communities.

Our program attacks all these problems.

A Community Action Program calls upon local leadership, in every community, to develop a comprehensive plan to eliminate the causes of poverty. Civic leaders are to examine all the causes of poverty where they live--ranging from poor health to poor education--and develop a plan to eradicate those causes. If these plans are approved in Washington, the federal government will finance up to 90 percent of the additional cost for the first two years.

This program is a challenge to every concerned businessman and labor leader, to civic leaders and local government, to educators, and administrators. It puts the problem of dealing with poverty squarely in their laps. I can think of no more important task than the mobilization of local energy and imagination to develop a local plan to wipe out poverty. I hope that many of the distinguished educators here today will give themselves to this job.

We are also dealing directly with problems of farmers who are too old to learn new-skills and too poor to make a go of farming. Through financial assistance” we can help them-put their small farms on a paying basis.

We know that a few bureaucrats in Washington cannot do this job by themselves. We need the help of every American who feels that the problem of the nation’s poor is his problem—who wants to give his skill and effort to the war against poverty. This bill gives them a chance to help.

We propose to recruit and train volunteers for the war against Poverty. They will work in communities and for organizations and institutions which are part of that war. This is a keystone of our program. Money alone will not do the job. Dedicated people can make the difference.

Those are the principal parts of the war against poverty and the Economic Opportunities Act. They in turn are part of a larger program--the vast array of government activities and proposals, ranging from the tax cut and aid to education, to manpower re-training and medicare which will help those in poverty.

This is a complex program. But the causes of poverty are also complex. Complexity must not mean disorganization. We don’t want to scatter our shots. Therefore the President has proposed an office of Economic Opportunity. The task of this office will be to ensure that all programs which can help are focused directly and immediately on the problems of the poor--that those who are supposed to benefit, do benefit.

One of our greatest resources in the war on poverty will be the dedicated educators—from the college president to the kindergarten teacher—who for years have been fighting poverty and ignorance with too few weapons. We ask only that you join us in a war we cannot afford to lose.

We enter the struggle for a number of reasons. As the President has pointed out, helping some will increase the prosperity for all.

“If we can raise the annual earnings of 10 million among the poor by only $1,000,”'President Johnson said recently, “we will have added $14 billion a year to our national output. In addition, we can make important reductions in public assistance payments which now cost us $4 billion a year, and in the large costs of fighting crime and delinquency, disease and hunger.”

But we do not approach this task simply to reduce our costs or increase our national income. Nor do we war on poverty and discrimination to avoid national embarrassment before the world.

The conscience of a nation, like the heart of man, is tested only by what it does or does not do without regard to appearances.

T.S. Elliot said: "...the greatest treason is to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

We--you and I--President Johnson, the Congress and ail the American people—must bend our energies to the tasks before us. Poverty and hunger, injustice and illiteracy must be fought because it is right that we fight them. And being right and possible, it becomes our duty as men. In the Peace Corps more than 8,000 Volunteer Americans are doing that around the world--and without compensation.

We can afford to do no less at home.

Tokenism--a grudging little effort here, a little help there--is not suited to the challenge--nor will it satisfy the need.

Token efforts will not suffice. We must wage war on poverty and denial. In the process, we will help end second-class treatment of American citizens.

The struggle for civil rights and the war against poverty are thus all part of the same battle. It is a battle we have fought ever since a struggling nation was established on the edge of a wild and new continent. It is a battle to allow, every citizen the full rewards of his capacity. Other nations have had other reasons for existence. The American nation exists for that purpose—of opening opportunity for its people. To the extent we have failed to bring opportunity to all, to that extent we have failed as a country and as a people. This is a great land, and it has achieved much for many. But if it is to fulfill the promise we have always held, it will now go forward to offer fulfillment to all.

Recently, a Peace Corps Volunteer entered a small African village. A little boy pointed to him and said to his mother, “Look, there’s a Whiteman.” No son,” she said, “that’s not a white man, that’s a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

We are working for the day when no one, anywhere, will say in this country--"Look, there is a white man,” or “Look, there is a colored man” or “Look, there is a poor man.”

We will see the day when they say 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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