Speech at the Convention of the National Association of Community Action Agencies (September 8, 1989)
Aug 11th, 2007 by Tim O'Donnell
Washington, DC – September 8, 1989
Source: Dr. James L. Farmer Collection, University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg VA
Thank you for very much Mr. Chairman and Hyman Bookbinder. It is not the first time I have leaned on Hyman Bookbinder with pleasure and with joy. I have been inspired by music and by speakers because they represent the love of this nation. Those of us who have fought to improve America, have done so out of love. We love America and therefore we want to see her better. If we did not love her we wouldn’t care. It was Abe Lincoln who said “If I did not love this nation, I would long ago have gone to some other country – to Russia for example, where I could take my tyranny pure without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
But we chose to stay here and fight, you and we and we were fighting the same battle, you were honoring a period in our nation’s history that it does us well to honor. It was a period which we would call the Kennedy, King, Johnson years of we-ism as opposed to the me-ism of the last eight years. I think there is stirring abroad in the nation – stirring on the college campuses; you have heard the negatives, you have heard the racism, but there is more. Young people are hungering now for something to believe in and for some cause. But the notion that they are apathetic is false; they are not.
When Mickey Leland and I went to jail at the beginning of the demonstrations in front of the South African Embassy here; we spent the night, by the way, in the DC jail and got to know Mickey well. When we called upon college students to demonstrate their opposition to apartheid, they were not apathetic, the did so and they went to jail. They did so on their college campuses, demanding that their colleges withdraw their financial support to the government of South Africa. That was not apathy, that was a smoldering compassion waiting for the nation to challenge it.
We learned much about our nation in the 60s. We learned that America can change quickly and can work wonders if enough people will pursue that goal with enough diligence. If someone had told me at the beginning of the 60s that before that decade was over we would have wiped out, for all practical purposes, apartheid in the southern part of the United States, I would have thought that person a fool, or an idiot, or both. It came more quickly than we would have imagined, it came because whites and blacks, young and old, cared so deeply for that cause that they were willing to risk their lives to volunteer to live without a tomorrow. When the Economic Opportunity Act was first signed, this was at the end of Freedom Summer when more than 1000 young people, largely white, answered the call to go to Mississippi and work for voter registration and voter education. It was very shortly after the three bodies of those brave young men, those audacious young men, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman had been found. It was a time when the nation was writhing in agony over the cancer that was eating at its soul. And we solved some of those problems, not all of them. We solved some of them. Your children, some of you were there. And then, right after that, the war on poverty. Mike Herrington was right; the poor had been invisible, but now with the war on poverty, they were no longer invisible. They were working for themselves of “maximum feasible participation.” It was a raucus period for many because this was a time when not only the middle classes were involved in this struggle, but the poor, the unlettered, those who did not know how to hold a fork in the hand when eating at the welcome table. But they knew that they were bursting with existence and they had to do something about it themselves. Now I am pleased to see that you are now in some positions of poer, you worked for the state, the war on poverty has become a part of the establishment’s commitment. But a word of caution there. Don’t lose the spirit. When the civil rights movement stopped singing “We Shall Overcome” and “Before I’d Be a Slave I’d be Buried in my Grave and go Home to my Lord and be free;” when it stopped singing those songs much of the fire and the spirit when out of it. Did that fire and spirit go out of the war on poverty too? We, in our struggle in the civil rights movement, got people elected to office and appointed to offices where they had never sat before. That was progress, yes, but the risk was that they would forget why they were there, and who put them there. And they would become a part of that establishment. Isn’t the same risk here for the war on poverty? Don’t forget why you’re there – an who put you there! Don’t forget what you’re supposed to do while there. Sometimes you’re going to have to rock the boat. Rock it! And fill it up! We can’t be complacent and wage a war against poverty. It was the great old runaway slave Fred Douglas who said “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation want the crops without plowing up the ground. They want the rain without the thunder and the lightening; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did – and it never will.” So, if you wage a war on poverty you will have to make some demands, if you do not, then there will be others who will make those demands and they are not necessarily your enemies. They may, indeed, be your friends. I spent two years in the establishment – almost two years before I resigned in frustration in 1970. The reason for the frustration should be self-evident considering the year. I resigned long before Watergate too. My point is, while I was there in the establishment trying to do what I had not been able to do successfully outside the establishment, the frustration mounted. It built up. And some of the community organizers in the top programs, indeed, four Headstart mothers walked into my office and took me prisoner. A CAP director from Newark, New Jersey and four Headstart mothers. One of them, the size of a tank, folded her arms in front of my door. I could not get out. All they wanted was to talk to the Secretary and the Secretary was at Camp David at a Cabinet meeting. So I finally called and got through to him and I explained the situation and he says, “well, you know, have them arrested.” “Call the security guard.” I had to explain to him that if I called the security guards, they were going to bad mouth me all over this country. Farmer Arrests Four Headstart Mothers. I would not have been effective in any war on poverty, war on racism or any other war. So, finally, the Secretary who was Bob Finch, understood that at the time and talked with other members of the Cabinet and the next thing I knew, he was in a helicopter headed back to his office to meet with them. They met with him, they got what they wanted and they came back and went through with the “soul brother handshake” you know, which took five minutes. You slap on the back, you kick your foot, you do all those things, you shake hands, you hug, you embrace and the CAP director said “Jim, ole buddy, we love you” he said, “we didn’t mean any harm, we were just trying to help you do what we knew you wanted to do anyway.” Now, your task, you who are in the trenches, is to make this nation a democracy for all its citizens and it can be done. You have the diligence, you have the commitment, you can issue calls to young people to help; you can make America a democracy for all and as Langston Hughes once put it: “Let America be America again. It’s never been America for me. The home of the brave and the land of the free, the free – who said free? No me. Surely not me. Yes, I say it plain; America never was American for me. But by this oath, I swear it, America will be.”