“You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights. I am sure this does not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance. You are the employers. You are key people in the planning of cities today. You share the responsibility for the mess we are in—in terms of the white noose around the central city. We didn’t just suddenly get into this situation. It was carefully planned.”Whitney M. Young, Jr., Executive Director, The Urban League Opening session of the 100th Convention of the American Institute of Architects Portland, Oregon, June 24, 1968
A free society allows an unusual act. The promise of it helps all people discover how individual demands for freedom burn into the leadership of us all. These instabilities renew cultures. It rips off the masks of individual prejudices one discovers one cannot live with or leave within. It does not accept change. On the contrary, it breathes the love of it.
Robert T. Coles
I was in Portland as an urban planning student, (Pratt) but it was not until Robert Traynham Coles, FAIA, sent me a copy of the original text of Young’s address that my experience then began to make better sense a decade later.
Were it not for Coles, I could not have helped support an entire generation of hopeful agents of change to know that a speech can change an institution, and a person can change history.
Young’s challenge was built on power well established during the course of his life. He is directly responsible for the AIA’s support of Community Design Centers as an alternative to the traditional practice of planning and architecture. The battle remains but he gave us few warriors.
I didn’t know why then, by I could see the shock of recognition in the eyes of the mostly all-white audience. A key portion of Young’s speech appeared in a guest editorial by Coles for Progressive Architecture Magazine in July 1989. Nevertheless, most picked up the statement above. More recently, the AIA added responsibility for its institutional role in denying legitimate efforts to correct past wrongs (here). Sadly, it was in 2018 — the 50th anniversary of Young’s speech. Awardees in his name are difficult to track down or engage.
I have circulated this speech hundreds of times because every word remains painfully true. I decided to post this speech within the “Malfunctions Section” of the System Change series because it captured a piece of my past in what became known as Community Design Centers (history pdf), (policy pdf), (practice pdf). During that time, from the late sixties, and still today Young remains known as a key powerbroker by breaking barriers to employment from national corporations and negotiating reparations from the Federal Government to begin correcting centuries of past wrongs. But, as the quote above proves, he did not pull any punches in this speech to architects. Still, there is no reason yet to stop.
Fifty years later, his words summon the confluence of leaders for system change today. It comes from the powerbrokers, the preachers, and the symbol of a Panther. New institutions are forming that benefit from the powerbrokers inspired by Young and the preachers inspired by Martin Luther King. Architectural change agents have failed to create a national nonprofit institution as significant as those of law and health. The reasons are many, but the heart of it remains in the words of Young.
Our memory of the moral leaders must become a crisis of immoral professionals ignorant of the true challenges of our time. Finally, one American truth folds its arms and looks you in the eye. Non-violence in creating liberty and sustaining human dignity is self-defense in steady opposition to the horror of blood spilled in its name.
RLC – OCCUPY
Whitney M. Young, Jr., Executive Director, The Urban League
June 24, 1968
Not so long ago, a group of miners suddenly found themselves after an avalanche entombed in one of the diamond mines of South Africa. Starving for food and thirsting for water and in need of spiritual comfort, the Diamonds were worthless, and they slowly met their death.
So, it is increasingly in our society today. We are skilled in the art of making war; we are unskilled in the art of making peace. We are proficient in the art of killing, particularly good people; bad people are in no danger in this country. We are ignorant of the art of living. We probe and grasp the mysteries of atomic fission and unique and ingenious ways to handle brick and mortar and glass. We most often forget such simple things as the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule.
In our scheme of things, there must be a place for values that transcend materialistic grasping. Our values are concentrated more around things. Will we find ourselves entombed in our diamond mine of materialism?
It would be the most naïve escapist who today would be unaware of the winds of change. As far as aspirations are concerned, they are reaching tornado proportions. In our country, the disinherited, disenfranchised, poor, and black are saying no in unmistakable terms. They intend to be in a new world because no one will be comfortable in the one being made today.
Our choices are clear-cut; we can either engage in genocide and the systematic extermination of the black poor in this country and poor generally. Here we have an ideal model in Mr. Adolph Hitler. Or, we can engage in a more formalized Apartheid than we already have. Here we can use our pattern Mr. Ian Smith in South Africa. Or, we can decide that the American dream and promise of the Judeo-Christian ethic are more than rhetoric. Are they a collection of nice clichés to be mouthed on Sunday morning and on the Fourth of July, or are they are principles to be practiced? Here we can take as our model the Constitution and the Bible.
Today, the disinherited, unlike the past, see the gap between their standard of living and the majority. They are no longer are sharecroppers on farms and in rural areas where they have not the benefit of newspapers and radio. Today, for the most part, the poor live within a stone’s throw of the affluent. They witness on their television sets and read in their newspapers and see personally how the so-called ‘other half,’ that is, the other eighty percent, live. The poor no longer assume that their status is God-made. They no longer believe they are congenitally and innately inferior because of color or condition of birth. The poor are fully aware that their living conditions are man-made and not God-decreed or constitutionally derived.
The poor today also are quite conscious of how other people have managed to lift themselves out of the mire of injustice and poverty. They were the leaders of civil disobedience in the Boston Tea Party. They were revolutionists in the American Revolution, or the labor movement or the women’s suffrage movement, or the struggles of the Irish, Italians, Jews, and what-have-you.
They know that their techniques today, so glibly discredited, are the same techniques that others have used in other periods of history when they found themselves similarly situated. The poor today are determined. We ignore that at our peril. It is not a passing phenomenon of the moment. It is not a transitory thing like panty raids or the swallowing of goldfish or crowding into telephone booths. This is a growing trend in our country. And, any institution or individual who feels that he is immune to confrontation or that he somehow will avoid being affected by this, I am afraid he is guilty of indulging in opium smoking.
Now, one other factor tends to accelerate and, if anything, complicates. The poor and disinherited of our society today have found strong allies. The allies are the young people of this country and of the world. Some of them I’ve had an opportunity to talk within some 100 universities, colleges, and high schools this year. Many are experiencing a degree of cynicism at best and contempt at worst for adult values, which can document with unerring accuracy the inconsistency in our society. There is a pervasive gap between what we practice and what we preach, which points to the tragic paradox of a society with a gross national product approaching one trillion dollars. Yet, it permits twenty percent of its people to live in squalor and in poverty. This society willingly taxed itself to rebuild Western Europe and West Germany. It spends billions of dollars. There are no slums today in West Germany. The slums are in the Harlems of our country where black people live who have been in this country 400 years, whose blood, sweat, and tears have gone to build this country, who gave it 250 years of free labor and another 100 of cheap labor. They are the ones who live in the slums and who are unemployed.
These students point out how a budget of approximately $140 Billion was spent last year and less than 20 percent for things that are aesthetic and cultural, and educational, for health, education, and welfare. Almost 70 percent was spent on weapons of destruction or defense against destruction.
No other country has quite this record of disproportionate expenditures. No other country has ever dreamed of this great wealth.
We are not at a loss in our society for the know-how. We have the technology. We have the scientific know-how. We have the resources. We are at a loss for the will.
The crisis is not in our cities, ladies and gentlemen. The crisis is in our hearts and the kind of human beings we are. I submit to you that if you are a mother or a father, today, you are being challenged either silently by young people, or you will be challenged even more violently. You are risking the respect of generations, not yet adults and generations yet unborn.
Now, in this situation, there are two or three, I think, positive aspects and possibilities present today that were not present in the past. One is that we are all aware of the problem. The black person – and I make no apology for singling out the Negro, although I am fully aware that there are poor white people in Appalachia, poor Mexican-Americans, poor Puerto Ricans and Indians – the Negro, is a sort of symbol, the only involuntary immigrant in large numbers – a symbol of it. I make really no apologies, but the Negro today is at least on the conscience of America. This is not to say that he loves it. Probably it is irritating to most people, a source of great unhappiness. Still, it is better to be hated than to be ignored. The Negro has mainly been the victim, not of active hate or active concern, but of active indifference and callousness. Less than ten percent of white Americans wanted to lynch Negroes, and ten percent wanted to free them. Our problem has been the big eighty percent, that big blob of Americans who have been so busy “making it,” getting ahead in their companies, getting a little house in the suburbs, lowering their golf scores, vying for admittance to the country club, lying about their kids I.Q., that they really haven’t had time to be concerned.
Our sin, then, is the sin of omission and not of commission, and into that vacuum have rushed the prophets of doom. The violent people, the vicious people who hate, and they have come all too often to be the voice of America. But at least we recognize the existence of the problem. The communication is probably more candid, though more painful than ever before, and that is progress.
And, today, for the first time, we have the full attention and concern of the establishment in America. The decision-makers, the top people – I’m talking about the Henry Fords and the Tom Watsons and the George Romneys, the truly big people in your field and in the field of business and in government. The most enlightened governors, the most enlightened mayors, the most enlightened college presidents, even the religious leaders are now beginning to decide race relations is no longer a spectator sport. In their own enlightened self-interest, they have to get involved.
This is important. Nothing happens in America until the so-called decision-makers and the power structure decide that they had better get busy, and that’s a powerful ally.
A final positive thing is, I think that we today are no longer in a quandary as to the extent of the problem and the cause. We are now the beneficiaries of a President’s Commission Report – The Kerner Commission. It was composed of predominantly white, respectable, conservative, responsible people. The first time they met as a group was to identify the conspirators who were causing the disorders and suggesting ways of suppression and control. That is how they started out.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the final report. We invited these gentlemen to take a visit to the ghetto, more specifically, to a tenement house. They smilingly, but naively, agreed, and that was the beginning of a significant report. We took these men into a typical tenement house, some 14 floors. Immediately they discovered that as sophisticated as our communications media happened to be, they are not able to give all the dimensions of the situation – the dimension of smell, for example, feel, taste. The minute these men walked into the building; they smelled the stench of urine. And why shouldn’t they? Little two-and-three-year-old boys out in my neighborhood, just when they have to go to the bathroom, and can’t make it back onto the house, go around to the bushes – sort of an accepted pattern. When you live in the 14-story tenement house with no elevator, little boys can’t quite make it and do what little two-and-three-year-old boys normally do.
These men went up the stairs. They made it as far as the seventh floor – they weren’t in the best physical shape. We took them into an apartment, typical, six people living in it, two rooms, and four children. They saw the little one-and-a-half-year-old with a shrunken stomach. All he had to eat that day was a bowl of corn flakes, and it was two o’clock in the afternoon.
They talked to the mother whose eyes were bloodshot because she had stayed awake all night trying to keep the rats from biting the children. They saw rat-holes; saw the roaches. Then, they talked to the father – alienated, bitter, because he suffered the daily humiliation of not being able to support his children, not playing the role of the father, not being able even to buy the kid an ice cream cone.
Repeated experiences like that left no choice except to, as we say, tell it like it is.
This upset Americans, accused of being racists, being told in no uncertain language that, in fact, there is a gap between how some Americans live.
We are a proud people. We like to kid ourselves into believing that we are good Christians, good human beings, but it isn’t true. These men were not starry-eyed liberals, not sentimental do-gooders. These were white conservatives. I’ve always been told that white people were still right. I assume they’re right. Rap Brown didn’t write the report. The report was written by these people that you know as well as I know. And, you know that when good people want a social audit, you take it just as seriously as a fiscal audit that says you’re in arrears and bankrupt. A health audit could mean you have tuberculosis. You wouldn’t go out to see a mechanic and try to get him to dispute the claim.
We are a racist nation, and no way in the world would it be otherwise given the history of our country. Being a racist doesn’t mean one wants to go out and join a lynch mob or send somebody off to Africa or engage in crude, vulgar expressions of prejudice. Racism is an underlying assumption of superiority on the part of one group over another. In America, it had to happen because, as a society, we enslaved people for 250 years, and up until 1964, it was written into our laws and enforced by social custom. It was discrimination against human beings – that a man, because of the color of his skin, couldn’t go into a restaurant or a hotel or be served in public places.
Now, there’s no way in the world, unless we are a nation more schizophrenic than I think, that we could have this kind of law tolerated and this kind of social custom and still have gone to church on Sunday and mouthed all the platitudes if we didn’t honestly believe that some were superior to others. Racism reflects itself in many little ways – little to you but big to some people.
A few years ago, my wife and I finally managed to reach the point where we could hire a maid for one day a week. When she came into the house, she introduced herself as Lucille. My wife said, “What is your last name?” and she said, “Fisher.” So my wife said, “Mrs. Fisher, let’s talk.” And they talked, and they decided they could stand each other, and she would go to work immediately. That afternoon my two youngsters came home, and Mrs. Fisher met them at the door and said, “Hello, I’m Lucille.” And my wife came in and said, “Marcia and Loren, this is Mrs. Fisher.”
Mrs. Fisher followed her back into the kitchen and said, “You don’t have to do that, I like to be called Lucille, it makes me feel like a member of the family, and I’m closer. I like that just fine.”
And my wife said, “Mrs. Fisher, we are not doing this just for you. Our youngsters do not call adult women of 45 or 50 years of age by their first names. If they don’t do it with anybody else, then we don’t think they ought to do it with you unless they get the impression that you are different because of the kind of work you do. We’re trying to teach our youngsters to respect the dignity of human beings, regardless of what they do or the color of their skins.”
About an hour later, the phone rang. It was Mrs. Fisher’s little five-year-old son, and he said, “Lucille there?” And my wife said, “There’s no Lucille here.”
And then she told Mrs. Fisher, she thought it was her son, and maybe she had better call him back. So she did, and the conference went like this: “Son, did you call?” “Yes, Mother, but they said there was no Lucille there.” She said, “No, son, I’m not Lucille here. I’m Mrs. Fisher. I’m somebody.”
Now, if you could have seen the expression on her face when she said this. This is just simple, elementary dignity.
Fifty percent of all people in this country don’t even pay their domestic’s Social Security when the law requires them to. Even though the people say they don’t want it paid, don’t want this kind of record, it is these people’s only opportunity for insurance against old age, against illness in old age, and it is a moral thing to do. We pay both shares hers – and –ours because we are thinking about her, and we are concerned about what will happen to her.
What I am really talking about here is your role. To realize it as a citizen, it begins in the home. Dear Lord, let there be peace at home and let it begin with me.
A young man stood up in a meeting a couple of weeks ago – a white fellow, an SDS student. He really blasted the white audience for its prejudice and bigotry, and hypocrisy. He then ended up by saying, “So if it means we have to level down with them to achieve equality with all human beings, then white people must do this.”
This is a racist statement. I pointed this out. The only reason he could think of “leveling down” was that he was assuming that superiority relates to the acquisition of material things, technology, money, and clothes. It’s conceivable that it might be a leveling upward, or it might be a bringing together on the one hand qualities of humaneness, compassion, and style. This society needs a great deal of technology and money, and material things. And so, we are giving to each other.
If we are going to do anything about changing the individual, let us first admit that it is easier to have lived in a leper colony and not acquired leprosy than live in America and not acquire prejudice. You don’t start changing until you first admit you have it.
Secondly, as a profession, you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.
Now, you have a nice, normal escape hatch in your historical, ethical code or something that says, after all, you are the designers and not the builders; your role is to give people what they want. Now, that’s a nice, easy cop-out. But I have read about architects who had the courage, who had a social sensitivity. I can’t help but wonder about an architect that builds some of the public housing we see in the cities of this country. How he could even compromise his own profession and his own sense of values to have built 35 or 40 story buildings, these vertical slums, and not even have put a restroom in the basement. Leave recreational space for about ten kids when there must have five thousand in the buildings. That architects, as professionals, wouldn’t as a group stand up and say something about this is disturbing to me.
You are employers; you are key people in the planning of our cities today. You share the responsibility for the mess we are in terms of the white noose around the central city. It didn’t just happen. We didn’t just suddenly get this situation. It was carefully planned.
I went back recently and looked at ads when they first started building subdivisions in this country. The first new subdivision – “easy access to town, good shopping centers, good schools, no Negroes, no Jews allowed” – that was the first statement. Then, they decided in New York that that was cutting the market too close, so they said the next day, “no Negroes allowed.” And, then they got cute when they thought everybody had the message, and they said, “restricted, exclusive neighborhood, and homogenous neighborhood.” Everybody knows what those words mean.
Even the Federal Government participated. They said that they must be compatible neighborhoods for FHA mortgages, homogeneous neighborhoods. The Federal Government participated in building nice middle-class housing in the suburb and putting all public housing in the central city.
It took a great deal of skill and creativity, and imagination to build the kind of situation we have now. It is going to take skill, imagination, and creativity to change it. We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to “inclusiveness” as we have had in the past to exclusiveness.
You are also educators. Many of you are in educational institutions.
I took the time to call up a young man who just finished at Yale. I said, “What would you say if you were making the speech I’m supposed to make today?” He had some strong observations to make. He said he did want you to become more relevant. He did want you to begin to speak out as a profession, he did want in his own classroom to see more Negroes; he wanted to see more Negro teachers. He wanted while his classwork was going on for you to get involved in the community around you as educators.
When you go to a city like Champagne-Urbana, the University of Illinois is about the only major institution. Within two or three blocks of the campus are some of the worst slums in the country. It is amazing how within a stone’s throw of the school of architecture, you have absolute, complete indifference – unless you have a federal research grant. Even then, it’s to study the problem.
I hope you accept my recommendation for a moratorium on the study of the Negro in this country. He has been dissected and analyzed horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. And, if there are any further studies – I’m not anti-intellectual – I hope we’ll make them on white people, and that instead of studying the souls of black people, we’ll be studying the souls of white people; instead of the anatomy of Watts, we’ll do an anatomy of Cicero, an anatomy of Bronxville.
What’s wrong with these people in these neighborhoods? Why do they want – themselves just one generation removed from welfare or in many cases only one generation in the country, where they have come here sometimes escaping hate and have come here and acquired freedom – why do they want to turn their backs and say in Cicero, “Al Capone can move in, but Ralph Bunche can’t?”
Why are they so insecure? Why do people want to live in these bland, sterile, antiseptic gilded ghettos – giving sameness to each, compounding mediocrity in a world that is 75 percent non-white, in a world where can take a spaceship and fly from Kennedy to South Africa in 15 minutes you? Why would anybody want to let his or her children grow up in this kind of situation?
I think this kind of affluent peasant ought to be studied. These are people who have acquired middle-class incomes because of strong labor unions and because they are living in an unprecedented affluent period. But, in things esthetic, educational, and cultural, they leave a lot to be desired. They wouldn’t know the difference between Karl Marx and Groucho Marx.
This is where our problem is. We can move next door to Rockefeller in Tarrytown, but I couldn’t move into Bronxville. A Jewish person could hardly move into Bronxville, incidentally.
As a profession, you ought to be taking stands on these kinds of things. If you don’t speak out for the rent supplements or the housing bill calling for a million houses, if you don’t speak out for some kind of scholarship program that will enable you to consciously and deliberately seek to be in minority people who have been discriminated against in many cases – either kept out because of your indifference or couldn’t make it (it takes seven to ten years to become an architect) – then you will have done a disservice to the memory of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bob Kennedy, and most of all, to yourselves.
You are part of this society. It is not easy. I am not suggesting the easy road, but the time has come that no longer the crooks and crackpots speak for America. The decent people have to learn to speak up, and you shouldn’t have to be the victim to feel for other people. I make no pretense that it will be easy.
We do have today the best possibility of generalizing and rationalizing around our detachment.
You have riots and shouts of black power. Anybody who looks for an excuse to cop out can use it, but I insist that if you believe in equality, then we have as much right to have crackpots. There is no reason why white people should have a monopoly. If we have been able to put up all these years with the Ku Klux Klan, with burning and lynching, with the George Lincoln Rockwells, with the Citizens Councils, with slaveowners, and still don’t generalize about all white people, why should white people generalize about all Negroes on the basis of a few? All Negroes didn’t riot in Watts. All Negroes didn’t riot in Newark. One out of three in Newark were whites, and one out of five in Watts, and that’s why there was more violence in Newark.
We don’t generalize. A man sat on the plane with me, and he and his wife had a couple of martinis. She fell asleep, and he leaned over and said, “Mr. Young, my wife and I are great liberals; we love your people very much, but we have a problem. We would like to invite a colored couple into our home.” He took another sip of liquor and made it more magnanimous, “two or three couples, but my wife doesn’t feel comfortable around colored people. I hope you won’t be offended, but what can we do about the problem?”
I said, “I’m not offended. I know perfectly well what you mean. Most people feel odd and uncomfortable and inferior, even around Ralph Bunche—Phi Beta Kappa, Nobel prize winner, cosmopolite, traveled all over the world.” Most people would ask a stupid question and get an elementary response, and I said, “Maybe the Urban League could help you recruit some of the below-average Negroes that your wife would feel more comfortable with.”
It’s the same business of generalizing – no such thing as a black is a black man, a white is a white man. We have our right to an Adam Clayton Powell if the Irish have a right to a Curley. He would make Adam Clayton Powell the epitome of political morality. Nobody generalized about the Italians because of the appearance of a disproportionate number in the Mafia. Nobody indicts all of them. Nobody indicts all white men because a white man killed President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, or a white man stands in a tower in Texas, kills 14 people, or a white man assaults and kills eight nurses in Chicago. They didn’t call him “white.” We called him “sick,” and that’s what they were. With the Negroes, it’s “the black man.”
We fall victim to clichés like “law” and “order.” The most extreme example we’ve ever had of order in this world was that created by Adolph Hitler with his Gestapo and his police. He got his “order.” There was no dissent – goose-stepping all over the place – and he used that order to bring about the death of about 14 million people, six million of them in ovens.
There will never be order without justice. And, the first prerequisite for order in this society is that there must be justice. The women would still be disorderly in this country if they hadn’t gotten the right to vote. The workers would have torn it apart if they hadn’t gotten the Wagner Act, and America would still be fighting England if we had not won the war.
We must have justice. Civil disobedience and lawlessness have been practiced not by black people in this society but by white people who denied the laws of God and the laws of the Constitution.
When a Wallace stands up and talks about the law – who was more lawless, engaged in more civil disobedience than that man? Who stands in the doorway of the courts and constantly berates the Supreme Court of the United States? Talk about respect for law and order! We, who have been the victims of the most unscrupulous practices by merchants, by landlords, by employers, by public officials — we know something about lawlessness.
When you talk about crime, talk about the syndicate boss who lives downtown; and, and he’s white, and he’s responsible for the dope and the prostitution and the numbers racket that causes 60 percent of the crime in the ghetto. Talk about the guy who charges too much interest rate or the guy who makes people pay $500 for a $175 television set.
The people who talk about neighborhood schools – Mrs. Hicks – you know what they mean. They want little segregated neighborhoods. Now, we make the big deal – neighborhood schools, and you can go to the same schools. Then see these same people bussing their kids to private schools, or 300 miles away to prep schools if they’ve got the money. They don’t really like the neighborhood that well. But, now it [the neighborhood] has become the new code word for racism, in fact.
Finally, let me speak about your role as a man because I think this is probably more basic than anything. Sure, you’re architects. You’re a lot of things – you’re Republicans, Democrats, and a few John Birchers. You’re a good many things, but you’re a man and a father. I would hope that somehow you would understand this issue. More than any other human right today separates the phony from the real, the man from the boy – more than anything else.
Rickey solved the problem of attitudes and how long it takes. I disagree with you that it takes a long time to change attitudes. It doesn’t take any time to replace them overnight. When he brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers, there was this ballplayer that said, “I’m not going to play with that ‘nigger.’” He thought Rickey would flap like most employers. I imagine most architects thought he would say that he’d pull away. But he didn’t know Rickey very well. Rickey was kind. He said, “Give him three or four days.” Well, at the end of a few days, Robinson had five home runs and had stolen many bases. This fellow was reassessing his options – he could go back to Alabama and maybe make $20 a week picking cotton, or stay there with the Dodgers and continue to work. And, now it looked like Jackie would get him into the World Series and a bonus of $5,000 – which he did. The only color he was concerned with was green.
We see it happening in Vietnam. White boys from Mississippi in Vietnam develop more respect and admiration for their black sergeant in one week because they, too, have made their own assessment and decided to be liberal white boys from Mississippi instead of dead white bigots. They’re interested in the art of survival, and the sergeant is skilled in the art of surviving, and they say, “Mr. Sergeant” – and it’s an overnight change.
Why is it that the best example of American democracy is found in the muck and mire of Vietnam? Why is it that the greatest freedom the black man has is the freedom to die in Vietnam – and as he dies, why do his loved ones, his kids, and his wife and his mother have to fight for the right to buy a house where they want to?
I know there are other speakers, and I have spoken for too long. A speech, to be immortal, doesn’t have to be eternal.
I do want to tell you one last story. Mel Batten, who is the chairman of the board of J.C. Penney, about four months ago was having breakfast with his kids, one girl 21 and one boy 23, and they asked what he was going to do that week. He said, “I’m going out with Whitney Young, and I have a series of luncheons in some three or four cities. I’m hosting these, and I’m going around talking about expanding employment opportunities for Negro citizens and giving money to the Urban League.
(Incidentally, I don’t want you to miss that plug – you are distinguished by the fact that I bet we have fewer architects and fewer firms contributing to the National Urban League than any other group in the country. That is probably my fault, and I apologize – you have not been solicited. Next time it will be your fault.)
But, when he told these kids, his boy said, “You’re going to do what?” He repeated it to him. And the boy said, “You mean you’re not going to maximize the profits of J.C. Penney today! You’re not going out this week to undercut Woolworth’s; you’re not going out to see if you can get something a little cheaper and increase the margin of profits of some product?” And he answered, “No.”
The 21-year-old daughter, without saying a word, ran over, hugged, and kissed him with tears in her eyes. He told me, “I never had as much respect and admiration from my kids as I had in that one moment.”
Here is a man who gives his children everything –sports cars, big allowances, clothes, and big tuition. That isn’t what counts. They take that for granted. Here is a man who suddenly became a man with guts, who was concerned about other human beings. Here is a man who is willing to stand up and be counted. That’s what these kids care about.
You talk about communication with these kids. They tell you why you don’t communicate. They tell me you are inconsistent. You tell them they shouldn’t smoke, drink, and pet because everyone else does, that you have your own value system, stand up for what you believe in, do what you know is right. Then, they say, “My mother and my dad never do – they never lift their finger to let a black man in business at the top level, never try to get a neighborhood, into the club or church. They just go along.”
I submit to you that this is a mistake in your role as a parent and human being. If you cannot identify with the kind of thing I described and that the Kerner Commission saw – if you cannot see that it happens even today in this country, if you can’t as a mother and father, you are in worse shape than the victims.
So, what’s at stake is your country, your profession, and you – as a decent human being. Anatole France once said, “I prefer the error of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom.” For a society that has permitted itself the luxury of an excess of callousness and indifference, we can now afford to permit ourselves the luxury of an excess of caring and concern. It is easier to cool a zealot than it is to warm a corporation.
An ancient Greek scholar was once asked to name when the Greeks would achieve victory in Athens. He replied, “We shall achieve victory in Athens and justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.”
And, so shall it be with this problem of human rights in this country. There is something wrong with that kind of society.
By your invitation to me and by your attentiveness to an overly long set of remarks, I am convinced that you are well on your way to becoming as indignant as those who are hurt.
Thank you very much.