CALIFORNIA COLLECTION: Civil Rights Speech – “The Economic and Social Conditions of African Americans” (1966)

We live in a racist society. The good who are articulate are few. The bad are well organized and influential. The great middle class between are indifferent or gripped with the fear that Negroes may take their jobs, become their neighbors, and intermarry with their sons and daughters. Only as they can segregate racially, do the vast majority of whites lose their fears and become friendly, except those who live closest to the ghettos, who are the most hostile.

Last year, for example, in California, a Fair Housing Law was repealed. The vote for repeal was most hotly contested in low-income white areas where pro-labor people lived. The action, moreover, prohibited future action by legislative bodies in enacting fair housing, a provision more harsh than most southern jurisdictions have seen fit to approve.

Our exclusion from American life is far more complete than we realize for over a long period of years we have learned to condition ourselves to its inconveniencies and limitations.

This exclusion adds up to a lack of participation, an absence of representation in policy making that results in inferior social status, sub-marginal economic scales, and low educational attainments.

Despite all the progress we may boast of, the plight of the Negro is cause for alarm. His median income is lower now than in 1954 in relationship to whites. More Negroes today work in unskilled jobs and thereby are more vulnerable to automation. There is more housing segregation
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despite Fair Housing Laws and more school segregation despite the Supreme Court Decision of 1954.

And here in America, the hope of the free world, never has loss of freedom in our times had so many evil omens: a Catholic priest loses his church in Selma, Alabama; a five year old Negro boy has the American flag snatched from his little hands by the police in Mississippi; a Ku Klux Klan cross is burned in Massachusetts; a Negro woman is clubbed in the breast by a sheriff in Alabama; a Fair Housing law is repealed in California; white ministers lose their lives in Cleveland and Jackson; and three civil rights workers are buried beneath the soil in Greenwood.

None of this portends any more for a world of peace and brotherhood than did acts against the Jews in pre-war Germany when they were invited to go on trains which were to take them to jobs in distant places and they ended up exterminated in frightful gas ovens and open ditches.

The difference between the south and the north, someone has said, is this: the southern states have facilities for segregation while the north not having such facilities practices economy in inventing devious techniques for segregating people. Thus, what southern states accomplish by violence and unconstitutional means, northern states accomplish by more subtle and more constitutionally accepted methods: “Gentlemen agreements,” neighborhood schools, seniority clauses, civil service practices, zoning policies and just simple planning over cocktails at exclusive clubs
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where city white fathers have learned the act of how to succeed with trying.

The Negro has cause to be cynical and impatiently militant as he looks up the steep walls of the wells in which he is trapped. Even his migration to cities has resulted in a heavy cost in family disintegration, pauperism, crime, and housing blight.

Even in the trade union movement, Negro trade unionists have not advanced very extensively to positions of leadership.

Upon what then can Negroes join their hopes that freedom will be theirs and that such concepts as brotherhood, the good neighbor policy, the New Frontier and the Great Society will include them?

For sake of brevity, I will not discuss the current civil rights movement and the contribution of thousands of dedicated workers, white and Negro, who today are writing brilliant new history in the cause of freedom and human dignity. Their contribution is unquestioned and substantial. And because we so recognize it, we can perhaps devote our discussion to other activities of the social revolution not so well distinguishable nor as adequately manned.

Thomas Jefferson wrote this admonition to a friend in Virginia in 1786: “Preach, my dear sir,” he said, “a crusade against ignorance.”

In that sense, I’d like to invite you to become preachers also, in a great crusade not merely for formal
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education but for all the learning processes, for learning is one of the few qualities an individual possesses that stamps him a free individual “tho chains may bind his body” and oppression _____.

The learning process involves many things: exposure to good music, good books, and good entertainment; it involves the encouragement of civic forums and neighborhood discussion groups. It involves nursery schools, adult literacy classes, and vocational education; it involves apprenticeship and on the job training, educational TV and consumer education.

Even if all legal civil rights were won, the Negro would not spiral out of the economic and cultural trap in which he now lives.

Nor will educational under-achievement itself (even if full legal entrance to the best quality education is made available) be easily removed. This deprivation is too firmly rooted in years of neglect and design to be reversed in a few years but this is exactly what we must do, to use education to reverse low seniority, bad occupational patterns, and low horizons.

An Oriental philosopher once said: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

This admonition rejects reliance on welfare programs too heavily, and even on anti-poverty programs that become too hidebound by big city political machines.

Instead we have got to teach people how to live for
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a lifetime by vigorous and effective use of educational and training programs. And this has got to be both a crash program and a crusade. A crash program because technology, urbanization and world tensions are not going to allow us more than this generation; a crusade because we must build a spirit and great desire where there is now hopelessness and despair.

We may not agree with much of their doctrine, but the Black Muslims have exhibited an enthusiasm for education that some of the rest of us could adopt. It is hopeful when we see men and women who knew little literature other than racing forms and comic books now reading in basic subjects. And I wonder how many of us would stand on street corners in order to encourage our ideas and spread the idea of self-help?

President Johnson has described education as the cornerstone of his Administration. In 1964, Congress adopted extensive legislation for support of education and this year approved a broad program of assistance to primary and secondary schools. In addition, provisions of the National Defense Education Act, the Vocational Education Act, the Library Services Act and other laws provide many benefits and services that can be utilized . . . as well as many innovations that offer great help in overcoming our educational deficiencies.

In addition, many training and educational programs have been made available under the Economic Opportunity Act and the Manpower Development and Training Act.

So far we have discussed issues and programs.
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Who is going to obtain concensus on these? Or the methods of achieving common goals? And who is going to coordinate and direct responsible action?

This, obviously, is the role of good leadership. And it is a lot easier to locate such leadership in civil rights than in other areas where one seems to be getting into economic or political issues.

Somewhere along the way most of us have formed an opinion of politics as mercenary support of shady characters and something to be shunned. We have been encouraged in this opinion by others, by those who benefit from keeping us ignorant of civic affairs and inactive in the processes of self-government so that they can control the policies and programs that shape our lives. Consequently, too often we deal with the effects of this neglect rather than participate in policy making and administration.

The recent NAACP Convention in Denver voted strong support of participation in the implementation of various titles of the Civil Rights Act. While this is commendable let us not overlook the fact that implementation of Federal policies commences a lot sooner than when the programs are in operation.

These policies, for example, are usually stated in Presidential messages and addresses, then translated in legislative proposals that are introduced in Congress and subjected to long and detailed hearings before committees. During such time department officials and special task forces
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become involved as well as outside witnesees who have a special interest in the subject matter.

On the Economic Opportunity Act, for example, such a task force headed by Sargent Shriver “nursed” the poverty program through the Congress and it was this group that formed the nucleus of the current staff operating the program. If minorities are not adequately involved in this program which strikes at something (poverty) closer to their economic interest than to any other group, we may well ask why more of our responsible organizations and leaders were not active from the hour that President Johnson, and John F. Kennedy before him announced the outlines of this new and comprehensive program? Why didn’t we have some task forces of our own? Where was most of our organizational strength during the long months of hearings in Washington, when the pieces of this program were being put together?

I would strongly urge that something similar to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights or the NAACP lobby under the able leadership of Clarence Mitchell be established in our Nation’s Capital to deal with matters not ordinarily embraced under the narrow definition of civil rights. Such a leadership group should supplement and strengthen the already existing activities but cover fields not adequately being reached.

Recently, for example, the voting rights bill was considered in the House. In the same week, however, the anti-poverty program was being readied for action. Civil rights
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activity was properly centered on the voting bill but what was to be gained under this law could easily be lost under the wrong type of anti-poverty programs. But civil rights groups could not afford to divide their time between voting rights and the Dirksen amendment to negate the Supreme Court decision on one-man, one-vote on the one hand and on the other, such issues as minority participation in poverty, educational legislation, health insurance, the new housing bill, minimum wages, etc., even though these latter issues are just as important.

This discussion brings us naturally to the knotty question of relations among those we recognize as leaders, or more properly the oriteria we use for selecting and judging our leadership.

I am reminded of the great teachings of that American Pragmatist of the UCLA faculty, Eloof Brodin) when he said: “In the complexity of modern thought and action, we cannot hope for an Aristotle. What could once be accomplished by an individual Genius must now be carried out piecemeal by the inter-stimulation and supplementation of many working together.”

How trivial then is controversy over the NAACP approach as compared with that of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the latter as compared with the Urban League or the Student Non-Violent Committee, when we need all of them.

Also in judging our leadership we fail too often to
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distinguish between talent and character. It is well if our leaders have both . . . but we cannot afford one who has showmanship if he does not also have character. Just as this is true in politics it is true of our ministers and businessmen and civic leaders.

The use of superlatives in describing our leaders as the greatest, the most eloquent, the most effectual have little meaning when over fifty percent of their followers are still left in poverty, ill-health, and illiteracy.

But such talents do have meaning when combined without jealousy or selfishness into effective combinations to achieve sould and practical goals. The March on Washington was a dramatic expression of such coordination. It would have been still greater if out of this demonstration some more permanent and comprehensive “lobby” in Washington could have been evolved, one to finance and deal with all aspects of the economic, social and political life of disadvantaged people, for as Longfellow said in speaking of accomplishment: “Not in the clamor of the crowded street, nor in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, But in ourselves, are triumph and defeat.”

Let us, therefore, look to ourselves. As the throngs march through the streets today in defense of freedom, where are we?

While youth and families heads experience unemployment and educational handicaps, what are we doing in Federal anti-poverty programs: in voluntary service, in VISTA, in
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Project Head Start, in Community Action Agencies?

Where educational policies are being discussed, and the role of neighborhood schools decided; and new practices of counseling, guidance, and teaching techniques developed . . . where are we?

When the question of family planning is discussed, and how unwanted children who can’t be supported can be avoided . . . are we concerned?

In the Congress when rent subsidies for low income families are attacked, and expansion of social security debated, when the Mississippi delegation is challenged, and control of the atom suggested . . . Are you there?

And are you there in your own neighborhood, where dirty streets go unnoticed, juvenile delinquents avoided, and other civic duties are left to someone else?

We have spoken of freedom, its meaning in the everyday sense and its importance in the world-wide struggle of the free peoples everywhere for self-government and human dignity.

We then suggested that if America as the hope of mankind is to fulfill its mission we could not afford a racist society and an economy that fails to utilize fully its maximum potential resources.

We then discussed one of the deficiencies to achieving equal opportunity, the lack of participation which in our democratic society results in paternalism, the making by others of decisions that affect our lives.
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This discussion led into the vital role of education, or more appropriately, the learning processes.

We then attempted to make two telling points:

(1) The development of the mind as a mark and means of freedom, and;

(2) The exercise of the right to vote which legally is common to all in the struggle for first class citizenship, but a legal right which often needs, even in northern cities, reinforcement by other techniques.

We then spoke of the need to establish a central agency in Washington to deal with non-civil rights issues, and the need for good leadership, or as we phrased it, the need for new values in selecting those we follow.

Throughout our remarks was the implied thought that if we hope to achieve our objectives, and achieve them we must, we must be willing to employ an adequate arsenal of every possible legitimate weapon we can conceive and we must build a strong power base of political activity if we expect to be recognized and to participate in American life. If we are not willing to do these, we had better learn to live, half-slaves in a world of fear.

E. Franklin Frazier once stated that while the Negro masses suffer from persecution, the Negro middle class suffers from nothingness because when they gain social status their lives lose both content and significance, and they “escape into” the tinsel, glitter and gaiety of the world of make-believe.”
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Zeta Phi Beta is proving that people can both achieve and live meaningful lives; and that women and youth around the world can effectively unite in a real and practical sense in the cause of freedom and human dignity.

Creator/Contributor: Hawkins, Augustus F, Author

Date: 1966

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