Public Papers of Jimmy Carter, 1980-1981

Author: Jimmy Carter  | Date: January 27, 1980

Leadership Conference on
Civil Rights Remarks at the Annual Hubert H. Humphrey Award Dinner.
January 27, 1980

On the way over here, I was trying to think of a story to illustrate the changes that have taken place in the last 30 years. The only one I could think of was one that our Sunday school teacher told us the first Sunday in January; about a very meek, quiet little bookkeeper and his wife who were driving along at night, and they were late getting to their hotel.

He was quite nervous, because he didn’t like to be out at night. And he had a flat tire on a lonely part of the road. And when he got out to fix it, he opened the trunk of the car and the jack was missing. He immediately blamed it on his wife; they had quite an argument. Finally she slammed the door, and he looked through the window and said, "Well, what are we going to do?" She said, "Well, we passed a service station about 3 miles back down the road. Why don’t you walk back there and borrow a jack?" He was quite nervous and quite afraid, but he couldn’t talk his wife into going back— [laughter] —so he went alone.

And as he walked down the road towards the service station, he began to think to himself. He said, "I bet that lazy service station keeper has closed up since we passed and won’t be there to let me have a jack." And he thought about that for awhile. And then later on he said, "Well, I bet if he’s open, he’ll say that it’s too late at night, and he can’t help me at all—typical of service station operators," he said. He walked a little bit further, and, as he approached the station, he said, "I bet if he does have a jack and if he will let me have it, he’s going to charge me a fortune for it and cheat me—I’m just sure he will."

So, he walked in the service station, and this very nice guy came up and said, "Good evening, friend, what can I do to help you?" And the little guy drew back and busted him right in the nose and said, "Keep your jack, I didn’t want it anyhow." [Laughter]

Well, sometimes, within a society, there is an expectation that is so low that there’s a lashing out and an alienation and a lack of trust and a lack of progress, and hopes and dreams cannot be realized, and the strength of a society can’t be provided for those who need it most.

Thirty years ago this organization was formed with some very difficult tasks, but fairly clear tasks: to stop lynching, to permit black citizens to vote, and to let little black children go to school. It wasn’t easy, those goals. History proved it wasn’t. But the task was simple: to stop legally condoned murder and legally condoned discrimination and legally condoned deprivation of the right of a human being in a free society under the United States Constitution to have an equal right to a quality life.

That was also a time of fragmentation-racial fragmentation, regional fragmentation, religious fragmentation—and it’s almost a miracle in retrospect that 150 different organizations could have come together and stayed together, as has been the case in this Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. But what held this group together was the yearning to raisehigh a banner for the poor and the deprived and the inarticulate and the timid. And that was such a noble goal that it kind of cut through the natural inclination to separate and to seek credit for the achievements, ultimately, that were realized.

Tonight, two great men are being honored who, in a different way, both personify the strength of this organization. George Meany was a poor young man. He dropped out of high school. He served 5 years as an apprentice and then, through no fault of his own, failed to pass the journeyman’s examination. But one thing he never learned and that was how to give up; and one thing he never forgot was how it feels to be poor. I doubt that without George Meany, without the AFLCIO, that the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 would ever have been passed. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

Woodrow Wilson said that a nation is great and only as great as its rank and file; and I don’t know, in my own experience, of any person who better understood and better served the rank-and-file Americans, about whom all of you have been so deeply concerned, as did George Meany.

Clarence Mitchell is the symbol of the strength of this organization. A modest man, he’s always eager to give other people credit, as he did a few minutes ago. This is a night to honor him. He, in an excessive degree of generosity, tried to give me credit for things; that’s typical of him. But he’s always had an incisive mind, and he’s always known how to organize, and he’s always known how to be successful. And the reason he has been successful is that he’s been eager to give other people credit for what he himself has accomplished.

He’s never grasped for recognition or for anything for himself. He’s always grasped for a new life for those who depended on him, and he’s never betrayed their trust. It’s not a conflict with what I said recently when I tell you that every single piece of civil rights legislation passed in the last 25 years was passed because of Clarence Mitchell, and without him, it could not have been done.

I think when the history of the civil rights movement and the history of the achievement of human rights in this country is written, it could not possibly be done without including the history of Clarence Mitchell and his absolutely remarkable family.

Another bit of history that comes to my mind is that, 1968, this country had a chance to elect a President who would have devoted his boundless energy to another quantum jump in the enhancement of human rights in our country—Hubert Humphrey. But a strange set of circumstances militated against that. It was a time of war and division because of war. It was a time of assassination and deep concern and division because of assassination. It was a time of burning cities, as people lashed out one against another in a spirit of frustration.

And our Democratic Party was fragmented, and there were some jealousies there. And Hubert Humphrey was not elected, a tragedy for our country. But he didn’t let that dampen his spirit, and he kept raising high the banner, as he said, "Walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." And in the last 3 years, with the help of all of you, that’s what we’ve tried to do.

The field is still ripe for the harvest. The passage of the civil rights legislation that’s already on the books is just a first step. Women, Hispanics, blacks, the poor, the elderly still wait for true equality in our land of the equal.
In the last 3 years, we haven’t done verymuch, but we’ve begun, again, to realize the dreams of Hubert Humphrey, George Meany, Clarence Mitchell and others like them assembled in this room. More women, more blacks, more Hispanics have been appointed to the Federal courts than in all the previous administrations in the history of our country. Of the 32 women who now serve on the Federal courts, 28 of them were appointed in the last 3 years. But the point is, that’s still just a beginning.

When I was sworn in as President, there was not a single U.S. attorney in this Nation who was a woman. Drew Days, head of the Civil Rights Division, is now working hard to establish into the structure of society the benefits derived from the great and historic civil rights legislation, the Bakke case, the Weber case. The stamping out of an embryonic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan blight on our society is part of his responsibility, and he’s doing a good job with it.

The Vice President, the members of my Cabinet represent, I believe—every single one of them—the ambitions and the hopes and ideals of this group in the room. Eleanor Holmes Norton, in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has revamped its structure to make it more efficient. What used to be a backlog of 30,000 claims has now been reduced. It used to take at least 2 years to get one claim through that horrible obstruction. Now the average is less than 2 months.

Great needs still exist. There are areas in our country that has an unemployment rate of 35, 40, 45 percent among minority youth. We’ve created new jobs, 9 million of them. The employment among black citizens has increased 15 percent, 4 percent higher than the increase in employment for the general population of our country. But we still have an awful long way to go.

Education and jobs has not yet been matched with one another. Thirty years ago, only one-third of the jobs in our country did not require a high school education. Now, only one-eleventh of the jobs don’t require a high school education. And the dropout rate is still extraordinarily high.

We’ve been working for the last year to try to deal with this pernicious problem. And in the 1981 budget, we’re asking for a massive commitment to employment among young people—18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years old—with the emphasis on minority youth. It’s a challenge to us because it has not yet gone through the Congress. It’s a very expensive program. It will combine remedial training at the junior high school level, for those that are still in school, combined with a job in private industry, and for those that have already dropped out, also an opportunity for a job, with an emphasis on training to hold that job permanently. It will add another 450,000 jobs for young people.

This is needed, but we should never forget, those of us in this room who are fairly affluent and fairly influential, who are not deprived, what Martin Luther King, Jr., says when he commented it’s not good for those to ask blacks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when they don’t notice that the black is barefoot. There are a lot of barefoot people in our country still, and they are looking to you and me to alleviate their problems. I doubt if we’ll ever see again any official-minded bus driver making blacks move to the back end of the bus. But we’re not going to be satisfied with blacks and Hispanics and women driving the bus—we want to see them own the bus company.

Well, a lot of benefits have been derived from what this group has done long beforeI came to Washington. I think our foreign policy has been transformed with Andy Young’s help and with Don McHenry’s help, and those who serve around the world as Ambassadors who happen to be black or Hispanic, who understand the special problems of those who are and who have suffered from a history of deprivation.

The tremendous votes that took place recently in the United Nations contradicts the historical tone, when the small nations and the new nations and the weak nations and those who represented populations with black and brown and yellow people supported our position with our hostages in Iran and who condemned the Soviet Union for their invasion of Afghanistan. That would likely not have been the case a few years ago.

This year, we’re going to have a White House Conference on Families. And I want to be sure that families are strengthened, and I hope that all of you will participate and make sure that the structure of that conference will be designed for that noble purpose. And we’ve still got problems with the elderly. A wise man said, "I never have understood how a father could take care of 12 sons, and 12 sons can’t take care of one father." And we’ve got to get the equal rights amendment passed, as Lane beat me to my punch line, but I want to add my voice. And instead of Clarence Mitchell remaining as the 101st Senator, we Want him to be the 103d Senator, because we want to get 2 from the District of Columbia.

Well, the point I want to make in closing is this: This group has led our country through 30 years of change—change for the better, change under the most difficult circumstances—giving new hope to those who were hopeless and a new chance to those who thought their whole lives would be blighted with racial discrimination. We’ve made a lot of progress; there have been ups and downs; it has not been smooth. We are now trying again to raise that banner high and to move forward rapidly into the sunshine of human rights and let Hubert Humphrey’s dream come true.

The road is still not easy. There is a tone in this Nation that’s not as committed to the enhancement of civil rights, human rights, as I would like to see. You can tell it in the Congress.

The battle for fair housing legislation is not going to be easy. And some of the legislation that George Meany and Lane Kirkland and Clarence Mitchell have worked with me to achieve has not yet been achieved. But I would like to say, on behalf of a grateful nation, that we appreciate what you have done, and the exemplification of your great achievement in the lives of two fine men, George Meany, an honoree tonight, and Clarence Mitchell, an honoree tonight.

I want us to recommit ourselves this evening not to betray the noble ideals that they espouse, and to let us lead our country forward and upward into the realization of those dreams which made this organization possible and made your great achievements such a blessing to our Nation and to all other countries on Earth who look to us for leadership, and with justifiable admiration. I want to make the greatest nation on Earth even greater in the future with your help.
Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9:33 p.m. in the Presidential Ballroom at the Capital Hilton Hotel.

Prior to the President’s remarks, former Senator Muriel Humphrey presented awards to Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, on behalf of the late George Meany, and Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.