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Remarks by Telephone to the Convention of the United Automobile Workers.

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government Topics:  UAW

Remarks by Telephone to the Convention of the United Automobile Workers.

President Lyndon B. Johnson
May 20, 1966

Mr. Reuther, Secretary Wirtz, my fellow Americans:

Thank you very much, Walter. I heard the nice things you had to say and although I don't deserve them, I appreciate them very much.

I am honored to receive this award. I accept it from you and I accept it for you. No group in America has done more for the cause of social justice than the UAW and no leader has shown more competence or courage in that cause than has Walter Reuther.

I know that you are enlisted in the struggle for human freedom and social justice here and abroad. And it is for those goals that we struggle tonight in South Vietnam, to give the people of that country a chance to make their own choices, under a constitutional process they are now preparing, free from the tyranny and the terror which others would impose upon them by brutal force.

Despite the tests that we have in the world tonight, and despite the burdens which each morning brings to the President of the United States, I want to talk to you tonight, at your invitation, and I want to talk as an optimist.

At any given moment over the past two centuries, observers of American life were convinced that the United States was about to come apart at the seams. Yet, we have survived crisis after crisis--even the appalling impact of a civil war in which the death toll matched in population terms that of Britain in World War I. Not only have we survived, but we have managed to transform ourselves from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrial nation while expanding the meaning of our ancient heritage of freedom.

At every stage along the way there were those who said the tasks were impossible.

They said that the immigrant could never be assimilated into American life. They said he would always remain a stranger in our midst. But they were wrong!

They said the Catholic and the Jew would perpetually stand outside the door. But they were wrong!

They said the workingman would never be given full economic citizenship. And again they were wrong!

Time and time again we have been told that the American people were incapable of making compassionate adjustments, that they were prisoners of past prejudices and past grievances. History has proven those claims were wrong, too.

So this week we celebrate the 12th anniversary of the Supreme Court's epic decision that our schools should be colorblind.1 That decision triggered a debate which has been running ever since, and it continues tonight.

1On May 17, 1954, the Court, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., and related cases, declared racial segregation in the public schools unconstitutional. The text of the decision is printed in United States Supreme Court Reports, 1954 (349 U.S. 294, 99 L. Ed. 1083).

Can the American people overcome the burdens of old divisions and old hatreds? Can they welcome the Negro as a full member, a sharing partner of our society?

The answer to that question just must be yes; and I believe it will be yes.

Twelve years have passed since that historic decision of 1954. What has happened is the chronicle of a people beginning to realize that what is written in the books of their laws should also be written in the daily chapters of their lives.

What has happened is the testimony of a people who are learning, however slowly, that to be born equal is God's doing; to live equal is up to us.

I do not believe that we will turn from the pursuit of social justice. I say that knowing that even at this moment we have very bitter evidence of how far we are from its full attainment. But the lesson of 12 years is that compassion, when it ceases to be a cliche of the platform and the pulpit, can become the binding cement of a new fraternity.

This is the time for bridges to be built, not for antagonisms to be aroused. This is the time for those to act who have the power to change what just must be changed. For privilege is power, and its misuse, especially to uphold an unjust status quo grown obsolete, is a dangerous wrong.

It is the time, too, for passion to bow to reason. The gains since 1954 must be steppingstones to greater fulfillment, not future reminders of what might have been.

I am not an optimist tonight because I see no more anguish, no more heartache, and no more reverses. As surely as the stream flows to the ocean will the search for social justice in America always continue to be a painful quest. But more than 30 years of public life have convinced me that social justice for all Americans, even if slow, is certain, and you--you who make up the men and women of the UAW--can help to hasten the day when that social justice comes.

The days of uproarious industrial conflicts are behind us--the days of flamboyant heroes and identifiable villains, of the rhetoric of "scabs" and "sitdowns" and "shutouts" and "yellow-dog contracts"--those were days of drama and combat, and I know some men who lament their passing.

But what labor has lost in drama, it has gained in solid achievement. What were dreams during the New Deal, job security and social security, unemployment compensation, Medicare, good wages, have come true today.

The income of our workers is up 33 percent in the last 5 years alone. The true purchasing power of today's factory worker is just 300 percent of its 1932 level.

The children of labor no longer have to take second- or third-best in educational opportunities, and the resources that we have poured into education have created jobs in construction and allied industries and produced better trained citizens who can command higher salaries, and who demand more goods and services, including automobiles.

All of our programs to improve the life of the American people, from the rebuilding of our cities to the preservation of our beauty, have been national fringe benefits for the laboring man.

Well, what now?

I hope this country, and I hope the UAW, is never content. We must go on now to a new agenda. We must administer the programs that we have passed. We must just do that job well, and it is going to be more difficult administering them by the executive branch than it was legislating them by the congressional branch.

This does not mean that we must ease up on work that is started but is far from finished. I have already said that civil rights and social justice are never achieved by just passing a law. Poverty is never wiped out just because we declare war on it.

One test of American liberalism is whether we stick with these jobs when the opposition is broken and when the headlines move to the back page. But there must be new business to tackle, too, and the time to start that business is tonight

So let's all of us start thinking in a big way, as UAW does things in a big way. Let's start thinking about education without the binding assumption that education is only for children. There should be large-scale educational opportunities on a continuing basis, especially for those who did not get their share of education when they were young.

Let's start thinking as hard about underemployment as we have been thinking and working to reduce unemployment. Our goal ought to be not just any job for everybody, but a job that uses all that every man and woman has to offer. So let's start thinking about full potential as we have thought about full employment.

The way we measure it, unemployment is almost down to 3 1/2 percent, and we are very proud of cutting it about in half in the past 5 years since John Kennedy took the oath as President. But the rest of the truth is that we are probably using no more than half of the human potential in this country.

Yes, we talk about manpower shortages. They are only the result of our failure to train people to use more than just a small part of their talent. We waste manpower all over this country. We let seasonal unemployment happen as though nothing could be done about it. We watch shortages of labor develop in some areas when there is unemployment in others not far away.

As I speak to you there in California tonight, only a few miles from you thousands of untrained youngsters roam the streets without work, while factories in their area have jobs going begging because they do not have manpower.

So let's ask some hard questions, questions about the adequacy for the next decade of a true national labor policy that is built almost entirely on a program that was developed to meet the depression of the thirties.

Do you know that three out of every four Government employees tonight, State and local, who are now administering labor programs, are working in unemployment insurance and employment service offices? Only one in four is working on all the other labor programs put together.

Now, let's face it squarely, that a serious default of social policy and social justice is the inadequacy of the attention that we give to the potential of our older people. We just haven't started to think honestly about how to give meaning to that part of life which lies beyond the age of 60 or 65, or 70. So let's all of us begin to work to build a whole new ideal of what ought to be the meaning of growing old. Our concept tonight is still cushioned by the problems of the thirties.

So let's all of us start paying as much attention as you have in the UAW to the uses of our free time, to the building of parks and recreation areas, to the saving of our rivers, to cleaning our air, to the beautifying of our land.

Let's start paying as much attention to these things as we have to the uses of labor. Let's start thinking more soberly and realistically about the fact that ours isn't a roller coaster economy any more. It doesn't depend on the stock market and it doesn't and it must not depend on war.

This is just not labor's agenda. It is all America's agenda. As Samuel Gompers used to say, "We do not value the labor movement only for its ability to give higher wages and better clothes and better homes. We value the labor movement because your purposes are human purposes, your scope is the limitless potential of human beings."

This is the face of social justice.

As we tackle these problems, and as we strive with all our might to realize for every citizen real membership in American society, we will learn what was learned 100 years ago by a very small group of Philadelphia citizens who set out to secure for Negroes the right to ride street cars. The report of their committee said:

"Thus now, as always, the evils which men fear they shall be called upon to encounter as a result of doing what is just and humane are discovered, when they are really encountered, not to be evils at all, but to be blessings pure and simple."

There are many blessings awaiting us. Under the leadership of the UAW we have brought many of those blessings to the people of this Nation.

Tonight we have in our budget $10 billion more for health and education than we had in our budget when I became President only 2 1/2 years ago. Your leadership and your locals helped to make that drive successful, but we are just beginning.

We have realized the things that the liberals have talked about and dreamed about for many years. Most of their programs tonight are on the statute books. So some of us seem to be a little bit frustrated. We don't need to stop, though.

What we really need to do is to roll up out sleeves, command the best among us to come and take charge of sound and solid administration of all these new programs from Medicare to elementary education, to see that they are applied equally to all Americans--and then to lay out a new agenda that will command the attention and the support of all good Americans.

That agenda awaits work from all of us. It will beautify our countryside. It will develop our highways. It will bring seashores and parks and playgrounds close to our cities where most of our people are going to live.

There is much left for all of us to do and I hope as you meet there in California with Walter Reuther and Secretary Wirtz and the other great leaders who counsel with me, that you will evolve a program that we can consider and put on the agenda and start to Work on.

The Vice President and I met tonight for more than 2 hours with Secretary Rusk and Secretary Acheson and Secretary McNamara and others talking about the future of America. We have a bright future before us. We wish we could be there with you to see you in person to talk about it, but under the circumstances we did not think that was advisable, so I hope you will forgive me and forget that I had planned to come.

I look forward to seeing you, and those of you at the convention that can come with Mr. Walter Reuther to the White House to visit with me at some time convenient in the next few weeks. I am proud of the contribution that you have made to good government in this country and I thank you for the support that you have given this administration.

Note: The President spoke by telephone at 11:12 p.m. from the Cabinet Room at the White House to the Convention in Long Beach, Calif. His opening words referred to Walter Reuther, President of the United Automobile Workers of America, and to W. Willard Wirtz, Secretary of Labor, who represented the President at the 30th Anniversary Rally of the trade union. During his remarks the President referred to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, and Dean Acheson, former Secretary of State (1949-53) and Special Adviser to the Secretary of State on France and NATO March 15--June 27, 1966.

The award to which the President referred was the union's Social Justice Award conferred every 2 years at its national convention. Mr. Routher, speaking prior to the President's remarks, noted that it is given to "great Americans for their contribution in extending the frontiers of social justice and human betterment." He then read the inscription on the plaque awarded to the President:

"UAW Social Justice Award. To President Lyndon B. Johnson, Architect of the Great Society, with Admiration, Affection and Deep Appreciation for Your Contribution in Extending the Frontiers of Social Justice and Human Betterment. You have demonstrated the courage to oppose what is wrong and the compassion to do what is right. You have worked with dedication and determination to lift the burden of fear and insecurity from the aged and the sick, to broaden educational opportunities for the young, to remove the ugly barriers of discrimination and to abolish poverty so that all may share in the blessings of abundance. Under your inspired leadership America can build a better tomorrow in which men are more concerned about the quality of their goals than the quality of their goods, in which the rising star of science and technology can serve man's peaceful purposes and in which man's ancient dream of a world with peace, freedom, justice and human brotherhood can be brought to practical fulfillment.

"Presented on behalf of the Officers, Executive Board Members and UAW Members on the occasion of the 20th Constitutional Convention of the UAW, Long Beach, California, May 20, 1966."

The plaque was presented to the President at the White House by Mr. Reuther on the evening of February 20, 1967.

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