Address at Michigan State University

April 11, 1968


East Lansing, MI

At the outset we must make it unmistakably clear: A violent few cannot be permitted to threaten the lives and well-being of the many, not lawless gangs disrupt the peace of our cities and the hopes of their fellows for progress. But history offers cold comfort to those who think grievance and despair can be subdued by force.

To understand is not to permit. But to fail to understand is the surest guarantee of a mounting strife which will assault the well-being of every citizen. And therefore…the first task before us, is this: an effort to understand. For the division between black and white is not the result of a failure of compassion, or of the American sense of justice. It is the failure of communication and vision.

We live in different worlds and gaze out over a different landscape. Through the eyes of the white majority, the Negro world is one of steady and continuous progress. In a few years, he has seen the entire structure of discriminatory legislation torn down. He has heard presidents become spokesmen for racial justice, while black Americans enter the cabinet and the Supreme Court. The white American has paid taxes for property and education programs, and watched his children risk their lives to register voters in Alabama. Seeing this, he asks, What cause can there be for violent insurrection, of dissatisfaction with present progress? But if we try to look through the eyes of the young slum dweller—the Negro, and the Puerto Rican, and the Mexican American—the world is a dark and hopeless place indeed.

Let us look for a moment. The chances are that he was born into a family without a father, often as a result of welfare laws which require a broken home as a condition for help. I have seen, in my own state of New York, these children crowded with adults into one of two rooms, without adequate plumbing or heat, each night trying to defend against marauding rats.

The growing child goes to a school which teaches little that helps him in an alien world. The chances are seven of ten that he will not graduate from high school; and even when he does, he has a fifty-fifty chance of acquiring only as much as the equivalent of an eighth-grade education.

A young college graduate who taught in a ghetto school sums it up this way: “The books are junk, the paint peels, the cellar stinks, the teachers call you nigger, the windows fall on your head.”

Most important, the people of the ghetto live today with an unemployment rate far worse than the rest of the nation knew during the depths of the Great Depression…

And let us be clear that all this is true despite the laws, despite the programs, despite all the speeches and promises of the last seven years. It must be for us a cruel and humbling fact—but it is a fact nonetheless—that our efforts have not even maintained the problem as it was: Economic and social conditions in these areas, says the Department of Labor, are growing worse, not better.

But this not all the young man of the ghetto can see. Every day, as the years pass, and he becomes aware that there is nothing at the end of the road, he watches the rest of us go from peak to new peak of comfort. A few blocks away or on his television set, the young Negro of the slums sees the multiplying marvels of white America: more new cars and more summer vacations, more air-conditioned homes and neatly kept lawns. But he cannot buy them.

He is told that Negroes are making progress. But what can that mean to him? He cannot experience the progress of others, not should be seriously expect him to feel grateful because he is no longer a slave, or because he can vote, or eat at some lunch counters. He sees only the misery of his present and the darkening years ahead. Others tell him to work his way up as other minorities have done; and so he must. For he knows and we know, that only by his own efforts and his own labor will the Negro come to full equality.

But how is he to work? The jobs have fled to the suburbs or been replaced by machines, or have flown beyond the reach of those with limited education and skills…

And thus, the black American youth is powerless to change his place or to make a better one for his children. He is denied the most fundamental of human needs: the need for identity, for recognition as a citizen and as a man.

Here, and not in the pitiful charade of revolutionary oratory, is the breeding ground of reverse racism, and of aimless hostility and of violence. The violent youth of the ghetto is not simply protesting his condition but making a destructive and self-defeating attempt to assert his worth and dignity as a human being, to tell us that though we may scorn his contribution, we must still respect his power…

We must not commit ourselves to the proposition that as funds begin to be released from Vietnam, they will come home to the service of our domestic peace. We have to begin planning now the rebuilding effort to come. And if, from the outset, we seek the full participation of the people of the other America in this initial effort, then I believe they will understand, as we know, that everything cannot be done at once. They want not promises which cannot be met, but genuine commitment to achievable goals. We must make that commitment, and plan seriously for its fulfillment with them. That is a place to begin.

Let us, then, turn to our cities, where so much is promised, so much undone, so much threatened. There is work here for all—in the service of the most urgent public needs of the nation; work that will benefit white and black, fortunate and deprived alike. City hospitals and school classrooms are overcrowded and outdated everywhere; tens of thousands of young men and women cannot attend college because there simply is no room. In fact, the inventory is almost infinite: parks and playgrounds to be built, public facilities to be renovated, new transportation networks to be established, rivers and beaches to be cleansed of filth and again made fit for human use. And to all this must be added the demand of an expanding economy for a growing nation.

Now, with all this to be done, let us stop thinking of the poor—the dropouts, the unemployed, those in welfare, and those who work for poverty wages—as liabilities. Let us see them for what they are: valuable resources, as people whose work can be directed to call these tasks to be done within our cities and within the nation.