Speech at the Dedication Ceremony of the South Central Multi-Purpose Health Services Center

Los Angeles, CA | September 16, 1967

No one should be fooled. Uniting ourselves humanly is painful. Our country is groaning -- not because we're dying, but because we’re living. America's life is being stretched by the challenge of poverty.

I am here for a simple reason. Not only because something great has come to Watts -- but that something greater has come from Watts. Proof goes out today that people, not just programs, change things.

Health centers get dedicated everyday. So do hospitals. Someone lays a cornerstone. Someone else cuts a ribbon. Speeches are made. And that's it. "It's a good program," says the crowd. "The committee did a good job."

That's the trouble with Americans today. We depend too much on plans and committees. Why else is change coming so hard? Programs can make things work. But they can't make things batter. Only people can.

That's why this new health center is more than just another clinic. It represents not a committee of people -- but a community of people. People who said the three most challenging, words in history: "Let's change things." Not by burning down, but by building up.

This new health center is a human victory. It will not treat bodies -- it will deal with people. It will not be a financial success it will be a human success. It is proof that our country is slowly being unified humanly. The same way we were slowly unified politically. And geographically.

No one should be fooled. Uniting ourselves humanly is painful. Our country is groaning -- not because we're dying, but because we’re living. America's life is being stretched by the challenge of poverty.

Our psychic strength is being tested -- like the tensile strength of a piece of steel. You put weight on it. You stretch it to capacity. You put pressure on it to see if it will buckle. And that's when you have a good piece of steel. It can take anything.

That's what is happening to our country right now. Do we have the psychic strength to eliminate poverty? Are we going to buckle under the pressure of riots? Can we stretch ourselves to include all Americans in our national pride?

This is how a country grows to greatness -- the same way an athlete runs to victory. He trains himself. He tests his strength. He does well one day. The next day it has to be better. Jim Ryun, the track star from Kansas, trains himself by running in the sand. In college, Wilt Chamberlain practiced hook shots by the hour. When he was finished, he practiced jump shots by the hour. Then foul shots. Then lay-ups.

No athlete ever won anything without stretching himself. And no country will win anything unless it does the same thing -- working to win victories over itself. Testing itself to conquer its domestic weaknesses.

That's why good can come from this summer's riots -- the way St. Paul said good can come from evil. God wouldn't give America this challenge if he didn't think we could meet it. "God never gives you a load without giving you a back strong enough to carry it."

But you have to use that back.

The way you are using it here in Watts to build this health center.

The way people in Lowndes County, Alabama are using it to build their health center.

You know about Lowndes County. You know about Haynesville. Jonathan Daniels was murdered there. A Catholic priest was critically wounded.

But today, things are changing in Lowndes County. A health center will open soon in Haynesville. Across the street from where Jonathan Daniels was murdered.

Who's responsible for this? A white man. Dr. Howard Meadows. He's not an outsider from the North. He's from Lowndes County. So was his father. And his grandfather. He goes back 5 generations in Alabama. Some of his relatives think he is crazy to open a health center. His life is in danger. He works with the local people -- even if they're in the white citizens council or the Black Panthers.

Two weeks ago, we spoke to Dr. Meadows.

"We want to use your Center in Lowndes County as a model for a center in Alaska."

"Are you serious," he said. "Yes," we replied.

"That's a new role for us," the doctor said. "In the past Washington has usually said what's wrong with Lowndes. Today, They are saying what's right."

Change is coming to Lowndes County. The same change that has come to Watts. Not because of programs, but because of people. Not because of committees, but because of commitment.

It's happening elsewhere, too.

  • In Denver, 70,000 visits have been made to our new OEO health center in less than 2 years. 
  • 200,000 visits have been made to the OEO health clinic in New York. Two years ago they had no health care. 
  • In the Columbia Point section of Boston, 98% of the women now go to the OEO clinic for pre-natal care. Two years ago, the welfare hospital only reached 50% for pre-natal care. 
  • In the mile square area of Chicago, the people are served 24 hours a day by 15 full or part-time doctors. A year ago, there were no doctors.

What does all this mean?

It means we are going back to the declaration of independence -- where Americans were guaranteed the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But for too long, the poor have looked around and asked: "Where is this life we are guaranteed?"

They haven't seen it. Instead of being guaranteed life, the poor get a guarantee of death. Not a quick, violent murder. But a slow, quiet death that whittles away life.

Everyday, a poor person's life is whittled away -- by a thousand insults or deceits.

This is why OEO is in the business of delivering health services -- because health is basic to everything. Health is one of the surest guarantees of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

If a baby spends 9 months in the womb of a healthy mother, chances are he can spend a healthy life in society.

If a child grows up with the right nutrition, chances are he can stay in school, stay with a job, stay with his family.

If a man has access to medical care, he can go to the hospital before he gets sick -- not after he gets sick.

When OEO set out to deliver health services to the people who needed them most, no new idea was needed. 2300 years ago, Aristotle wrote:

“Health of mind and body is so fundamental to the good life that if we believe that men have any personal rights at all as human beings, then they have an absolute moral right to such a measure of good health as society and society alone is able to give them.”

That society is ours -- if we want it. This health center in Watts is your answer. You want a commitment to life. A life where good health is not a lucky privilege for a few. But a basic right for all.