Statement at VISTA Associates Press Conference

Washington, DC | June 13, 1966

We do not crusade to make everybody middle class, we do crusade to make dignity, and opportunity and first class citizenship available to all as a matter of justice. That's not the same thing as casting all poor people into some white, middle class mold.

This week VISTA, the volunteer corps of the War on Poverty, will assign nearly 500 college students to serve 100 of the most isolated communities of four southern Appalachian states.

Volunteers will serve in 19 of the nation's 300 poorest counties. These include nine of the 35 poorest counties in the nation.

Their assignment will bring to nearly 800 the number of VISTA Volunteers assigned to the four states.

These VISTA Volunteer Associates are all college students. They will serve throughout the summer in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee. After they have completed their full-time assignment, many of them will continue their service on weekends and during school vacations. It is hoped that many will become full-time VISTA Volunteers after their education is completed.

These volunteers are highly-motivated, dedicated young men and women whose talents and energies will bolster the efforts of 26.9 Volunteers living and working in the 4 states.

This project is a new, important dimension in the VISTA program one designed to make a significant impact on the conditions of poverty that prevail in remote areas where they will serve and to tap the reservoir of voluntarism among the nation's college students.

The VISTA Volunteers now in Appalachia have made a significant contribution to the problems that confront the families in that region. Often working alone in the most isolated areas, VISTA Volunteers have helped rekindle long dormant community pride -- one of the first prerequisites for escaping from poverty.

VISTA Associates will live and work primarily in the smaller, more isolated communities farther back in the mountain hollows among people who have not learned how to take the first steps toward community action.

It is significant that the Volunteers have been invited by each of the communities where they will serve. The people in the communities have been consulted by the Appalachian Volunteers staff. The people have outlined the kind of project they feel they need, and have requested specific numbers of Volunteers. Each community will elect a council of three to five people to work with the Volunteers.

Nearly half of the Volunteer Associates who will spend the summer in Appalachia are drawn from the colleges and universities of the four states where they will serve. Their contributions during the summer in the War on Poverty will add, I am convinced, an important new impetus to our efforts. They have demonstrated a commitment to assume a leadership role in shaping the future of their communities.

And when they were all finished, Mrs. Atkins spoke up. And in six or seven sentences, she laid out the whole problem -- clear as day. And when she was finished, she said to Mayor Lindsay: "It all boils down to the fact that there simply isn't enough money. Why don't you go ask Congress for more money for this year?"

Mayor Lindsay walked out of my office into a crowd of reporters and just about the first thing he said as the TV cameras started grinding was: "I feel we ought to ask Congress for a supplemental appropriation for this year's poverty program." Mrs. Atkins had won. She is one of the new breed.

So is John Gissander -- a VISTA volunteer from Michigan. He speaks for all of them when he says:

"VISTA does not work magic. It does not hold time suspended. The only thing that I can see that VISTA does is try to make one of the oldest equations in existence work: one person plus another equals two friends."

John is making that equation work -- by simple acts, like raising chickens and starting a vegetable garden to bring fresh produce to his community for the first time. The miracle in his case is that he is being allowed to do it at all -- because John is a Negro working on the Navajo Indian Reservation. And when we first began this program, all the experts told us that the Indians would never let a Negro on the reservation. The Navajos are a sovereign nation under United States Law.

They had the power to exclude John from the reservation altogether. But John is there -- showing the experts that they were wrong about Indians and about Negroes.

This is the new breed of Americans -- being bred and trained in the Peace Corps, in the War on Poverty. None of this is an attempt to turn the poor of our nation, or of any other nation, into "middle class Americans."

When the hands of ordination were laid on you, you didn't vow to be a missionary of materialistic middle class values. And we're not trying to do that either - in the War Against Poverty.

Last month, a Sioux Indian named Clyde Warrior was in our office. We were discussing "Upward Bound" and he asked this question: "Are you trying to wash students in white paint?" We replied "no".

And we're not trying to cast all poor people into some idealized middle class mold.

Upward Bound is not "white paint!" Upward Bound has taken 20,000 promising youngsters from poor families and given them special preparation to enter America's top schools. In five years 20 American cities and their satellite areas will get back 1,000 well-trained graduates who started out poor.

They will be on their way toward top jobs in government, in business, in religion, in education and in community service. That's progress.

We cannot continue to point out one person here and one there who rose out of humble circumstances to positions of influence: Percy Julian here, C.C. Spaulding there, Bishop Gomez here, Robert Weaver there, Rembert Stokes here, S.S. Morris there. Names like these stand as notable exceptions. But these very exceptions prove that the rule -- the iron law of poverty and discrimination -- still governs the vast majority of cases.

Upward Bound is designed to double and redouble the number, to widen the procession that moves from a tenant farm to a judgeship, from a shanty, to a downtown office, and from rural hollow with dusty roads to an electronics laboratory.

What we are trying to do is to help 35,000 Americans who have been spectators to become participants and share more of the good things of life. We do not crusade to make everybody middle class, we do crusade to make dignity, and opportunity and first class citizenship available to all as a matter of justice. That's not the same thing as casting all poor people into some white, middle class mold. Here's an example.

We teach a teenage boy Job Corps enrollee how to read, write and speak. Those youngsters are from the vineyards of California, the slums of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the rolling farmland of the Midwest, and the back woods of Appalachians. We don't say: Give up the way you speak. We don't say: You should be ashamed because you talk like a hillbilly or a hood, or a country boy.

Instead we say: We're teaching you a foreign language -- just like French or Spanish. We say that when you enter a different world from the one where you were raised -- you will need a different language. Not a better language. Just a different one.

And when those youngsters get through, they say to us: We're in better shape than you are. They say: You're square. You only know one language.

You can only get along downtown. But we can get along both downtown and in our home community. Because we know two languages. And they're right.

The new breed carries with it no white man's burden: No middle class burden, no imperialism of any kind: of class, or race, or nationality, or geography.