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It is a great pleasure to return to Jefferson High School today and to address the graduates of the summer class of 1967. As a graduate of this same great school I believe I can share with you the feelings you have—the thoughts on your minds—on this memorable occasion in your lives: a little bit of sadness as your paths separate, a sense of achievement after hours of studies, mixed feelings about teachers whom you have rated over and over (good, bad, swell, lousy), and great anxieties about the future . . . then at last the realization that you are facing what is for most of you, your first great decision in life—I have graduated, what's next?
You will graduate into a world which because of rapidly changing conditions is filled with unlimited opportunities but also tensions, conflicts, and problems. It is an age for achievement but only for those who have courage and "stickability."
Marc Connelly in his play, "Green Pastures," describes our changing world through one of his characters who speaks these prophetic words: "Everything that's nailed down is coming `loose'." And, indeed, it seems so in this atomic age and times of grave international conflicts, widespread poverty, interracial hostilities, urban disorders, delinquency and crime.
But behind it all—beneath the yearnings of peoples everywhere—is the simple fact that most people seek only two
― 2 ―basic things in life: economic security and human dignity.
These simple needs may be described in many ways—a good job with good pay, equal opportunities for training and education, a decent environment in which to live, wholesome recreation, recognition, respectability, or the opportunity to fully achieve one's potentiality whatever it may be—to live, to work, to play as a human being unlimited by the color of one's skin or the religion of one's forefathers. But these needs add up to just security and human dignity.
And this is so whether it is in the Middle East or India, in Viet Nam or the Congo, in Mississippi or Los Angeles. If people could only look each other in the eye and understand that each is demanding of the other merely the opportunity to live in security and with dignity, perhaps we could then build that understanding which would promote international and domestic peace with unlimited opportunities for a better life for us all. It is not predestined then but our failure to communicate this simple fact that separates us into groups at conflict with each other. Let us, therefore, examine or expose to view some of these human situations.
First is a division of people into so-called white and non-white groupings. It is needless to discuss either the scientific basis, or rather the lack of it, or the logic, or illogic, of this division for it exists and it must be dealt with as a practical reality.
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I recall my experience as a young kid in a southern city in Louisiana. The white families lived on one hill and the Negro families lived on another. We were separated by a broad valley through which a railway ran. The floor of the valley afforded the space for us to play and the railway tracks provided the source of rocks which the white and Negro boys used as ammunition against each other.
Many times I can recall we would chase each other back and forth from one hill to the other and off the space in the valley that we used as a baseball diamond as long as we had possession of it. Being a Negro of light complexion I was often stoned in the early days by both sides, an experience I humorously recalled in later life when I entered politics.
The significance of the story lies, however, in the conflict which is produced when people with the same needs are superficially separated so that they see what they are being denied but suffer from man's inhumanity to man. How much better it would have been if this valley between the hills had been converted into a supervised playground for all to enjoy and communication thereby established between those who lived separated only by a valley and tradition.
A few summers ago I thought of this great lesson on a visit to the Mississippi Delta where I had the great fortune to see Negro and white college students joining together in the summer project to teach underprivileged people in the rural
― 4 ―south basic english, mathematics and Negro history. Instead of hatred and separatism, why can't all of us live this way everywhere?
Let me speak of another conflict, one closer at home. It is the conflict that has arisen between two minority groups in our city, between Negroes and Mexican-Americans. The conflict is sharply drawn in Federally-financed anti-poverty programs which are designed to break the cycle of poverty for underprivileged persons. Although not the only ones in poverty, the two largest groups percentage-wise are Negroes and Mexican-Americans. If any two groups should unify their forces in order to obtain the maximum benefits from a program, it is these two.
The two groups, however, have engaged in a destructive rivalry over which obtains the most benefits in such programs as Neighborhood Youth Corps, Teen Posts, Neighborhood Adult Participation Program, and the administrative positions involved in the operation of various government programs. Instead of fighting to expand the programs so more benefits and services will be available for both, the two compete for what is obviously not enough for either.
While the two groups are thus engaged in a bitter and consuming intergroup rivalry, evil forces in the background exploit both of them and grab the best jobs.
A recent development involving joint action in our
― 5 ―city schools is more encouraging. The two groups were able to pinpoint their educational difficulties and to agree on a practical solution. As a result, in the recent school board election, instead of fighting each other, they combined behind the candidacy of a single candidate, the very able Dr. Nava whose election to the Board of Education will greatly change the character of this agency and bring better schools to our communities. Let us hope this type of communication will be enlarged to include other common problems of minority groups.
Another conflict which plagues us is one which has developed within minority groups and based on class or social prestige.
Thus in Los Angeles there has grown up a hostility between Negroes who have become middle-class residents of the so-called better neighborhoods and those who are either in the low-income brackets or live in the less prosperous sections. Often the groups are referred to as Hillside Negroes and Eastsiders.
There are, unfortunately, too many Negroes who have prospered who turn their backs on those who still struggle but we cannot conclude that all those who achieve in life are Uncle Toms or enemies. If we wish to be judged as individuals, for what we really are, and not by the color of our skin or the neighborhood in which we live, then we must judge others accordingly.
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On the other hand, there are too many impoverished Negroes who are apathetic, who criticize but then do nothing in a civic way to improve things. As a result many irresponsible but noisy leaders exploit those who suffer from poverty and substandard conditions by racial, emotional, and nationalistic appeals. They are the voices of hatred, segregation, and despair. They are without a program, clear objectives, or any concrete way of achieving tangible benefits and services we need.
Preaching hatred or further separating ourselves from the mainstream of American life is self-defeating. We have not fought our way through 300 years of slavery and every form of deprivation to return to the doctrine of "separate but equal," whether imposed on us by non-minority hate groups or misguided Negroes who seek merely to glamorize themselves.
Forceful, responsible action is clearly indicated. But it must be based on understanding, mutual respect, and responsible conduct.
Next, let me make reference to that eternal conflict between youth and those who are older. In many ways this is the most illogical of all conflicts for there is no definitive way of treating age. Even in sports what is considered "old" varies, for example, from baseball to golf. Even in the public service field one may well ask just when does one become an
― 7 ―"old fogy," that is, a person behind the times. Even teenagers accuse each other of this. Nevertheless it is common for the young to believe themselves to be misunderstood and the old to think the new generation is "going to the dogs."
A few years ago I returned to Jefferson to attend an alumni banquet in the cafeteria-dining room. I was pre-occupied during the evening with old memories of things as they existed when I attended school on these grounds. To me the old was far better than the new. For example, I recalled nostalgically my favorite tennis courts which had been displaced by the cafeteria in which we were dining that night. But after the first shock, I began to realize that after all this was not the same Jefferson High School that I attended; in many ways it was a better school; and I had no right to hold on to the old set of values that changing times had proved less useful. Converting the space used for a tennis court into a cafeteria, along with other changes, had been in the best interest of the greatest number. It was a change which experience had proved desirable.
This is a lesson it seems to me that youth must learn as they also seek changes, that time and experience are often needed to develop what is workable and good, and thus in the best interest of us all.
Just as youth can learn something from those who are older, we also can learn something from youth. We can at least, it seems to me, find out what their needs and demands
― 8 ―are in a world which offers much more than poverty, educational handicaps, slums, conflicts and wars which we too often bequeath to our young people. And certainly you who are young have a right to expect, to demand, and to fight for something better.
Across this country of ours a large amount of the unrest in our metropolitan cities is due to our failure to involve youth and to provide them with a voice and role in the operation of the programs we design for and not with them.
Instead of adults and city officials always meeting by themselves to discuss the problems of youth, why can't teenagers be called together to suggest what should be done and then involved in doing it? We need to reduce the voting age to nineteen so you can participate in passing laws, including those that affect the draft system for military service.
We need more youth training and employment programs that will assist young people (the eight out of ten who don't go to college), to enter skills and occupations that pay well and which have prospects of future advancement.
We need more scholarships and programs like Upward Bound to assist those who want to complete their education at the college level. And we need desperately to expand such programs as Teen Posts, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, apprenticeship and on-the-job training.
In short, we need urgently and extensively to do
― 9 ―many things to assure youth more opportunities to jobs and human dignity.
Every year we plan summer crash programs for the youth with the implication that we are doing it merely to keep them occupied and to prevent them from violence, never with the real thought that young people want and need income and human dignity just like adults.