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15th Anniversary of Project Head Start Remarks at a White House Reception.

March 12, 1980

Pat said there's no way I can prevent her finishing her speech. 1 [Laughter]

1 The President had entered the East Room as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Patricia Roberts Harris was speaking.

I understand that you have so many important and significant people here that it took a long time to introduce you all, and I think that's typical of the character of the program that you are here to honor. I'm very grateful to see Lady Bird Johnson here, and Pat Harris, who's done such a good job as a Secretary, and Stu Eizenstat, who has helped to forge a good relationship since I've been in the White House between my administration and the Congress and the people throughout the Nation.

I join with you today in confirming a great national commitment, one that has grown in vitality during the last 15 years. This is not always the case. When a wonderful idea is put into practice, it has to have an innate worth and the support of dedicated people to be truly successful.

Head Start was a program with high Federal commitment, high objectives, high performance envisioned in it. At the beginning it was called, and I quote, "constructive, sensitive, and exciting," and today I think it's accurate to state that it's more constructive, sensitive, and exciting, even than those first early days back in 1965.

It's also well named. Seven and a half million Americans have been given a head start over the life which they would have led, and their direct influence on others who've observed them and others who've learned from them, many now at the adult stage of life, has greatly magnified the influence of those 7 1/2 million. They got a head start in nutrition, in health, in education, in self-confidence, in self-respect, in the esteem of those who've known and loved them. And today we're here to honor the hundreds of thousands of Americans of all kinds who've made this program successful.

I'd like to begin by saying just a few words about a man whose vision and humanity made this program possible and originated the concept. When I made one of my most delightful speeches at the Democratic National Convention in 1976, I had these words to say: "Lyndon Johnson did more to advance the cause of human rights in our country than any President in this century."

And I'm thankful that that great President, who lived in this house and who worked in this house, addressed "human rights" in its broadest sense—not just the right to be free of racial discrimination, not just the right in our Nation to have a chance to vote, not just to have a right to seek equality, but to have the right to live a better life. This makes it particularly important that Lady Bird was able to come here to be with us today, because she personifies too, as you know, the essence of what this great man did with those who worked around him.

I never had a chance to meet Lyndon Johnson; maybe many. of you in this room never had a chance to meet him. But I knew him through his work. I think his life was eloquent in the finest sense of that word. There was an eloquence in advancing social and economic justice; there was an eloquence of clear vision, of simple humanity, and how to translate vision and humanity into action.

The success of Head Start, I think-among many other things, but especially Head Start—speaks volumes about what Lyndon Johnson thought about our country's future, because if there ever was a program that had an investment in the future, it was Head Start—future of a nation who had compassion for its people, the particular kind of people who had in the past been neglected or ignored. It was a bold program to translate a vision, again, into the realization of that dream.

Lyndon Johnson knew that the cycle of poverty and deprivation starts very early in life, and it had to be attacked early in life. It's between the ages of 3 and 5, really, that a human being begins to understand the worth of his or her individual life and begins to shape a goal of what might be achieved, begins to compare oneself with others and sense opportunities or lack of them in future years. It's in that early stage, maybe even earlier than 3 years old, that dreams are either born and survive or die.

Like so many of us here, I have seen the sometimes awful truth of Lyndon Johnson's analysis, in people who've lived around me in the Deep South, people who were deprived and whose lives were blighted by it. My first public job was on a local school board, and I saw among the children that I served, as a farmer, a young businessman, that deprivation which I did not know how to address. It was not only educational but it was emotional, and sometimes it was physical, as well. I saw that deprivation set children back in school before the first day they ever went there, and it held them back through grammar school, through high school, and through their entire lives. And I saw that it affected not just black children but white children, as well.

In 1965, when the Head Start program was begun by President Johnson and the Congress, I was heading up an eight county planning and development commission. And as soon as I heard about Head Start, I began to work to implement it where I lived. It was not a popular thing, because it addressed some very sensitive social issues, as well as educational problems. [Laughter] And we finally identified 2,000, about 1,950 young children who qualified. And we finally forced, because of the influence that I had accumulated, 21 school classrooms to be allotted to the program. In Buena Vista, Georgia, black and white children in 1965 sat down in the same library and participated in the program. I guess it was the first integrated classroom in the State, and it was very difficult to get other county school boards to agree to let the program live.

Because of that difficulty, I spent a lot of time moving among those 19 or 20 Head Start classrooms. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor with the children who were participating and talking to them in the same language within which I had been raised. Many of those children had never seen a book, and they had never held a pencil. They had never tied a shoelace. Some didn't know their last name. They had never had a balanced diet for as long as a few days. At the time, they had never had their minds stretched or challenged, and their hearts could have been shriveled in the future had they been continued in a state of existing deprivation.

The first time they saw what it could mean to be gratified in intense, young, human desires and to see dreams realized and to hear a voice of a teacher who knew how to teach and who genuinely loved them and to be provided with the practical things that make a day in a Head Start program so exciting and so successful—I think most important of all, they learned, many of them for the first time, that they were important to the world.

I came home several times—and my wife would vouch for this—with tears in my eyes as I told her about my day's experience. I was a tough, young, struggling, conservative, south Georgia farmer, but this program touched my life. And since then I've seen literally thousands of not only children but teachers and parents and the community itself involved in a program that has indeed transformed the interrelationship among human beings.

I would like to salute also today a person who helped to carry that program forward, to go around the country to encourage communities to adopt it, and to identify Head Start centers, to inspire potential workers. The person that Lyndon Johnson called, and I quote, "the program's most ardent, most active, most enthusiastic supporter"—Lady Bird Johnson.

And although he's not here today, I cannot pass up an opportunity to express my deep admiration and to pay tribute to the program's first administrator: a man who awoke our Nation's conscience to the need of disadvantaged people, who headed up the Peace Corps when it was an embryonic program whose future was in doubt; a man who is exuberant and who can bring excitement and dynamism and life and growth to any program which he addresses with a full commitment of his being—and that's Sargent Shriver. I wish he was here.

Okay. Stu said he'd already mentioned that Sargent was ill today. I'm sure he'll be up and around soon.

I think the best tribute that we can pay to not only these very famous people but hundreds of thousands who are not very famous is to back up and support the program which they helped to initiate it, which they kept alive.

Head Start is a program that works; it's a program that makes poor children healthier; it's a program that improves future test scores in every sense of the word "test." It's a program that helps young people grow more mature in the finest sense of the word, makes them grow more self-confident, and lets them grow emotionally and intellectually throughout their lives. And it's a program that lets students make their parents better, as well, because one thing we often forget is how much education those 5-year-old children brought home to a parent who may not ever have been blessed with the chance to read a good book or to hear good music or to have a good solid diet or to feel their worth among other human beings. So, the children quite often, even 4 or 5 years old, became teachers themselves.

I'm determined to keep Head Start working and growing stronger and more effective. Since we've been in office—Stu just gave me the figures—we have increased the allocation of funds 75 percent for Head Start. And I'm determined to keep this growth intact to protect this program, to nurture this program in the future.

We face difficult times in controlling inflation, as you know. I can't tell you that the growth will continue at that rate, but the Head Start will be protected. And I will be asking the Congress to extend the Head Start program for 5 more years and to retain those features of the program that I have described to you, in a fumbling way, which has made it so successful. It's worked because in one place we have focused educational and physical and social and emotional correction for disadvantaged, young human beings whom we love. It's done that in a comprehensive way, and it's done that in a way that has gotten the community as well as the entire family involved.

I believe we need to prepare ourselves for future challenges, future opportunities, changing lifestyles, perhaps refocusing on target groups to be receiving the benefits of this program in future years. But I think the flexibility of this program to accommodate changing times and changing demands has been one of its innate strengths. It has not been a dormant, frozen, static program. It's been a live program, which has had a good means of feeding back, from the recipient groups themselves and from those running the program on a daily basis, ideas to Washington that can make it better. And this is the kind of thing that we need to nurture in the future.

In 1965 there was a panel of experts appointed by President Johnson to assess the need for the program and how it could best be conducted. I've asked Secretary Harris to meet with a similar group in the near future, at the end of these 15 years, to update the problems, the solutions to those problems, the difficult questions, the answers to those questions, potential obstacles in the future, ways to surmount those obstacles, and a means by which an excellent program can be made even stronger and better in the future.

I'd like to leave you today with a little story that kind of illustrates what I've been trying to say the last 18 minutes. It kind of conveys a feeling that has gone into this program and made it so successful.

Recently, within the last few years, a senior citizen began to visit a local Head Start program. This gentleman had a special interest in it, because he had been a former teacher himself. As part of his daily routine in retirement years, he would go to the local Head Start program and spend some time with the little children, and he would always carry a pocketful of jellybeans. And each day the children would look forward to seeing him come. They were tiny kids, and most of them didn't know who this gentleman was. And after awhile, they all called him Mr. Jellybean. Today, many of those Head Start children in Stonewall, Texas, have come to learn that that friendly, retired, ex-schoolteacher, Mr. Jellybean, was former President Lyndon Johnson, whose vision and whose compassion had made the Head Start program possible in the first place.

Today, it's my great honor to salute not only former President Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Sargent Shriver but all the fine people who've made Head Start so wonderful for the last 15 years and, with your support, which I'm sure we will have, who will carry on a great and well named program, which has become, in my opinion, one of the beautiful things about the United States.

Note: The President spoke at approximately 2:30 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

As printed above, this item does not include the remarks of Stuart E. Eizenstat, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs and Policy, Mrs. Johnson, and Secretary Harris, which are included in the press release.

Jimmy Carter, 15th Anniversary of Project Head Start Remarks at a White House Reception. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/249978

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