Address to the NAACP

Washington, DC | June 24, 1964

When millions of people suffer the injustice of discrimination and poverty, we know that we are only half way to our goal--only halfway to the city upon the hill in which we can all take pride, a city and a country open to all men on merit alone, regardless of race, color, or creed.

If Senator Goldwater really wants to find the mainstream, he should come here to this convention. He should come here and explain why he thinks it unconstitutional to pass a law guaranteeing an equal opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, color or creed. At the same time he might try to explain his doctrine of states rights. He might explain how it has been working in Mississippi the last two or three days. If Mississippi justice -- including Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and now three more civil rights workers -- is constitutional, and the Civil Rights Bill is unconstitutional, then my only question is: Did Senator Goldwater ever go to Law School?

Yet despite Senator Goldwater, the Civil Rights Bill is about to become a landmark in American History. For this we owe deep thanks -the deepest thanks -- to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, to Hubert H. Humphrey, to other distinguished Senators like Everett Dirkson of Illinois and Senator Thomas Kuchel of California. And to many men in the House of Representatives, including Emanuel Cellers of New York and William McCullough of Ohio. And I would like to express my gratitude to a close member of my family whom I think deserves as much credit as anyone -- the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy.

But let us never forget that the NAACP was in the fight for 50 years, not 50 weeks, giving enduring and dedicated leadership. All Americans, of all races and colors and creeds, owe you a great debt of gratitude.

Somebody said that with the Civil Rights Bill our government is finally about to run on all three of its engines -- not only the Executive and the Judiciary but finally the Legislative engine. But don’t forget the fourth engine, the power of the people.

You represent the power of the people -- the power of the people to bring laws into existence and get them enforced. For 50 years in times and places of danger as well as indifference, you spoke up for, you stood up for, you sat down for, you marched for, you picketed for, and you protested, petitioned and sued for the rights of all Americans. You have done this in every forum, and in every state. The Civil Rights Bill, therefore, is truly your latest victory – but it will not be your last victory.

So as we mention heroes of this fight, let us never forget your distinguished leaders, Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins. Because of them and because of you today, we have all got something to applaud for.

For people like you the job is never done. Work goes on, and you must go on. We must go on together to give full reality to the great promises contained in the long line of laws designed to advance all the people of America -- from the Bill of Rights itself, through the13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, through the abolition of the Poll Tax, and the Civil Rights legislation of the past decade.

The latest of the laws to require your help and your support is the law which will enable us to start President Johnson's War Against Poverty.

In 1960, just three and a half years ago, President Kennedy said these words: "The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half the chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day. One-third of the chance of completing college; one-third of a chance of becoming a professional man but twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one-seventh as much a chance of earning $10,000 a year. A life expectancy which is seven years shorter and the prospect of earning half as much." In these two sentences, Kennedy dealt with four significant aspects of the Negro Revolution. Employment, education, health opportunities and economic opportunities. These four points are just as important today as when Kennedy mentioned them. President Johnson's War on Poverty attacks each one of these points -- not because Negroes are affected, but because all poor people are affected by the deprivation of employment, education, health and economic opportunities.

Eighty percent of the poor people in America are white. President Johnson’s War Against Poverty, therefore, is not a war to help Negroes alone it is a war for the benefit of all Americans, poor and rich, because every time we help a poor man we help a rich man, too.

First of all, President Johnson's War Against Poverty attacks the problem of jobs, and that's very close to the heart of the matter. The legal rights, for example, which the NAACP has given leadership in obtaining-these legal rights will be empty promises without economic opportunities. The necessity for jobs was summed up eloquently by a young Negro woman on a national broadcast who was asked recently what her highest ambition in life was. She replied simply, "To marry a man with a job.”

Something is wrong with a society where a young woman would assume that her husband normally would not have a job. How can we expect young men or women to prepare diligently for the skill or work required in an age of automation when they have been conditioned by doubt and by despair to expect no jobs--when they have seen their fathers out of work or restricted to dead end jobs? Even today, although unemployment in our country has gone down to 4.4 per cent, it is still 9 per cent for Negro Americans.

To break this vicious circle of hopelessness and poverty that goes on from generation to generation, President Johnson's program plans to start with young men and women 16 to 21 years of age by creating a Job Corps. There are today in American approximately one million young men and women out of school and out of work. For them we propose a Job Corps composed of two parts: one part to do conservation work on great public lands of our country and in state forests and parks; and a second part to be residential educational centers, perhaps different from anything that has ever existed in American educational life before. Sometimes I have described these as tax-supported boarding schools.

Some people have criticized us for even suggesting such a program because they say it would cost too much. They say, "why spend $4,500 or $5,000 to rehabilitate a poor person through education and training in such a tax supported boarding school, it's a waste of money." Yet frequently these same people are the ones who are spending the same amount of money to send their own children away to a private boarding school. My answer to that is that if a private boarding school is good enough for your child then we should have, for those who cannot afford it, a public supported boarding school.

These schools and camps would not be make-work places where people are just doing jobs to keep themselves busy. These would be places where, on a year-round basis, in a residential community, genuine work would be done. And to that work would be added a heavy component of education. We would look forward to providing the right kind of food, the right kind of health education and health practices. They will experience a good job, clean clothes, regular hours, a sense of belonging to a community where the leadership of the community wants them to improve themselves and to become respectable self-supporting citizens.

We have turned to Dr. Jean Noble, for example, here on the platform with me -- an Associate Professor of Education from NYU – to help us in creating the kind of a curriculum, the kind of an atmosphere that would be helpful for the girls involved in such a program. We are turning to her university and to Fisk University, and Vanderbilt, and George Peabody Teachers' College in Nashville, to the University of Oregon, to the University of Pennsylvania. We are calling upon them for the combined intellectual and moral resources of these great educational institutions to help us to prepare the right kind of curriculum and to give the right kind of training in these camps, so that the camps graduates will become gainfully employed American citizens.

These camps and these educational centers will not be dumping grounds; they are not going to be places restricted to delinquents, or just high school drop-outs, or people rejected by the draft, or dope addicts, or to any other kind of person thrown off by society. Remember what I said, there are at least a million young men and women in the age group 16 to 21 -- out of school and out of a job. In our first year, we hope to enlist only 40,000 of that figure. In subsequent years we hope to grow to 100,000. But I for one say that out of that million there has to be at least 100,000 young men and women who are not delinquent or derelict, anyway who do look for a real opportunity and who will profit from this kind of training.

Not all these young men and women need to be taken out of the environment where they are living in order to have a total change from the life they have been accustomed to. For those who can remain at home, we propose two programs. First, a work training program, which some people have compared to the old National Youth Administration. This work training program would give part-time jobs to young men and women -- 16 to 21 -- who are poor and out of work and who are out of school. These jobs would be in the public parks, in repair and maintenance of public buildings and the rehabilitation of slums, in libraries, in recreation work, any type of a public purpose job in the community where the young men and women live. These jobs would have two purposes: (1) to give the young men and women the opportunity to earn some money in a legitimate and respectable way and (2) to teach them what it is to hold a job, how they have to conduct themselves in order to advance in the world of work. And at the same time to counsel some of them, to advise those who can do so to go back and continue their education. In the first year, if President Johnson's proposed legislation is enacted, 200,000 young American men and women can profit financially and morally from the opportunities offered by this work training program.

In the area of employability under Title Five of our bill, we hope to reach as many as a million heads of families who are out of work; unemployed men for the most part, whose children are receiving public assistance benefits through Aid to Dependent Children. There are some tragic statistics which show that as Negro unemployment goes up, just about one year behind the unemployment come the statistics on desertion by fathers--desertion of their wives and their children. It takes just about one year to break a man's heart. In Cook County, Illinois, a special program was designed to try and help these fathers whose children were on ADC and to give them a chance to become employable citizens, thereby regaining their own self-respect and self-confidence, and taking their family off of public welfare. This program has worked. In 18 months, more than 3,000 men have gained employment through a program which taught them how to hold a job. We have $150 million proposed under this heading alone to enable men and women in these circumstances to get gainful employment. I have the highest hopes for this, because as the family is the unit of our society anything which attacks the family--such as unemployment--will undermine our whole social structure.

The second important part of President Johnson's program is education. You all know the facts -- that 80 per cent, for example, of our white people have completed grammar school, where only 50 per cent of our Negro people have. That 41 per cent of our white people have completed high school; only 16 per cent of our Negro people have completed high school. And the statistic, I think, of college level is only 3 per cent of the Negro population. You know that the lifetime earnings expectation of a white man with less than eight years of schooling is $157,000, but for a Negro it is only $95,000. A white man with a grammar school education can hope to earn $191,000; for a Negro $123,000. For the college educated white man, he can hope to earn $395,000; for the Negro,$185,000.

So in each case, you can see that as a person has more education, his earning power goes up. But if he is a white man, he has a greater chance. What do we intend to do about it in President Johnson's War on Poverty? We intend to do the maximum that we can with the money that Congress gives us. First of all, we intend through Title Two, which is called "Community Action," to make it possible for localities, communities, and school districts to start nursery schools. These nursery schools will make sure that young people -- especially people from the minority groups -- when they arrive in the first grade, will be able to profit from education. In this program communities will start remedial reading clinics so that those who cannot either get or hold a job because of faulty reading can get remedial reading. There will be summer schools so that those who need additional time or additional help in order to progress in education can get that opportunity. There will be adult education, given after school hours and at nighttime, in the winter time and in the summer time, so that older people can get better jobs. There will be schools for parents so that the parents will have a better understanding of their responsibilities and how to carry them out.

Also under Title One there is a provision known as Work Study, which is very important. There are literally hundreds of thousands of young Americans today who could go to college if they could finance their way. But they have responsibilities to their families, they need to send money home, they need to get a job to keep the family going, and they can't get such a job and attend college at the same time. We intend to make jobs available to such young men and women so that we will not lose those who can't afford to go to college.

The third prong in this overall attack is the problem of health, of good food, good housing, and respectable living conditions. I remember in the New Yorker magazine there always used to be a cartoon of a Mexican or a Central American, sitting under a tree with a sombrero over his face sleeping in the middle of the day. Then there was some joke about how these people didn't want to work, that they were lazy or shiftless people. Well I have seen lazy and shiftless people of all races, colors and creeds all over the world. I have seen them in the slums of Chicago -- hillbillies who have escaped from the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, or West Virginia; I've seen them out in Thailand, and the Philippines; I've seen them in India; I've seen them in Latin America. Let me tell you that race has got nothing to do with whether you are lazy or shiftless. What you get to eat has a lot more to do with it. I've seen the diet that people got under the surplus food program before President Kennedy changed to the food stamp program. I've seen literally thousands of children with those little '1 swollen bellies and you'd think, they had a lot to eat, but they hadn't had anything to eat. And if they got anything to eat, all they got was starch. I've also seen people, millions of them, who got diseases from the time they were born. And they have had malaria, not once, but two or three times; they have had beri beri, or scurvy, they have had rickets, and people have said to me, "Look at that lazy fellow, he doesn't want to work." But I'd much rather look at his blood stream and see how many diseases he has had because of poor medical care.

Under Title Two of the Poverty program we can do something about that with the help of communities across the country. We can have better pre-natal service for mothers. My wife and I computed about a year ago that we spend in the United States today more money on research and care of pregnant cows than we do for pregnant women. Now we are just beginning to find out that the pre-natal care a woman gets and the kind of care that she should give to her child between birth and three years of age is probably as important as anything she ever does for this child. It will control, in many respects, the kind of life that child will lead. Because if his mother has poor nutrition while carrying him, and if that child has poor nutrition and poor postnatal care after birth, that child does not have an equal chance. 

Then there is the need for more economic opportunities since civil rights -- legal rights -- without economic rights and opportunities are hollow. The Poverty program hopes to do something about that. Under our legislation, the Small Business Administration is authorized for the first time to give loans to people who have good moral character, who have a good idea, who have a willingness to work, but who haven't got any collateral to borrow money with. In the old days, we used to call that a character loan. Well today it doesn't make any difference what kind of character you've got, if you've got enough assets, you can borrow money. The Small Business Administration would be able to go back to the business of giving loans to people who've got the right kind of character and the right kind of ideas but who haven't got capital to borrow money on.

This already works. This is not something we thought of in an office down here. It has worked up in Philadelphia, and just recently a new group was announced in New York City, under the aegis of Rodman Rockefeller, whereby incentives and loans and technical advice would be given to members of minority groups who want to go into business for themselves. That's what we have already proposed to do under the President's War on Poverty.

We also have programs for the small farmer whose family has been stuck in poverty not for one generation, but for two or three generations--for the small farmer who sees no way out of poverty, who would be worse off if he migrated into the city, whose best chance of becoming an economically successful individual is by earning more money on the farm.

And as I said, we will provide economic opportunities through the Job Corps. In the Job Corps a person can allot $25 a month to be sent home to his family. If he does so, the Government will match that $25 with another $25, so that this young man or woman could send home $50 a month--$600 a year. You may say that's not very much, and God knows, it’s not. But there are nine million families in America who are poor, and those nine million families have a medium income of $1,800. Suppose a boy comes out of a family with an income of $1,800 and he goes to the Job Corps and he sends home $600 in cash: that is a tremendous assistance to that poverty stricken family.

There are many more things in President Johnson's proposed program to end poverty. But we cannot help today focusing our thoughts on another kind of poverty. For what is happening in Mississippi, what is happening to those three young men, is poverty-the poverty of American law, power and spirit. The picture of that burned car in the Mississippi swamp shows the world how poor we are.

This is the kind of poverty you have been working so long to eliminate. This is the kind of poverty the Civil Rights Bill, now before Congress, is designed to eliminate. And let me add that this is the kind of poverty which 8,000 Peace Corps Volunteers are working to eliminate all around the world.

When they read the news of violence in American to young volunteers like themselves, who were working to advance human right sat home, they will see--they will feel-- how poor America is. We have sent Volunteers to more than 3,000 different locations in46 different nations all over the world. They work with alien people--people full of suspicion of outsiders, and distrust of the West, distrust of the United States. But in three years we have not had a single incidence of violence to a Peace Corps Volunteer serving abroad. We have heard a lot of talk about backward people on other continents. But when we think of that burned car, and when we think back on Medgar Evers, Emmett Till and other victims of our own American violence here at home, we must ask ourselves: who is really backward?

Three hundred and thirty four years ago, on a ship sailing to the new world, John Winthrop, who was to become the first Governor of Massachusetts, assembled the Puritans on the deck and said, "We must consider that we shall be as a city, set upon a hill, and the eyes of all people will be upon us."

Never was that more true than today. The eyes of the world are upon us, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, as well as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in Alabama, and in New York; in the South and in the North.

The Puritans were in the middle of the Atlantic when John Winthrop talked to them of the new city that they would create in the new world. America is still in the middle of its journey. When millions of people suffer the injustice of discrimination and poverty, we know that we are only half way to our goal--only halfway to the city upon the hill in which we can all take pride, a city and a country open to all men on merit alone, regardless of race, color, or creed.