University of South Carolina Commencement Address

COLUMBIA, SC | May 29, 1965

Here at home, it seems, that this restless democracy of ours rises up every generation to challenge nearly all the beliefs and traditions and institutions of the past. The entire fabric of our life is taken apart, and put together again. This is such a time.

It's a platitude to say at a college commencement that the seniors are graduating into a new and different world.

The fact is we are all in a different world in 1965 - different from any world in the history of man.

President Kennedy in his famous inaugural address described this new and different world when he said:

"Man now holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life!" 

Many skeptics and short sighted critics still don't realize that this is true. But the young people of the world do. And this explains in large part why we see revolutionary forces rising at home as well as abroad.

Here at home, it seems, that this restless democracy of ours rises up every generation to challenge nearly all the beliefs and traditions and institutions of the past. The entire fabric of our life is taken apart, and put together again. This is such a time. Old institutions are crumbling, outmoded ways of dealing with our social and economic problems are being discarded.

Call it a revolution if you will. Fortunately, in this state, there's glory in that word!

The South Carolinians who signed the Declaration of Independence —Rutledge and Heyward and Lynch and Middleton — were revolutionaries! They revolted for the cause of justice, and they signed a revolutionary document that said, "All men are created equal."

And — not many miles from this spot — at Kings Mountain and Cowpens, men like Sumter and Marion, the Swamp Fox, and Pickens fought bravely for that cause!

John C. Calhoun fought with the same zeal for his beliefs. So did alumni of this school — men like General Wade Hampton and Matthew Butler during the Civil War. Your history is highlighted by the courage of rebels who fought for their convictions.

But few of them knew perhaps what they were really letting themselves in for.

Today's revolution is not only for property rights. It is not only against financial poverty. The revolution of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s is for the dignity of all people. Like it or not, you are part of this struggle. The battle lines are clearly drawn — between those who care, those are committed to the cause of human freedom and human equality, and those who stand opposed, or, apathetically by the wayside.

And so, at this important juncture in your lives, I think that the question you must ask yourselves is "which side am I on?"

You'll never know it if you stand back — if you hold yourself aloof. Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked:

"Life is action and passion... A man should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived."

Over the past four years, through the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty, I've begun to understand more fully the importance and truth of Holmes' statement! And also I've come to respect the lines Alexander Pope wrote in 1734:

"Know then thyself, presume not God to scan.  The proper study of mankind is man."

Twenty-thousand Peace Corps volunteers have made and are making that study — firsthand.

They know that "to understand a man," as the Navajo Indians used to say, "You have to live in his shoes." Even though he may have no shoes! Even though his skin is darker, or even black! Even though — and I would say, especially though — he lives in a dilapidated shack, on an unpaved street, in an unhealthy part of town.

Most of these Peace Corps volunteers are like most of you. More than a thousand are from the south. Most were students just prior to joining Peace Corps. They went away to colleges and universities from decent middle-class homes to beautiful tree-lined campuses like this one. And they joined Peace Corps for a variety of motives.  Out of: 

—a desire to serve

—a desire to travel abroad

—a desire to learn

—a desire to put off a career choice

But few of them knew perhaps what they were really letting themselves in for.

One volunteer wrote:

"I get a lot of letters from people saying 'how exciting your work must be' or 'how picturesque,' or 'how much you must enjoy it.' They imagine volunteers hiking along in the Tanganyikan sunset, or teaching to eager, bright-eyed students... glory and rewards heaped upon volunteers by loving, thankful natives, topped by a naive conclusion that what the world really needs is less 'stuffy old politicians' and more ‘real folks'."

As one Peace Corps volunteer wrote:

"I live in a picturesque bamboo mat house I built myself. I "buy" my water from a picturesque boy with a burro loaded down with water cans. I read and write under a kerosene lantern, sleep on a cot, and cook on a camp stove. There comes a day when all this suddenly becomes no longer picturesque, no longer quaint, but furiously frustrating and you want like crazy to just get out of there, to go home. This is called 'culture shock'.''

And "after the shock" — what then? What did that Peace Corps volunteer learn? He learned something unique about helping people. He writes:

"In my slums, there are two schools. One is a several thousand dollar complex with classrooms, meeting halls, and a medical clinic.  Architects labored with social workers pouring cement, laying concrete blocks, putting in lights and plumbing. It is now completed and in partial use. Peruvians call it the 'Gringo School.'

"Next door to this complex stands a two-room school, built out of grass mats, without windows or lights, and a dirt floor. It was built because the barriada grew and because classroom space was needed. The teacher, a Peace Corps volunteer, "talked the parents of the students into building those two rooms." Though the school was put up in a day and volunteers only gave limited aid in construction, I consider the grass school a success and ten times more valuable to the community then the big complex it sits next to. It will remain a symbol to the barriada people of what they can do for themselves — working together."

This Peace Corps volunteer learned — as each of us must learn for ourselves — that to help a person you cannot say: Look at me! Look how great I am! Look what I can do for you! Look how generous I am with my money!

The former Ambassador from Bolivia told me: -

"The reason your volunteers have reached my people is because they came to learn. For the first time we met Gringos who wanted to learn from us! They wanted to learn about our history, our culture, our language, our way of doing things. And in teaching them, we grew, quite unconsciously, softly, quietly, psychologically, ready to accept instruction from them."

And in the process of learning, of being willing to learn, a lot of myths have crumbled.

Back in 1961, the experts made a lot of flat predictions.  They told us that a bunch of Peace Corps Volunteers - kids - couldn't change the image of the commercial Gringo exploiter.

But the experts were wrong. We have changed that image. They said we couldn't send girls into the African bush, or into Latin American urban slums. But they were wrong. They said we couldn't send Protestants to Catholic villages in South America. That the priests would see that they were ostracized. But they were wrong. They said we couldn't send amateurs without special training in engineering or agriculture or community development. But the experts were wrong. The amateurs were right. And the world is better off, because the amateurs, with faith and trust in mankind, did not listen to the experts, who had lost both.

Now, in the War on Poverty, we are learning the same lesson, and once again a lot of myths are beginning to crumble.

Last summer in Washington, experts told us:

No Southern official would cooperate with Negro leaders in designing local anti-poverty programs. But already they are wrong. Integrated programs are already working in the south —not only in South Carolina but in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Arkansas.

They told us:

Public school officials won't work with parochial school officials to launch a massive educational program for the children of the poor. But already they are wrong.

They told us:

The poor are lazy, apathetic, inarticulate, incapable of formulating demands, designing programs, assessing and diagnosing their own needs.

But they are wrong.

They told us:

White youths from Appalachia would not stay for a single day in a Job Corps Center with urban Negroes.

But they were wrong.

They told us:

No town or city would permit us to open a Job Corps Camp with two hundred school dropouts in its vicinity, and that no Southern Governor or Republican Governor, would permit the establishment of a Job Corps Center or a Community Action Program without exercise of their veto.

But already they have been proven wrong.  On each and every count!

And they also told us:

Without the exotic appeal of service abroad, nobody would volunteer for service in a Domestic Peace Corps - VISTA.

But they were wrong on that one, too.

We have disproved those myths. But that doesn't mean they are altogether dead — not yet! Because there is one thing we have discovered about a myth — if you believe it yourself, if you do not challenge it yourself, you actually help the myth to continue its existence! If we fear and distrust the poor, if we separate ourselves from the poor, from foreigners, from people who are different from ourselves in language, looks, literature, we will find our worst suspicions confirmed — and our distrust substantiated! Fear breeds fear. The educated person, the middle-class person, the American tourist who holds himself aloof can be sure that he will be rejected as an outsider; And that rejection will confirm his superiority — to his own satisfaction — but to no one else's!

And that is why our rejection of the poor — of people different from ourselves— of foreigners — hurts not only them — but us! It cripples our nation. It scars our spirit. And we find ourselves in a world peopled by "bogeymen"— by people who are different: black instead of white; speaking Spanish instead of English; poor, not rich. And because we don't know these people as friends, we fear them as enemies.

Each person — each American — has to discover that for himself. And that discovery won't come from books.

You have to go out yourself and confront those myths. Nobody else can do it for you.

And you, the graduates of this University, as educated southerners, have a special obligation to do battle with these myths.

We all have heard the expression at one time or another:

"I'm free, white and 21." That expression used to have just one meaning: -

I can do what I please. I can accomplish anything and do anything I want.

Well, now we are entering an age — and a world — where that expression "I'm free, white and 21" is coming to have another meaning!

It means to be free — in a world much of which is enslaved, either politically or economically.

It means to be white — in a world which is two-thirds colored.

It means to be white — in a Nation — this Nation — where over two-thirds of all poor people are white!

And for southerners, it means to be white — in a Region where racial injustice has stunted the potential development of an entire society — white and black alike.

Finally, it means to be 21 in a world, where the average life expectancy is not more than 25-30 years — it means to be 21 in a Nation where the Negro's life expectancy is seven years less than the white man's!

That phrase "free, white and 21" is no longer a "Carte Blanche." Just the opposite — that you — that all of us labor under a special obligation and a special challenge.

There are South Carolinians — plenty of them — who are responding to that challenge!

They're not all in the Peace Corps either — proud though I am of that organization.

Some of the most courageous of them have signed a new Declaration of Independence — a Declaration of Intent: to Wage Unrelenting War Against the Tyranny - not of George the Third — but of another monarch, poverty!

In Spartanburg, in Charleston, in Columbia, and Richland and Kershaw County, these men have signed a new pact — of freedom, of liberation, of opportunity.

Like the southerners who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 —these modern-day patriots were willing to draw up a bill of particulars against the monarch, poverty.

They knew the time had come to spell out what Jefferson called "The Abuses and Usurpations" of a Monarch who had, "In direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states."

And last week, these new, modern patriots once again affirmed:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident — that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

You can join the banks of those patriots, or you can stay as tories — content with the old order, comfortable, in its security, blind to its injustices.

If you join with the modern patriots, your course will not be smooth.

As Jefferson said:

"We cannot expect to be translated from despotism to liberty, in a featherbed."

That goes for the tyranny of poverty —as well as the tyranny of George the Third. It will take courage — a courage which southerners have always mustered at times of crises.

The choice is yours. The time is now. The revolt against poverty – here and abroad — has commenced! Will you join with those signers –

—Those in the Peace Corps

—Those in VISTA .

—Those in Job Corps Camps

—Those in your own towns and cities and counties

Will you join in this cause and say with them, in words nearly two centuries old:

"We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor"?