JUNE 24, 1957
NEW YORK—I went to the Robert Treat Junior High School in Newark, N.J. last week to give the commencement address.
To reach the school we drove through an area of the town which plainly indicated that the people who lived there were not among the affluent citizens. I found that the majority of the graduating class were colored boys and girls, and some of the teachers told me that their problems lay in the fact that many of these children had no home life or home love they could count on. Poverty alone does not make a home valueless, but poverty coupled with a certain lack of moral and spiritual values can lead to such hopeless economic situations that love and trust is impossible and no security exists for the children.
In spite of this fact, there was an evident sense of achievement at this junior high graduation. Undoubtedly, all the children will at least enter the next grade in high school, though only a few will finish and fewer still will go on to any further education. But to each of these youngsters this particular point of graduation from junior high was a great achievement and a high point in their lives.
The boys were neatly dressed, the girls had somehow acquired a pretty summer dress for the occasion. I was told that because of sad circumstances, one child was threatened with having no suitable dress to wear. Just the night before, however, some friend had gathered together enough cash so she could go into the only neighborhood clothing store and purchase the one dress which fitted her, though it was not very appropriate for the occasion. Nevertheless the child wore it and was saved the humiliation of having no new dress for graduation.
These youngsters have known many of the world's trials and sorrows. They have tried to surmount the greatest of them, which is the lack of the security of real affection. I think the only thing that can give them reassurance is to realize that they live in a country where every individual has certain rights and privileges which no one can take away from them.
All of us live in a land where we can have the opportunity for at least the minimum of education that these children have achieved. We have gradually brought to our cities and rural areas a minimum of sanitation, so that even under the poorest circumstances most of the people are assured of some public sanitation and fairly good care in case of illness. In addition, as we grow older we have the use of our secret ballots to help us put into office people who will gradually recognize the need for better schooling, better housing, better sanitation, so that our next generation may escape some of the evils that this generation now coming to maturity is still suffering from.
Life brings you in return about what you are able to put into it, and these children must learn to discipline themselves and recognize the need of moral and spiritual values so as to use their citizenship to improve their communities and their nation. This is a great deal to expect of them, but that is what their schools are trying to bring them to realize. I hope that the youngsters at this school and in many similar ones in other places will dream dreams and work hard to bring them to fruition.