Address to the Arkansas Legislature

LITTLE ROCK, AR | March 8, 1965

The struggle against poverty at home, and the struggle for peace abroad are both too important for religious and racial and regional differences to divide us. In this war we must forget our differences just as we have done in every "shooting war" in American history.

Poverty has become fashionable.

Newspapers now have poverty "beats” covered by day-to-day poverty reporters. Even the heavy-thinkers like "Scotty" Reston of the New York Times, Joseph Alsop, and John Chamberlain of the Wall Street Journal are turning their attention, at least occasionally, from foreign wars to the "poverty war.”

Washington bureaucrats are changing into poverty-crats.

For the first time in history, Congress may pass a Federal aid-to-education bill to help high schools and elementary schools — because – it is aimed at the poverty problem.

The Department of Agriculture has organized a rural poverty division.

And Congress itself has established a special ad-hoc committee on the poverty war.

Huge corporations like GE, Philco, IBM, Westinghouse and others have created "poverty divisions" to rival their aero-space and data processing units. And, true to form, some liberals are beginning to worry that big business will "profiteer" in this war as in others.

Yet, just because poverty has become fashionable, we cannot conclude that America as a nation or we as individuals have faced up to the reality of poverty — at home or abroad.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from a woman in Skokie, Illinois. She wrote:

"I know you are busy but could your secretary let me know in what country, state, or city most of the POOR PEOPLE live? Thank her, because I'm collecting money for the POOR."

The writer of that letter meant well. She really did. But for her, the poor still live in another country, in another state, in another city.

When President Johnson first established our task force to plan the war against poverty, the Toledo Blade approached us. They wanted to take a look at poverty — first hand! And asked if we could arrange a tour to some place like Appalachia — the answer we gave them was "Go to Toledo! Take a good, hard look where you are. That's where poverty is.”

I'm not sure that answer pleased them. But it was the right one. And we gave it because one of our principal objectives is to interrupt the American preoccupation with poverty in India, China, Africa or Appalachia. The Arkansas Gazette has been a conspicuous exception with its outstanding studies and reports on poverty. But, we want all Americans to take a frank look at themselves, at their own home towns.

We all have poverty problems — in Arkansas; in my home town Chicago; in New York; in Georgia; in Hawaii.

But we are slowed down in our fight against poverty — by myths and doubts and skepticism, and by misinformation.

I've heard the skeptics, critics, professional doubters with arguments such as these:

(1) "Most poor people are Negroes. Helping them will endanger everybody's jobs.” That's wrong. Eighty percent of the poor people in America are white. And we intend to help them — to the maximum of our ability.

Another argument against the War on Poverty ran like this:

(2) "This war against poverty is just a device for forcing integration on the South.” That's wrong! No program of ours can be initiated in any state if the governor says "no." But our programs must conform to the nation's laws. That's obvious! And, therefore, they will be administered without discrimination as to race, color or creed. "All men are created equal" our Declaration of Independence says.

And all Americans will be treated as equals in the war against poverty! As a result we do have ministers and rabbis in the war against poverty. We have Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, White Americans, Roman Catholics, Negroes, and others. For all those who are still deeply worried about the "race issue" in the War on Poverty — let me say this:

When we started the Peace Corps, the "experts" said:

(1) You can't send Jewish Americans to Arab countries. The Peace Corps will never be invited. But they were wrong.

(2) You can't send Protestants to Roman Catholic countries in Latin America. The priests would ostracize them. But we did — they were wrong.

(3) You can't send girls into the back country or into the alums of South America full of Communists. I heard a lot about machismo. But the experts were wrong.

In the Job Corps, the "experts" said you can't mix white boys from the rural south with Negroes from northern slums. Race riots will take place. Well, once again the "experts" have been wrong.

We have treated all Americans as equals — and there have been no race riots anywhere in any Job Corps center or Peace Corps contingent.

The struggle against poverty at home, and the struggle for peace abroad are both too important for religious and racial and regional differences to divide us. In this war we must forget our differences just as we have done in every "shooting war" in American history. We need the support of every American in the war against Communism abroad, and, in the war against poverty at home. And there is no doubt we can win both wars, if we stand united in our ancient and cherished beliefs that "all men are created free and equal. "

The skeptics and cynics and doubters had other arguments, too. They said:

(1) The poor are shiftless and lazy. Any red-blooded American who wants to work can get a good job these days. The poor deserve to be poor!

(2) The Federal Government can't eliminate poverty ... "they" will just establish a big new Federal bureaucracy and waste the taxpayer's money.

(3) These new programs aren't really "new" — they're just a rehash of old, tired ideas. No one will respond to these programs — there's no need for them!

(4) This "war against poverty" is just a political gimmick — it is just the brainchild of a "wheeler-dealer" named Lyndon B. Johnson.

Well, let's look at the record. Today the war against poverty has been operating for 151 days and these are the results:

  • One thousand American communities have organized themselves into community action groups — over 500 of these have sent their ideas and plans to Washington and we have already provided financial support to 150 such local communities. By June we will have financed more than a thousand. And these programs will cover every city with a population of more than 50,000 in the entire USA. I'm glad to know that the Action Committee to fight poverty in Little Rock is meeting this very night. I wish them success in their program.


  • A new nationwide organization called the Job Corps has been created. In the first 70 days, 141, 000 Americans have volunteered to join this new program. By June, I predict that half a million youngsters will volunteer. All of these volunteers are young men and women, 16 to 21 years of age — out of work and out of school. They are the young Americans sometimes referred to as "social dynamite" — young Americans for whom five months ago there was no chance of escape from poverty. And 2,335 of them are from Arkansas.


  • A domestic Peace Corps has been started. It's called VISTA — Volunteers in Service to America. The first 30 VISTA Volunteers have been recruited, selected, trained, and dispatched to a dozen locations. They are on the job now.One of them — a 22-year old girl from Milwaukee, Pamela Teggatz, is already here in Arkansas, at the invitation of the school authorities in Yell County, working with slow learners — for $50 a month.  Next week two more VISTA Volunteers will arrive in Arkansas to start work at our Job Corps Conservation Center — Camp Ouachita. They are only the vanguard of thousands of Americans, aged 18 to 80, who soon will be fanning out all over the United States to help the poor —but only on invitation from local organizations, local leaders. 
  • A Neighborhood Youth Corps has been established. This organization gives jobs — local jobs — to high school youngsters who stay at home, but need money to finance their education. Thousands of boys and girls are already in this program. And so are their college aged counterparts who are covered by another program in the war against poverty. Both of these programs should be available here in Arkansas.


What does all of this prove?

First, it shows the poor want to work — they do have ambition. They will volunteer if given a chance for work, job training and education. The cynics and skeptics and doubters were wrong about the poor.

Second, the program has not led to the creation of a vast, new Washington bureaucracy! Less than 500 persons have been hired on our permanent payroll — and in five months they have processed, approved, and financed more than 700 local projects in every state of the Union! They have sent and received, more than 1,000,000 pieces of mail, answered a half-million telephone calls. Never have fewer people worked harder for the public welfare. Once again the cynics and skeptics and doubters were wrong.

Third, the overwhelming public response proves that America wants and needs these programs. These are not tired, old ideas — merely a rehash of previous suggestions. On the contrary, they are in tune with the times.

Fourth, everyone of these new programs has been approved by the governors of the several states. Not one governor has vetoed a project — Republican and Democrat alike — they have said "yes." Once again the cynics and skeptics were wrong. This program has not proved to be a political gimmick!

I could go on — citing specific examples — but the point is clear: We must reject all those with little courage and vision and even less faith in Americans who happen to be poor! We must be willing to experiment with new weapons in this new war!

Sixteen days ago in Washington we announced another new program called "Project Head Start." This one is aimed to help the most innocent victims of poverty — the five and six-year-old "children of the poor" — and there are at least one million.

These children are destined to be poor all their lives unless we do something now. Unless we act, most of these children will end up on public welfare, or in state hospitals and institutions principally because their homes, their health and their education are grossly substandard.

There's no guess work about this. The children are alive – they have already been counted by the Census Bureau. They will enter school for the first time this September. They are poor.

Educators tell us these children will start first grade already six months to a year behind children from "normal" homes and families. By third grade they will be one year to 18 months behind; by eighth grade they will be two years behind. At tenth grade, if they get that far, they will drop out of school, and into hopeless poverty, forever.

Doctors tell us that these children require medical care, desperately. Out of every 100,000 of these children of the poor we are told we can expect to discover: 500 cases of active tuberculosis; 4,000 cases of partial blindness; 15,000 of eye difficulties; and 10,000 of partial deafness.

There will be 5,000 cases of nutritional anemia "that saps the strength of these children" so they cannot learn; 250 cerebral palsy victims; 2,000 mentally retarded; 15,000 with no immunization for diphtheria or tetanus, and 50,000 who have had no booster shots!

If we enlist 500,000 poor children in Project Head Start this summer, we can multiply every one of those by five! Think of it! In this one part of our American population — innocent children — there would be 2,500 with TB; 20,000 partially blind; 75,000 with eye difficulties; 50,000 partially deaf; 10,000 mentally retarded; 75,000 with no immunizations against diphtheria or tetanus; 250,000 with no booster shots!

And there are 19,000 children just like this in Arkansas! None of them is in kindergarten. All of them should be.  For them — this summer – is their last chance to get a "fair start" in life. Deprived and neglected all their lives, they need a "jet assist take off" to catch up, even partially, with other youngsters. That's exactly what "Head Start" will give them. ''Head Start" will give medical evaluations and dental examinations to these poor children.

"Head Start" will inaugurate "schools" for their impoverished parents so they can learn how to care for their children better. Responsible parenthood is essential to a free and democratic society. Parent education is therefore an essential element in Project Head Start.

"Head Start" will provide guidance and counseling to the families of these poor children. "Head Start" will be financed 90% by the Federal Government.

But to be truly successful, "Head Start" depends on you!

First, "Head Start" will require at least 15,000 volunteers next summer. Here's a genuine woman-sized job for every college girl, and every single woman, and for every talkative and affectionate grandmother, in the state of Arkansas. Even wives are eligible!

Second, "Head Start" will require the help of every medical student, every nurse, and every doctor in this state. But unlike "Medicare" this program has been endorsed by Medical Associations like the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Third, "Head Start" will require fast action by every school superintendent, public and private, and by all the social welfare agencies in your state.

And finally, it will require 10% matching funds from state or local legislatures, or from private welfare resources. That's $300,000 which is needed now in Arkansas.

These requirements reveal the single, most essential, American quality of "Head Start.”

"Head Start" relies on local plans, local leadership, local effort and local management! No one from Washington is going to operate "Head Start" in Arkansas. You must do that! And no one from Washington is going to force "Head Start" on. Arkansas. Your Governor could veto that!

To get going with "Head Start", this legislature must move to appropriate money and J. D. Hill must energize the Arkansas anti-poverty office; for example, Washington granted $76,000 to Arkansas on January 19th – but no funds have been released because up till now we have not received the necessary acknowledgements. So, $76,000 sits in Washington rather than working in Arkansas. And if Arkansas moves fast and efficiently, if you can produce the necessary, local leadership in every county and town, we can produce the money! Every poor child in all of Arkansas can be included this summer in Project Head Start. This is our pledge to you! And we hope you take us up on that pledge!

Yet, despite this pledge and the manifest need; we can all foresee that these words will fall upon some ears where the reaction is negative. Some men here today are probably saying to themselves:

"We can't afford it!” (or)   "I earned my own way. Why can't these poor people do the same?" (or)  "This Project Head Start is pure idealism, impractical, Utopian." (or)   "The poor are not really interested in education. They don't know what they want. They are happy as they are."

But for those who feel and think this way, listen to these words, spoken just four weeks ago by a poor woman, Mrs. Janice Bradshaw of Pueblo, Colorado, who attended a conference on poverty held in Tucson, Arizona. Mrs. Bradshaw never graduated from the eighth grade. She is desperately poor. She is a Negro. She said: "Poverty is a personal thing."

"Poverty is having a child with glaucoma and watching that eye condition grow worse every day, while welfare officials send you to the private agencies, and the private agencies send you back to the welfare, and when you ask the welfare officials to refer you to this special hospital they say they can't — and then when you say it is prejudice because you are a Negro, they deny it flatly — and they shout at you, "Name one white child we have referred there" — and when you name twenty-five, they sit down — and they shut up — and they finally refer you, but it is too late then, because your child has permanently lost 80 % of his vision — and you are told that if only they had caught it a month earlier, when you first made inquiry about that film over his eyes, they could have preserved his vision."

That is the voice of the poor.

It speaks to us from Chicago and New York and from Pueblo, Colorado. It speaks to us from Newton County and Lafayette County, from Alaska (where we have located the poorest county in the entire USA) as well as from the Indian reservations in New Mexico, Arizona and the Dakotas.

That voice of the poor is calling out for help — all over this land. How many of you will turn a deaf ear? How many will vote neither "yea" nor "nay" — but only "present"?

Before you seal off your hearts, before you close your eyes to the 19,000 Arkansas children who need a "Head Start" in life, it would be well for all of us to recall the words of St. John in the Apocalypse — where he quotes our Lord as saying these words:

"I know of thy doings and find they are neither cold nor hot. I would thou were one or the other. Being what thou are, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou will make me vomit you out of my mouth. "

Arkansas, fortunately for America, is not a lukewarm state.

Douglas MacArthur came from Arkansas. No one ever accused him of being "lukewarm" — he liked to win wars. He would have enjoyed the war against poverty — because this is a war we can win.

Edward Durell Stone, the great pioneer architect, came from Arkansas. His architecture is not lukewarm. It stands for beauty and simplicity and truth. Qualities dear to all citizens of this state.

And your Lieutenant Governor was not lukewarm or doubtful or cynical when his courage in the face of the enemy won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Neither the President, the Congress, nor I promised that passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 would signal — automatically – the arrival of the easy life, or the end of poverty. But we did say it signaled a significant beginning. Today in Arkansas another significant beginning will take place reminding us all of the famous incident during the American Constitutional Convention. At that convention behind the desk of General George Washington, there was a picture of a sun, low on the horizon.

Many of the delegates wondered if it was a rising or a setting sun. At the conclusion, Benjamin Franklin rose and said: "Because of what we have done here today, we know it is not a setting sun, but it is a rising sun ... and the beginning of a great new day.