Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks in New York City at the Annual Equal Opportunity Awards Dinner of the National Urban League

November 19, 1968

Mr. Linen, Mr. Young, directors and members of the National Urban League, ladies and gentlemen:

I wanted to come here tonight, not only to join you in paying tribute to an old friend and his fellow award winners, but to reaffirm my dedication to equal human rights in America.

A good many of you have sat by my side during the past 5 years and have tried to help me as I tried to keep America moving toward the only destiny that is worthy of her greatness--as a just and prosperous Nation, where opportunity is open to all.

I remember those hours--some bright with promise and some shadowed by tragedy. But all of them were filled with challenge to those of us who sought one America--one hopeful, free America, from which bigotry is banished and from which the races of man have learned tolerance and mutual respect.

There was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the struggle to write into law each American's right to a job, to equal treatment in public places, to justice in the expenditure of public funds. Many of you were there in that struggle.

Then there was Selma, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that grew out of it. Many of you joined me in saying that despite the blind anger of some men and the apathy of other men, we shall overcome.

Then there were the riots of 1965, 1966, and 1967, when frustration turned into violence, and racists of both colors called for an Armageddon in which our dreams--as well as our cities--would go up in smoke. Many of you denounced that suicidal course, and called upon our great Nation to turn from self-destruction to self-renewal.

Then there was the Fair Housing Act of 1968 when at last we declared that Americans were not to be cordoned off against their will in racial ghettos.

Throughout this time, there were moments of grief, as when a great civil rights leader was shot down and his voice forever lost; moments of doubt, when it appeared that many of our people would respond to the racists and the demagogues who played upon their resentments and who played upon their fears; and moments of achievement and hope when great numbers of Negroes began voting all through the South, when black incomes began rising, when some of the highest offices in Government including the Supreme Court and the Cabinet, were occupied for the first time by Negro Americans.

Many of you were there in the White House with me, at those moments. And many others of you were out in the cities--in the board rooms, in the personnel offices, at the editorial desks, in city halls, in the councils of labor--urging your fellow Americans to break down the bars that separate black Americans from a share in the common good.

Nothing that we have done in these years would have really been achieved without you.

Nothing that must be done in the years -ahead can be achieved without you.

And if you are inclined--after these years of struggle and success in winning legal rights for all Americans--to rest for a while, consider where you are resting:

--with nonwhite incomes rising, but still only 60 percent of white incomes;

--with the number of nonwhite families earning $8,000 a year, almost doubling in the past 5 years, but with one family in three still living in poverty tonight;

--with unemployment among nonwhite married men less than half of what that unemployment was 5 years ago, but with one teenager in four looking tonight for work and being unable to find it;

--with the number of Negro professionals, white-collar workers, and craftsmen rising sharply, but with opportunities for millions still limited just to menial and custodial jobs;

--with mortality rates for Negro babies falling, but still it is three times those for white babies;

--with millions of Negro fathers better able to care for their families, but with one family in four headed by the mother--more than that in many ghetto areas.

So, it is true, we have come a long way. We have made a lot of verbal commitments. We have even changed a great many lives already for the better. But we are nowhere, nowhere in sight of where we must be before we can rest.

Not when Cliff Alexander tells me that out of 4,200 New York businesses reporting to his Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 27 percent had no Negro employees at all working for them. And 43 percent had no Negro white-collar workers. Forty-five percent had no Puerto Rican employees. Even some of our most insistent voices for human rights in the fourth estate had few, or no minority group Americans in any positions of responsibility.

I know that many of you here tonight are changing that picture, and others want to see a change. I believe that it must be changed if this country is ever going to make it.

Back in the 1930's, we used to hear the opposition talk about "property rights" each time a proposal came up to establish a minimum wage, or to give labor the right to collective bargaining, or to try to control the spread of monopolies.

Well, I think some of us have sounded too cavalier in our response to that argument about property rights. For property rights are precious and they are necessary rights in our democratic society.

What we really objected to all along was that not enough people had property rights-because not enough people had property.

So what we have all been trying to do in these past 2 years is to increase the number of property holders and to increase the size of what they hold.

If we have planted one idea in the American consciousness I hope it is this: Every man, woman and child has at least one property right. It is the right to opportunity.

The task of government, business, and labor, of the news media, of the schools, and of the organizations like the Urban League, is to protect and to extend that right--to make it just as real for the child of Harlem as it is for the child of the most prosperous suburb.

When we break the barriers to his father's promotion, we do that.

When we put some living color into our TV ads, we do that. [Laughter]

When we expand our economy and when we resist those voices who call for a little more unemployment as medicine for inflation, we do that.

When we insist that the programs that we have begun be supplied with funds, and the rights that we have written together be enforced, then we do that.

I promise you one thing: For as long as I live, I shall remain joined with you in fighting for that right to opportunity.

Back in March 1965 when they were parading in front of the White House and when they were marching in Selma, one day I decided I would go to the Congress that night and ask for the privilege of addressing a joint session on the television networks of this Nation in order to ask for the right to vote for all the people of America.

As I was flying up here this evening, I thought I would just remake a part of that speech that I made in March 1965. I said:

So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to have to give all of our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.

My first job after college was as a teacher in a little town, in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of my students could even speak English. And I regret to say I could not speak any Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without any breakfast, hungry. They knew--even in their youth they knew--the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them--they just knew they did. But they knew it was so, because I could see it every morning in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after school was out and the classes were finished, and the children had left the playground. All of the time I was wishing, wishing there was more that I could find it possible to do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I did know, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that they would face afterwards in life.

Somehow, I said to the Members of Congress, you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.

I went on to the Congress: I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never occurred to me, never, never in my fondest dreams, that some day I would be President and that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students that I taught, and to help people like them all over this country.

Then I said to the Congress: Tonight I am President, and tonight I do have the chance, and tonight I am going to let you in on a little secret. I have that chance, and they say the President's office is the most powerful office in the land. And I'm going to let you in on this secret: I am going to make the most of this chance and I am going to use every bit of the power that I have to see that these wrongs are righted.

This is the richest and this is the most powerful nation in all the world. I feel tonight like Winston Churchill is reputed to have felt one time when the little ladies of the Temperance Union came in, in the closing days of World War II, to complain to the Prime Minister about his drinking habits. The spokesman said: "Mr. Prime Minister, we are told that if all the brandy that you have drunk throughout this war were poured into this room it would come up to about here."

The Prime Minister looked at the floor, looked to the little lady's hand measuring about half the room, and then looked at the ceiling and said: "My dear little lady, so little have I done." Then he looked at the ceiling and said: "So much I have yet to do."

So as we look back over the 5 years that we have traveled this road and all that we have tried to do and those little things that we have done, we all, like Prime Minister Churchill, recognize that so little have we done, but so much we all have yet to do.

Note: The President spoke at 10 p.m. in the ballroom of the New York Hilton Hotel in New York City. In his opening words he referred to James A. Linen, President of the National Urban League and Whitney M. Young, Jr., Executive Director of the League. During his remarks he referred to Clifford L. Alexander, Jr., Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The President also referred to civil rights demonstrations held in Selma, Ala., in March 1965 (see 1965 volume, this series, Book I, Item 104).

For the President's message to Congress of March 15, 1965, from which he quoted, see 1965 volume, this series, Book I, Item 107, page 286.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks in New York City at the Annual Equal Opportunity Awards Dinner of the National Urban League Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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