Address at University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
Governor Rivers, Chancellor Sanford, President Caldwell, and you, the Members of the Faculty and friends of the University of Georgia:
It is with particular pride in and increased devotion to this State, that I find myself about to become an alumnus of the University of Georgia. During many years I have had important contacts with your Board of Regents, with your Faculty and with many of your graduates; and I can therefore appreciate the splendid service which you are rendering to the cause of education not only in the State of Georgia but throughout the Nation.
Many years have gone by since I first came to Warm Springs and got to know and to love the State and its people. For years before that, I had heard much of Georgia from the lips of that old friend of mine, George Foster Peabody, who, reversing my process, was born in Georgia and became a citizen of the State of New York. Wherever he lived, wherever he went, there was one thing about Mr. Peabody that stood out, and that was his love for humanity. I am proud today to be receiving a degree that was put through by Mr. Peabody some time before his unfortunate death. I wonder if you, who live here in the State all the time, can realize as well as I, who have been coming here once or twice a year, the amazing progress that has been made here in a short decade and a half—and especially in the past five years. If you see a person intimately morning, noon and night, you do not note the changes of growth or of health of that friend as readily as if you see him only at intervals; and that is why I feel that I can speak of Georgia with true perspective.
In my earlier years here I saw a South in the larger sense forgotten, forgotten in the midst of an unhealthy national speculation—a boom era which thought in terms of paper profits instead of human lives. And for those days what has the South to show today? A few great fortunes perhaps, but most of the profits went north.
Then came the tragic years of the depression: closed banks in almost every community, ruinous crop prices, idle mills, no money for schools or roads—a picture of despair—I knew Georgia of those days, too.
Yet, through all those years the South was building a new school of thought—a group principally recruited from younger men and women who understood that the economy of the South was vitally and inexorably linked with that of the Nation, and that the national good was equally dependent on the improvement of the welfare of the South. They began asking searching questions: Why is our pay, in other words, our earning capacity so low? Why are our roads so bad? Why are our sanitation and our medical care so neglected? Why are our teachers so inadequately paid? Why are our local school buildings and equipment so antiquated?
I do not mince words because, first of all, I have a right, a nation-wide right, a State right and withal a sympathetic and understanding right, to speak them, and, secondly, because you as well as I know them to be true.
It may not be politic but it is good American idealism to recognize, to state boldly that in 1932, six short years ago, the conditions of human life in Georgia and in other states of the lower South were as a whole at the bottom of the national scale. At the same time let us rejoice and take pride in the undoubted fact that in these past six years the South has made greater economic and social progress up the scale than at any other period in her long history. It is my objective and yours to maintain that march and to accelerate its pace.
On the side of education a long experience teaches us that the improvement of educational facilities is inevitably bound up with economic conditions. Years ago, when I first came to Georgia, I was told by a distinguished citizen of the State that public school education was well provided for because there was a law—or perhaps it was in the State Constitution itself-providing that every child should have a full school year—and that attendance for each school year through all the years of grade school and into the high schools was compulsory. But I soon discovered—as I might have known that I should—that school after school in the rural districts of the State—and most of the districts are rural districts- was open only four months or five months a year—or was too small to hold all the children that wanted to go to it, or could not employ enough teachers—or that children, whose parents wanted them to work instead of going to school, could stay away from school with complete immunity. Apparently a law or a clause in the Constitution was not enough. What is law without enforcement? Apparently, the Biblical method, the divine method "Let there be light—and there was light" did not work as mere man's dictum.
Then I began to analyze: Was it due to lack of interest? No, not at all. It was due to lack of money. Every man and woman I talked with deplored the wretched school conditions, wanted better schools, better trained and better paid teachers, wanted more teachers, wanted a full school year. But—the answer was always the same- we cannot get more money from taxes.
And why not? The answer again is simple: The taxable values were not there. The tax rates were not too low, but the actual going values of property were so meagre, that when taxes on those values were collected the sum received could not pay for adequate teachers or proper equipment. Public education was therefore dependent on public wealth. Public wealth was too low to support good schools.
That analysis of mine- made even before I was elected Governor of New York—led my mind to many other questions. Why were land values and therefore taxable values in Georgia so low? With that question came a study of land use, of worn out land, of cheaper fertilizer, of forestation, of erosion, of crop diversification, of crop prices, of marketing, and of freight rates. And all of these things bore directly on the problem of better schools.
Why were people getting such low pay for a day's work? That led to a study of purchasing power, of decent wages, of the cost of living, of taxable income, of sound banking, of small merchants. And these things, too, bore directly on the problem of better schools.
In other words, social conditions—schools and hospitals, medical care, and better sanitation, and those other matters that were dependent in a similar way, clothing and housing and food, all those other things that we call by the general name of better social conditions—were intimately dependent on economic conditions: higher wages, higher farm income and more profits for small businessmen.
So you will see that my thoughts for the South are no new thing. Long before I had any idea of reentering public life I was planning for better life for the people of Georgia. In these later years I have had some opportunity to practice what I have long preached.
Obviously the Federal Government cannot carry the load alone. In education, for example, the Government in Washington has greatly assisted by using the labor of people who really need help to build schoolhouses, to give student aid, and to pay at least a part of the salaries to many teachers. And Washington will help in the days to come, I am confident, by giving some grants in aid to those communities which need them the most. But let us remember well that the Government in Washington should not and cannot rightly subsidize public education throughout the United States. That must remain wholly free, wholly independent. Education should be run by the states and their subdivisions and not by the Federal Government.
Therefore, in the long run, the best way for your national government to assist state and local educational objectives is to tackle the national aspects of economic problems, to eliminate discriminations between one part of the country and another, to raise purchasing power and thereby create wealth in those sections where it is far too low, to save the waste and the erosion of our natural resources, to encourage each section to become financially independent, to take the lead in establishing social security, and at the same time to explain to the people in every part that constant progressive action is better than following the lead of either those who want to slow up or those who promise they will hand you the moon on a silver platter a week after they are elected.
At heart Georgia shows devotion to the principles of democracy. Georgia, like other states, has occasional lapses; but it really does not believe either in demagoguery or feudalism, even though they are dressed up in democratic clothes. . . .
To be a part of you is a great honor and a great privilege. You of the University are greatly responsible for the manner of meeting the problems of the present. You will be greatly responsible for the future. Well are you doing your part. From today onward I share proudly, more fully, in that part.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address at University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209099