Members of the Congress, Mr. Vice President, members of the Cabinet, and friends:
Years from now the historians will settle on a term to describe the decade of the sixties, in which we are now living. I envision and I hope, and I genuinely believe, the term that will be used will be--"the decade of opportunity."
For all that we have tried to do for America in our time of leadership is encompassed in that word.
Under the guidance and with the support--many times, the heartaches and the backaches--of you men and women out there in the Congress, we have really begun to open the gates of opportunity for the very poor people of this country.
Every time we try to do that, there are many obstacles. There are suggestions made as to why this is unconstitutional, we are doing it too fast, we are doing it the wrong way. I have never seen a real comprehensive effort made to help the very poor that there weren't apostles of greed who would find reasons why it couldn't be done.
But what is important is that we are now doing it--we are doing it, and you are doing it.
We have struck down the legal barriers that have denied opportunity to men that were born with dark skins.
We have commenced a great education program--elementary, secondary, vocational, higher education--that offers all of our children a chance and a share in the world of tomorrow.
We have opened up new avenues of training and retraining for the unskilled, and for those whose skills have become obsolete.
We have reduced our taxes--$19 billion in 19 months--so that commerce and industry might make new job opportunities available for millions of people who want to work.
But still for some of our fellow Americans, the gates are still closed. These folks live in the fishing villages and the old textile towns of New England; they live in the railroad centers of Pennsylvania where the coal trains no longer run; they live in the small areas of Arkansas and Oklahoma and east Texas; they live in the mountain towns of Utah and Idaho, in the timber settlements of the Far West.
For them the laws of economic change have been rather harsh and unyielding. Industry has moved away, the mines and the timber that once provided the livelihood are gone, they have been depleted. The farm costs have risen faster than farmers could meet them. There are many, many reasons why these communities have suffered in the past, but there is a common result, I think, among all of them: and that is the slow decay of hope among the old who remain, and the anxiety of the young to get away.
I go back to my hometown and I find difficulty locating anyone under 21 years of age that has finished high school. They have moved on. I see the men sit around under the shade playing dominoes--but they are in the late sixties and early seventies.
Now two courses of action are open to us in the face of these conditions. One is to do nothing. That is the thing we have been doing for a good many years, and we just let these little towns die. Their schools and their churches will grow empty each year. The "For Rent" signs will appear with depressing frequency before their stores and their little, modest cottages.
If we take that course, we do more than just write off small town life as unimportant to America. We make certain that thousands upon thousands of families will be compelled to move away and go into the great cities. And when they get there, they are going to be concentrated in slums, they are going to live on the edge of poverty, they are going to be separated from all that would give them security and give them confidence if they could stay back home.
Now the other course is the course of opportunity. If we choose that, we say that empty fatalism has no part in the American dream. Like the lawmakers in our past who created the Homestead Act, some of them who wrote the Land-Grant Act, some of you out there who helped write the Farmers' Home Act, we say that it is right and that it is just, and that it is a function of government, and that we are going to carry out that responsibility to help our people get back on their feet and share once again in the blessings of American life. We say that we are not helpless before the iron laws of economics, that a wise public policy uses economics to create hope--and not to abet despair.
That is the course we are taking today under the leadership of you men that sit there in that front row and all those other rows. We are embarking this morning on a new program of grants and loans to those cities and those towns where too many men have been out of work too long. And we think that is the proper function of government. We want them, in these little towns, to put their men to work, to improve their water systems, to stop the pollution of their streams and their lakes--and I do hope that some of you can help Senator Muskie and the members of the House Public Works Committee, Congressman Blatnik, to get that pollution bill out--let's not get it tied up in conference. I know it is difficult and I know we have some disagreements, and I know we will have some other disagreements, too--I have been observing them--but if we could, we could pass that bill now and make a great contribution to our country. We could develop our harbors and our channels, control our rivers, and lay out roads and provide utilities for new industry. We want them to do whatever it takes to bring hope back to the people of these smaller towns.
The question has really never been how to do these things. The question has always been, where do we find the means to do them? In my judgment this new act--the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965--gives us the authority and gives us the vision that we need. And under the leadership of these substantial numbers of progressive Congressmen and Senators who are here this morning, the fine Secretary of Commerce and that brilliant new Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Gene Foley, who is going to be Assistant Secretary for Economic Development, I believe we are going to open the gates of opportunity for yet another body of this people.
So this morning, I sign it into law with gratitude to each of you in the Congress that passed this bill, and I am confident in the future that you and your posterity will remember being participants here in the East Room in this forward-looking step to try to save people, save human beings, save the small towns that are really the backbone of our country. We can always put off these things, and we have had a habit of doing that in bygone years, but we are facing up to most of our responsibilities--sometimes we face up to them a little late.
I was up early this morning trying to arrange for a top man in the Federal Government to take a plane and take a program to Los Angeles. That is a fine, sprawling, building, progressive city of millions of Americans. But they are going there too late, really. The tragedy has already occurred, the damage is done, the dead cannot be revived, the scars of years of inaction reflected themselves. And when people feel that they don't get a fair shake, when they feel that justice is not open to them, you always see these things occur. They occur in different sections at different times.
Those of you here in the District of Columbia, I want to warn you this morning, that the dock is ticking, time is moving, that we should and we must ask ourselves every night when we go home: Are we doing all that we should do in our Nation's Capital, in all the other big cities of the country where 80 percent of the population of this country is going to be living in the year 2000?
Now, if you don't ask yourself that question and you don't answer it, and you find year after year after year you can't get a committee to act, or if the committee acts you can't get some other committee to act, or if it acts, you get something else happening, and so forth, then you are going to have problems that we are trying to solve.
We got excellent cooperation from the people in a good many States in the Union. I am so proud of the progress we have made in giving men the right to vote and registering in the last few days. I am so proud in the respect for law that such a substantial number of our people have. But remember, when people feel mistreated and they feel injustices, and when they have to move from their homes and they have no jobs, and they have no vote, and they have no voice--well, there is not one place to go if you can't go up. Just any adventure, any danger, you can't do much worse than you are doing now. And I asked myself last night, what can I do to see that we don't have any more incidents as occurred in Los Angeles in this country.
So, let's act before it is too late. And you have done that in this bill. I commend you and I thank you. And if Gene Foley and Jack Connor can do their job of good, solid, prompt administration as well as you have done yours, we will have at least provided part of the answer, and I hope to see Senator Muskie and Bob Jones and the rest of you back in another ceremony on that pollution bill.