Address at the Community Action Assembly sponsored by the National Urban League

Washington, DC | December 9, 1964

To you who launched and maintained the fight for Civil Rights, I bring a challenge. You unleashed a moral force, a consciousness of human misery, a concern for your fellow man that started with racial discrimination, but which could not stop at the boundaries of color. History will record your achievement in the Civil Rights Act -- and your triumph of conscience last August 28th. But the question and the challenge that I bring you today is this --can you sustain that achievement? Can you take the next step?

We-- you and I -- work against a common enemy – time!

There is an urgency about the dignity of man. There is a compulsion to act -- to act here and now -- to free men from bondage -- whether it be the bondage of discrimination or the bondage of poverty.

"The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter...."

Those are the words of President Kennedy, used on July 11, 1963, in describing the birthright of the Negro child. The odds for that child have not changed materially. The odds for that child must change. If they do not change soon, for many it. will be too late.

To you who launched and maintained the fight for Civil Rights, I bring a challenge. You unleashed a moral force, a consciousness of human misery, a concern for your fellow man that started with racial discrimination, but which could not stop at the boundaries of color. History will record your achievement in the Civil Rights Act -- and your triumph of conscience last August 28th.

But the question and the challenge that I bring you today is this --can you sustain that achievement? Can you take the next step? Police dogs, fire hoses, beatings, jailings and abuse -- those you took! But will you be willing to sustain that heroism when the drama is gone, when the symbolic conflict of good and evil is no longer so clear?

  • When the victories must be reckoned, not in arrests but in syllables and words pronounced haltingly, by an adult who never read before?
  • When the triumphs must be reckoned in terms of the child who knows when he enters kindergarten how to open a book from the front, how to turn the pages-and what the texture of an orange is?
  • And when the triumph is reckoned, not in how many teenagers are marching on the streets -- but in how many are marching on their way to useful, productive lives through education, training, travel, work?

It takes more than laws to make Civil Rights meaningful ....

It takes dollars and cents at the drug store -- to use the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act.

It takes training and skills and work experience, for a job applicant to compete, on the basis of ability alone.

Shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Whitney Young, Director of the National Urban League, commented that Negroes are concerned that they may find themselves with "a mouthful of Civil Rights and an empty dinner table." "Passage of the Civil Rights Bill is important," he said, "but there is also need for the anti-poverty program."

And if you, as Civil Rights leaders, wish to make realities out of those Civil Rights, then you will have to fight poverty -- that poverty of opportunity, of learning, of jobs, and of dignity that degrade one out of every two Negroes and one out of every five Americans, regardless of race.

In that battle, you will be up against your old enemy -- time.

It took time while Brown v. Board of Education, and the other cases one by one worked their way up to the Supreme Court. During that time, a generation of school children grew to manhood and womanhood and missed years of decent schooling they will never make up. Those lost days will never be recaptured!

It took time while Congress deliberated, debated, and amended the Civil Rights Act.

And now, in the War against Poverty, we are up against this same enemy-- time. The U.S. Office of Education estimates that 1 million children will drop out of school next year. Right now, 600,000 18-year-olds have been rejected as unfit for military service. This month, and every month, thousands of children from backgrounds of poverty are falling farther and farther behind in every grade from kindergarten on up.

We cannot afford to waste time because the poor -- white or colored --do not have time to waste. Their lives, their hopes, their chance for a decent existence hang in the balance.

The Office of Economic Opportunity -- the new agency that Congress created to run the War on Poverty -- has been in business only 64 days.

In the first fifty days, working around and against the clock, we announced the first 119 grants establishing Job Corps Centers, funding local anti-poverty programs, launching work training programs for families receiving public assistance, initiating a neighborhood Job Corps for youth who were out of school and out of work -- and more.

We had trouble on that first news release. Between the time it was run off and the time it was released, we had to revise it three times to add new projects and grants.

Our battle against time continues -- applications pour in, new projects must be reviewed, screened, redone, approved and then funded. But this war is not going to be fought, or won in Washington even when we have successfully allocated and disbursed our funds. It is going to be fought in your communities-- in Atlanta and New York, in Detroit and New Orleans and Oakland and San Francisco.

And in those communities we do not have time to fight poverty by the old rules and the old methods.

We do not have time: 

  • to train enough doctors, social workers, teachers and lawyers to help every poor person
  • to research scientifically and exhaustively the problems of every poor person before we take action
  • to conduct five-year studies of what is "best" for the poor
  • the enemy -- time -- will not wait to suit our convenience.

That is why we need you, the Civil Rights leaders, in this new battle for the dignity of man. You are ready. You are eager. And you are tired of waiting! First of all, you can help us to listen to the voices of the poor. Administrators and planners and "bosses" of all types political, industrial, labor, need to listen to the poor.

You found one way for the Negro to speak out -- in demonstrations, in marches, in sit-ins. Will you now help us to seek other ways as well? --Ways to insure that those agencies and planners who try to help the poor will listen, and be responsive, to needs and concerns of the poor?

In yesterday's Afro-American newspaper, I read the headline: "9,000 Put in Basic Classes", "Girl with 130 IQ Branded Retarded." Whether that charge is true or not, it points up one very important problem: How are the poor to speak out, to seek redress from the very officials and agencies supposed to serve them? Every case will not receive newspaper attention.

From New York we hear of cases where families were denied welfare payments because it was decided in one case that a Puerto Rican family had come to New York for "socially invalid reasons."

And from the West Coast comes the story of a woman with seven children living on public assistance. Her check was withheld, when the roof of her home burned down. Why? -- Because she was living in "unsuitable housing."

The poor need a voice, they need advocates, they need people who can help them to speak out. They need you!

And we need your help in other ways too. We have to disseminate knowledge about these new programs. They won't work, if nobody knows about them, or knows how to use them. We are launching nine new programs --and we are charged with coordinating almost two hundred existing programs which affect the poor. But the poor don't know about them. Even mayors, governors and big businessmen don't know about them. Thus we have an initial, top priority job to inform America about these programs, to describe how they operate and how they can be utilized. You and your groups can help us with that job.

We need also to reach out to the poor through people like yourselves. Your years of service have won their confidence and trust. Walking the road from dependency and despair, to opportunity and full citizenship, is not easy. We need your help in a mammoth recruitment effort to reach the so-called "invisible poor."

We need to develop neighborhood groups and associations, block clubs and community councils that can mobilize the energies of the poor and support efforts by the poor to help themselves. How, for instance, are we going to improve the quality of education, or recreation without a strong PTA or strong volunteer support? How are we going to keep four-year-olds in a special pre-kindergarten program if their mothers don't understand and support the program?

We need to involve the grass roots leadership of the poor, to develop more leaders, and organizations capable of representing the poor, of speaking out on their behalf, of participating in the planning and administration of Community Action programs. And -- we need those neighborhood leaders to criticize our programs, to make sure our programs are getting at the real needs of the poor.

We need also the support of the established leadership of the community, white and Negro, to create programs which will be balanced and comprehensive-- which will reflect the overall needs of the community.

We need the help of such leadership in job placement and job development for graduates of our programs.

In Chicago, persons on public assistance have been trained and placed as cab drivers, as filling station attendants -- in furniture finishing, in food handling and in building maintenance trades. We need to develop more job openings. The Urban League had a slogan a couple of years back which sums up the entire poverty program -- "Opportunity, Not Alms." Many of you have been doing this for years -- but now we need to step up the pace.

Last, but not least, we need you actually participating in the programs we are running. VISTA, the new domestic Peace Corps, will be recruiting thousands of volunteers to serve in the front lines of the War against Poverty -- in settlement houses, in Job Corps Camps, in Y's and public schools. And VISTA volunteers will not be the only ones serving in the front lines. Increasingly we will begin to see jobs filled by ordinary laymen which we have assumed in the past could only be filled by professionals. Need is producing innovation -- and innovation will create new career lines and a new army of poverty fighters. In Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and New Haven, a new force of poverty fighters drawn from the ranks of the poor is coming into being. They will work as homework aides, information aides, and health aides doing jobs we once thought could only be done by professionals -- by social workers, by guidance counselors, educators and psychologists. This is why we need you -- now -- doing each and every one of these jobs.

In one of our major Northern cities during World War II, a Negro mother and her young son boarded a streetcar being driven by a Negro. The son said to his mother that this was the first time he had seen a Negro operating a streetcar. And he wondered how this had happened.

"Well you see," the mother explained, "there is a war on and we have to use all the men we can get -- even Negro men!" The young boy admired the Negro driver and asked his mother, hopefully, "Will there be a war on when I get big, Mommy?"

We have such a war now -- the War on Poverty.