Remarks at a White House Reception for the National Council of Negro Women

July 28, 1983

Thank you, Dorothy, very much, and thank all of you. And I'm grateful to our Faith Whittlesey [Assistant to the President for Public Liaison] for bringing us all together here.

Nancy and I are delighted to welcome Dorothy Height and the National Council of Negro Women to the White House. I can think of no group that better represents what is good and right and hopeful about America. You have been an important force for progress and opportunity, not just in America but around the world. On behalf of the thousands you've helped and a nation that you've made proud, I thank you. And I especially would like to recognize the superb leadership of your president, Dorothy Height.

Dorothy, you've been quoted as saying, ``We have common problems, common desires and common goals, it's time for us to begin to work on the problems of the world, together.'' Your words have never been more true than they are today. Our country and our people face serious challenges, and our values and families are bearing considerable strain. We need unity, not divisiveness to see us through. If we're to remain strong and free and good, we must not waste the talents of one mind, the muscle of one body, or the potential of a single soul. We need all our people -- men and women, young and old, individuals of every race -- to be healthy, happy, and whole. Our young people must grow up free of drugs; our families must stay together; our people must have jobs; and our elderly must live out their days secure from want and from fear. I know these are your goals, and I share them.

Your Alliance for Volunteerism, as you mentioned, Operation Cope, and the National Collaboration for Children and Youth, to name just a few of your efforts, testify to your commitment. Your willingness to give of yourselves should lift the hearts of all who are tired and discouraged. Dorothy's words, which I know have been an inspiration to you, must become a rallying cry for all Americans who love freedom. We are one family of humankind, and together we can make our dreams real. Obstacles of inequality and discrimination are still great, but our combined determination to overcome them is greater. If we persevere together, we can and we will succeed together.

As women and as blacks, you know better than almost anyone else the difficult problems of discrimination. And through your volunteer work, you are keenly sensitive to the needs of our underpriviledged and disadvantaged. I want to help in your cause. The door to the Oval Office will always be open to Dorothy Height and the members of the National Council of Negro Women.

I have to tell you, though, I'm more than a little self-conscious facing you here and saying these things. There's been such a case made that I am prejudiced, if not an outright bigot, that I find myself wondering if maybe you're thinking that I don't mean what I'm saying, and this is just another dose of political hot air. Well, believe me, it is not. Nothing has frustrated me more than the totally false image that has been created of me.

I've lived a long time, but I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't believe that prejudice and bigotry were the worse of sins. My mother was the kindest person I've ever known and truly believed that we are all brothers and sisters -- children of God. My father was a rough, tough Irishman. He might not have expressed himself the way my mother did -- [laughter] -- but when that great motion picture classic ``The Birth of a Nation'' came to our small town, the two kids in town who didn't get to see it were me and my brother.

That picture, as you know was a classic -- not so much for the subject matter -- it had charted a whole new course in the method of making pictures, and therefore, is still considered today a kind of historic monument. But our father said it was about the Klu Klux Klan, and no one in his family was going to see that picture. And to this day, after more than 25 years in the motion picture industry, I haven't seen it, and I don't intend to.

From boyhood on, the way we were raised, my brother and I challenged every time we ran across it -- the, sometime, the customs of the times, customs that we're doing away with -- may not have succeeded entirely; but, oh, what changes we've made since those days when I was a boy.

As a radio sports announcer almost 50 years ago, I used to speak out on the air against the then ban on blacks in organized baseball. And before that, playing college football, a little school in the Midwest, my closest teammate and buddy down there in the center of the line -- he was center and I was right guard -- was a man named Franklin Burghardt. Burky was black. He went on to become the athletic director of Morgan State University in Baltimore. And I have thanked the Lord many times that we were reunited after many years of being apart -- although we kept in correspondence -- but back here, shortly before he was to end his life, and that Nancy and I could have he and his wife as guests here in this house that belongs to all the people.

I have to tell you just one little thing about how much Burky meant to us. In those days, not very many got to college, and if you did it was because you could play football or something, which is how I got there. [Laughter] But we were playing a game one day and -- with the score 14 to nothing against us and only 2 minutes left in the first half. The other team, who wasn't blessed with having someone like Burky on their team, began to pick on him for the reasons that were more obvious then than they are today. And to give you an indication of what we all thought of Burky, we ended the half 14 to 14 and ended the game 43 to 14. [Laughter] He was quite a man.

As Governor in California, I broke a subtle barrier that had made it virtually impossible for blacks to rise above the very lowest civil service positions in State government. We increased by 60 percent the number who held supervisory positions and appointed to executive and policymaking positions more minority members than all the previous Governors of California put together.

I intended and am going to tell just some of the things that -- well, forgive me for taking the time to say this; but, as I said, I've been frustrated by all the demagogic image-making of the last couple of years. Now, let me tell you just some of the things we're doing in this administration and some of the things that we hope to do.

It's no secret that we're trying to reduce the cost of government, but not, as some have charged, at the expense of government's real responsibilities. Our budget calls for spending $632.2 million for Federal civil rights activities in 1984. And that is more than a 24-percent increase over the last year of the previous administration.

As evidence of our commitment to equal employment opportunity, we are fighting well over a hundred ongoing cases throughout the country against public employers charged with discriminating against minorities. In fiscal year 1982 alone, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission obtained more than $134 million in back pay for victims of employee discrimination, a 74-percent increase over the last year of the previous administration.

But there are two sides to government's responsibility to provide opportunity. One is a fairminded and vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, and that's what we're doing. But enforcement alone will not create the jobs our people need so badly. What will create jobs is a healthy and growing economy. We can all find hope in the strength of the economic recovery that has begun, and I assure you this: We intend to see that every American, regardless of race, religion, or gender, benefits from that recovery.

Our minority youth, as you're only too painfully aware, are suffering nearly a 40-percent unemployment rate. To combat that, the Department of Housing and Urban Development last month launched the Minority Youth Training Initiative, a nationwide demonstration involving partnerships between city government, local private industry councils, and public housing authorities. This project will train minority youths in 20 cities for entry-level jobs in the public and private housing field. As many as 14,000 disadvantaged young people will be taught housing management and maintenance skills.

Also, our summer youth employment program has a budget of more than $800 million -- an increase of a hundred million dollars over last year -- to provide more than 800,000 summer jobs for young people throughout the United States. In fact, just last week here in the Rose Garden we found another $800,000 -- well, we didn't find it in the Rose Garden. [Laughter] We're not that careless! We found it over at the Labor Department -- [laughter] -- and in the Rose Garden we gave it to Mayor Barry for more youth jobs here in the District of Columbia. We've put in place a tax credit program that gives employers who hire eligible teenagers a credit for up to 85 percent of their wages. And we've made a special effort this summer to focus the attention of business and industry on the difficulties of minority youth. The White House Office of Private Sector Initiatives and the National Alliance of Business have worked hard to give these young people the chance they deserve. And I have been told that so far this summer nationwide summertime employment for young people is up 20 percent.

With Nancy's prodding and assistance, we've run up a battleflag on drug abuse. Drugs are a scourge of inner-city life, as you know so well. They can snuff out the bright prospects of a young person before he or she gets a chance to become an adult. We're implementing a tough, new enforcement strategy for the first time, coordinating the efforts of nine departments and 33 government agencies. There'll be no excuses. Drugs are bad, and we're going after them, and we're going to win.

To fight housing discrimination, we've put real teeth into the fair housing law by introducing legislation to give the Federal Government, for the first time, legal authority to protect people from housing discrimination. We believe that all Americans should be free to choose where to make their homes. If our proposed amendments are passed by the Congress, heavy financial penalties will be levied for the first time against those who practice bigotry and discrimination in housing.

We also believe that a good, solid education is the right of every child in our land. It is a vital, first step to opportunity, the means by which Amercian families traditionally have made life better for themselves and for generations who followed. And that's why we've launched a national campaign to improve the quality of America's classrooms and have begun to outline an agenda for excellence in education that will leave no child behind. We are also aggressively combating segregation in schools. The Justice Department, for example, has recently taken legal action against one State, charging discrimination in its higher education system.

And, again, speaking of my frustration, I've seen the news stories that, well, this is all a grandstand stunt by us, because next year is an election year. Well, we have authorized for filing three school desegregation cases, more than was authorized by the previous administration during its first 30 months in office.

I'm also proud to note that our administration recognized the educational significance of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, an institution that has trained more than 40 percent of all the black physicians in America. Earlier this year we authorized the expenditure of more than $30 million so that Meharry Medical College can continue its historic service to the Nation. This commitment of resources by government will help to ensure that Meharry Medical College can continue as a major educational resource for primary-care physicians. It was in deep trouble, and we were very proud and happy to be able to set it on its course.

We've also proposed the longest extension of the life of the Civil Rights Commission in its history -- 20 years -- and nominated individuals to serve on that body whose strong credentials will assure its independence.

I could go on and on, but I don't think you want me to -- or need me to read a long laundry list of accomplishments. If you like, I can provide more details for you later. [Laughter] But let me assure you, I hear your call. With your help, this administration will continue to respond not just with words but with action.

Now, you may not have heard much about our commitment, but take it from an informed White House source -- [laughter] -- who doesn't have to be nameless that we will continue to build a record that proves it.

Your founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, once said that black people in America only want what other Americans want -- an opportunity to make real what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights say, what the Four Freedoms establish. She said black people only want an equal chance to realize those ideals. And that's why we're eager to work with you, the organization that she founded on the premise that while government can assure equal treatment, government alone cannot provide that equal chance. That's the important work of families and communities and of organizations such as your own.

Let me say again, my door is open, and so is Faith Whittlesey's. Let's make this meeting the beginning of a lasting, positive relationship. We may not always agree on every detail, but together we can make this land we all love a better, freer place for our children and our children's children.

Now, I've used up more than my share of the schedule, so I'll just thank you for being here with us today, and I do look forward to working with you. And God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 5:09 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.