“Break mirrors…Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own.” R. Sargent Shriver
On January 18th, the National Urban League, America and all who love peace, freedom and justice around the world lost a great champion with the passing of R. Sargent Shriver. Sarge, as he was affectionately called, is best known as the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy and the first director of the Peace Corps. But he was so much more. In the 1960s, at a time when the civil rights community desperately needed a friend in the White House, Sargent Shriver exceeded expectations by becoming the indispensable architect of the Great Society.
His may not have been a household name, but if you know Head Start, or Legal Services, you know Sargent Shriver. If you know anyone who has gotten a chance to turn his or her life around through programs like Job Corps, Upward Bound or VISTA, you know Sargent Shriver. If you believe in the power of Foster Grandparents or Special Olympians, you know Sarge. As Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Lyndon Johnson White House, Sargent Shriver created these and many other Great Society programs to end poverty and inequality in America. On a personal note, one of the proudest moments of my career came in 2004 when I received the Sargent Shriver Award for Equal Justice from the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
National Urban League President Whitney M. Young, Jr. had already attracted the attention of the Johnson White House as a leader of the 1963 March on Washington. Young had also called for “a domestic Marshall Plan” to eliminate the debilitating effects of decades of discrimination and neglect in Black America. His idea took root in the Johnson White House as the War on Poverty, headed by R. Sargent Shriver.
As a member of Shriver’s National Advisory Council in the War on Poverty, Whitney Young became a trusted advisor to President Johnson and played a leading role in the creation of a number of the anti-poverty programs that emerged during that time. In fact a number of Job Corps sites, including the Whitney M. Young Jobs Corps Center in Philadelphia, are named in honor of Young’s tireless support for the program. Young once said, “Job Corps graduates, even if they never make much more than the minimum wage, will pay taxes totaling double their training costs. It costs five times more to maintain a man in prison than it does to keep him in school. Increasingly it becomes clear that the question is not Can we afford it? But can we afford not to end poverty and deprivation?"
That question still haunts us today as the National Urban League continues to make an urgent plea for action in the wake of a crushing 15.8 percent unemployment rate in Black America. In these austere times, our budget choices must mirror our commitment to make the American Dream real for every citizen who is willing to work for it.
Sargent Shriver and Whitney Young both understood that discrimination and poverty were at the root of inequality in America. We can best honor Shriver’s legacy by answering his call to service and building on the progress that he, Whitney Young and so many others fought so hard to achieve. We must never abandon their goal of ending poverty in the richest nation on earth.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.