Past Speakers of the: LANDON LECTURES

Landon Lecture by Carl T. Rowan,

Nov. 18, 1976

by Carl T. Rowan

Thank you very much, President Acker, Governor Landon, distinguished guests, members of the Kansas State community.

I know you wonder why anybody would travel half way across country to give a speech. I do it because I love to hear the introductions.

I can guarantee you that for a syndicated columnist that's about the only time anybody says anything nice about you.

I surely angered a few readers during the campaign. I must really have upset this woman in Detroit who sent me a letter saying "Dear Mr. Rowan: Life for you must be a terrible burden, being black and stupid at the same time."

Well, I answered her, as I do all my reasonable mail. I said, "Dear Madam: Life for you can't possibly be so great a burden since you obviously have only half my problem."

I get my quota of mail like that; so it's always a pleasure to have someone think enough of you to ask you to come out and give a speech in a series named after this distinguished citizen and public servant, Governor Landon.

I'm particularly proud to have been asked since it brings me back to a state where I got some of my first good breaks when I was an 18-year-old Navy V-12 student at Washburn University in Topeka. That was a lot longer ago than I care to think about or ought to talk about.

I'm glad that also I get a chance to say a few words in retrospect about our presidential election.

There was a time when the campaign seemed so dreary that I thought there'd be nothing to talk about. It seemed the only thing I'd get out of it would be a few bad Butz jokes and maybe a clever new line from Jimmy Carter.

I was at the embassy of Iran for dinner the other evening and there was a lovely young lady sitting at my left, I turned to her and said, "You know, God will forgive me for what I'm thinking in my heart."

I later discovered that my wife isn't nearly as forgiving as God is.

But, we got a little something else out of that election. One thing is Jimmy Carter, as the president elect of these United States. And I know that virtually every citizen in the land is asking what will it all mean?

Well I don't pretend to know; but I've come today with a few clues and a little bit of analysis as to what I think it might mean.

And I start out by looking back at some of the things Jimmy Carter said early on.

I can remember him standing up in New York saying that "too many have had to suffer at the hands of a political and economic elite who have shaped decisions and never had to account for mistakes nor to suffer from injustice. When unemployment prevails they never stand in line looking for a job. When deprivation results from a confused and bewildering welfaie system they never go without food or clothing or a place to sleep." And I remember him saying that "it's time for a complete overhaul of our income tax system; I still tell you it's a disgrace to the human race."

I recall him saying "it's time for a nationwide comprehensive health care program for all our people," and I remember him saying "it's time to guarantee an end to discrimination because of race or sex by full involvement in the decision-making processes of government ... by those who know what it is to suffer from discrimination." Well, you listened to those speeches and you began to realize that if Mr. Carter takes himself seriously he's got an awful lot to do in the next few months and the next four years.

I suppose that the way politics goes in the United States these days, you can tell a politician by the people he owes.

Now Mr. Carter likes to say that he got elected without owing anybody anything. Or that he owes fewer people than any man ever elected to the presidency. Well, I chuckle a little bit there because I think Mr. Carter owes an awful lot of people, and it will be interesting to look at how he got elected to the presidency.

For example, organized labor very clearly feels that Mr. Carter owes it something. Organized labor feels that it got out the vote in those crucial states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. And part of the payoff may be Leonard Woodcock as the next secretary of Health, Education and Welfare; or George Meany getting more or less the right to name the next secretary of labor. But that isn't all labor wants and I'm going to talk a little about what labor says is its due bill a little bit later.

But you've got Abe Beame up in New York saying that he deserves the responsibility for winning New York and Mayor Rizzo says that if his organization hadn't gotten the vote out in Philadelphia, Mr. Carter wouldn't have won Pennsylvania.

And you've got mayors all over the place reminding Mr. Carter that he won mostly in the cities, carrying by a good margin states containing 15 of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation.

So the mayors already have their help signs up and their hands out, expecting something from the new president.

And then there is that phenomenal turnout by black Americans. They were supposed to be apathetic, lazy, not giving a damn, but 6.6 million of the 9 million registered blacks went to the polls and they gave Jimmy Carter about 94 per cent of their votes.

I know that some of you were in the same position I was, sitting up in the wee hours. I never dreamed that I would be waiting for Mississippi to come in with the electoral votes to elect anybody was interested in seeing become president of the United States.

But there it was; and what happened in Mississippi? Well, that old Voting Rights Act came into play in the electing of a president. You see, I used to roam Mississippi as a newspaperman years back when almost no blacks could vote because they had to pass certain tests. And if a black didn't know the answer to questions like "how many bubbles in a bar of soap?" he or she didn't vote. So they didn't vote.

Well, this year in Mississippi 135,000 blacks voted for Jimmy Carter, which was more than 10 times his plurality in that state.

You look around and you see a lot of people wanting to pick out scapegoats and say who lost the election. Some want to pin the onus on Bob Dole and say that he lost the election. If you want my view, the colossal and the critical mistake made by the Ford Administration was that it played the black vote cheap. It literally wrote off the black vote.

During the campaign I talked to a great many people working for Mr. Ford. In fact, when Earl Butz stepped out and Mr. Ford came out and made no mention whatsoever of his offensive remark spoke of him as 'this good and decent American,' and talked about how it pained his heart to have to let his good friend go, I said to some of the people around Mr. Ford, "Baby, that will cost you a few votes."

The reply was "Oh, what the hell? It doesn't matter. Blacks don't vote anyhow!" Well, let's talk about Ohio. W.O. Walker, publisher of the Cleveland Call Post, the dominant black newspaper in Ohio, has been a Republican I guess every day he's breathed. He refused to endorse Mr. Ford because he thought Mr. Ford played the black Republicans in that state cheaply.

So what happens? If you had a shift in Ohio of just 3,788 black votes, Gerald Ford would have won the state of Ohio.

You go down to Mississippi; of those 135,000 blacks who voted for Carter, if just 6,000 had voted for Mr. Ford instead, Mr. Ford would have won Mississippi.

And with those two states alone Gerald Ford would be the president-elect of the United States today.

So, I think that no smart politician running for president ever again will say that he's going to play any group of Americans cheaply. Certainly not to the extent where you literally force 6.6 million Americans to vote almost as a block.

All right, so who gets what out of it? I look around and I see a great many Americans expressing fear that because Carter did get such a great plurality from blacks that he's going to turn the keys to Fort Knox over to black Americans. Well, this is silly. I know blacks are expecting a great deal. But I don't think they are expecting Mr. Carter to endorse or push a lot of programs which serve primarily the interests of black Americans. I think that this is one of those times when black Americans can run the risk of saying that the things they'll be asking for that are good for black America will also be good for all America.

For example, I think they do expect Jimmy Carter to renew, reinstitute, some of the anti-poverty programs that have been in limbo these last few years.

All right, this is important to the 7.5 million black Americans who live in poverty, but don't you ever forget that there are 17.8 million white Americans who live in poverty

Yes, blacks do expect Jimmy Carter to sign a comprehensive day-care bill when the new Congress passes it, as I am certain Congress will do. And this will be of critical importance to 2.9 million black women who head households in this country. But we ought never forget that there are 13.7 million white women who head households, who are breadwinners, who want to know that their children are well taken care of if and when they go out to work.

Of course blacks are expecting something from Mr. Carter in terms of reducing joblessness in this country. Joblessness where the black community has consistently carried almost double the burden carried by white Americans. If he does something about joblessness, of course this is going to be greatly welcomed by 1,475,000 blacks who are today looking for work and can't find it. But there are 6,193,000 whites out there looking for jobs who can't find them. Now those are just the official government figures there are a lot more out there who are jobless who don't get counted in our particular system.

So, I think what blacks are going to ask of Mr. Carter is that he support programs designed to lift the level of life in this country and in doing so, obviously to lift the level of black life.

I want to remind you that not long ago our government announced that a typical urban family of four now needs $15,500 a year to live at a "moderate mid-level" standard. This means that the family owns its own home, drives a late model car, buys meat at the market with some regularity and dines out occasionally.

Now we've got 56 million families in this country. What percentage of them would you think has enough income to live at what our government calls a moderate mid-level standard? Forty-two percent of the white families have income as much as $15,550 a year. Only 22 per cent of the black families in America have that much income.

So the government obviously knew that when it talked about $15,500 it was not talking about the majority of families of America. So it came out with figures for what it called a "lower, more austere," standard of life.

That figure is $9,800 a year

Would you believe, that while 77 per cent of white families earns $9,800 or more, 59 per cent of the black families in America don't have enough income even to meet that austere standard.

The median income for black families in 1974 was $8,265. Now people say to me, why did blacks vote as a bloc? Well, I'll tell you. I think most blacks in America perceived, mostly on their own, that they had an administration in the White House that had no real understanding of what was going on in black America. It had no understanding that while white America constantly talks about 6 per cent unemployment as being the threshold of pain, that in black America we have not had unemployment as low as 6 per cent in more than 22 years.

And they simply believed, rightly or wrongly, that Jimmy Carter would be more inclined to do something about it than would Mr. Ford, based on the record of the past two years.

You will notice that in the comments I read earlier, Mr. Carter talked about a complex, confusing welfare system. One of the things I expect him to try to do is to remodel, revamp, reform the welfare system in this country. And heaven knows somebody ought to go about it.

Let me point out to you what the terrible story is in this society today.

Last year, the national welfare bill rose by $3.8 billion, up to $22 billion. Now that doesn't count the $5 billion in supplemental security income that goes to 4.1 million Americans or those I call "the Cadillac people" of the welfare set.

Nor does it count the $6 billion we've been spending annually for food stamps for 19 million Americans. Nor does it count the $20 billion your government handed out in unemployment compensation.

Now that's an awful, terrible burden. And one of the problems we've had is that a great many people sit around and simply want to curse welfare as though it's something bad and evil that they can wish away. But I think Mr. Carter knows, or I pray he does, that welfare is a program for poor people. And that if you run your society in such a way that you have a lot of poor people, you're going to have a big welfare bill.

If you've got 27 million Americans living in poverty, if you've got 7.5 million Americans who are jobless, then you are going to have a big welfare bill. And we simply have got to find some way to run our society so that we don't have all those people not working, all those people living in poverty if we are ever going to be able to turn our priorities in a way where we spend our money differently.

One of the problems has been that a great many women who want to work can't work because they're the only parent in the house, and they've got children. Would you believe that we have in this society day care facilities for only about 700,000 children and we need spaces for more than 5 million children.

I am particularly interested in this whole day care business because I've seen some of the facilities that exist. I quite frankly wouldn't leave my Doberman Pinscher at some of them.

But I thought we were on the way to some resolution of this problem way back in Mr. Nixon's first term. In fact, people want to know why I was one of the early columnists in writing some critical things about Richard Nixon. I'll tell you a little story about when I first made my mind up about the man.

Long before anybody ever heard about Watergate, he had only recently been elected, and I had seen a CBS Christmas show called "J.T." They've repeated it, so you may have seen it. It was about a little boy in the ghetto who went around with his little transistor radio strapped to his head, his cat in his arms.

He almost wrecked his life by stealing food to feed his cat while his mother was away working. I wrote a column in which I said the trouble with the cities all over America was that they were populated by too many J.T.'s, too many kids with no father in the house, or only one parent, and not enough income; the temptation to steal always there.

Well, the next Monday morning I was on the tennis court. I'd just gone on a little vacation with my wife and I noticed all these fellows kept coming up to her saying "come on, Viv, let's play tennis," so I decided I'd better learn tennis in self defense. So I was out taking a tennis lesson when the manager of this indoor complex came over and said, "Mr. Rowan, sorry to interrupt your tennis, but the President wants to talk to you."

I said, "The President of what?" He said, "Of the United States." Well I figured one of my buddies was playing a prank, but I walked over, picked up the phone, and sure enough Richard Nixon was on the line.

He said, "You know, they put your column in my weekend reading file and I read it. I called just to let you know that I'm going to support the kinds of programs that will reduce the number of J.T.'s in America."

I said, "Do you mean programs like day care centers and so forth?" He said, "That's right." I said, "Well, Mr. President, you know that I was not out beating the bushes to get voters for you during the campaign, but if you support those kinds of programs you'll have my support during your presidency." So we hung up.

A few weeks later, Congress passed a comprehensive day care bill. Richard Nixon vetoed it. I have found it difficult since then to hold a high opinion of him, particularly because he called the day care bill "one of the most radical pieces of legislation to emerge from the 92nd Congress." He said it would commit "the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing, against the family-centered approach."

I said, "Lord in heaven, now we're going to leave this dreadful situation the way it is because letting a day care center take care of some woman's baby while she's out trying to make a buck becomes viewed as communism, wiping out our family-centered way of life in the United States."

Well, believe it or not, there are a great many Americans who will still believe that. They, however, I think, will not prevail this time because Congress passed that last comprehensive day care bill by a wide margin. I think they'll do it again and I believe Jimmy Carter will rush to sign that piece of legislation.

But there are some other areas where I think Jimmy Carter is not going to run as rapidly as some people think. For example, you notice that he talked about the time having arrived for a comprehensive national health care scheme.

Well, I noticed that on the eve of the election, in a Reader's Digest interview, Mr. Carter said: "Health care is a subject where I will be very careful I intend to implement a comprehensive health care system for the country, but to do it sequentially over a period of say three to four years. We now spend on health care far more than any other nation in the world per capita: $550 for every American. My belief is that the net cost above that figure would be minimal."

Well, I happened to get a look at some of the private papers some of Mr. Carter's advisors have sent him about a comprehensive health care scheme, and I notice that they tell him that, all told, government expenditures and your and my private dollars, we're shelling out $133 billion a year at present, and that we aren't getting what we ought to get because 22 million Americans, or one out of eight, have no health insurance or plan of any kind, and that 45 million Americans are underinsured.

So I expect to see some movement there, but not nearly as rapidly as a great many people will think.

Some of the most rapid movement may come with regard to what Mr. Carter owes organized labor, although I see the President having some colossal headaches in this respect.

You know that the 30-year-old Taft-Hartley law is still the fundamental labor law of this country. And it is still a rock in the craw of George Meany and a lot of others in organized labor. very resistant to labor unions. Now they are expecting Mr. Carter to help them lower the boom on his native South. And they may find that Mr. Carter isn't quite as enthusiastic about this request as they would wish.

One of the things that really burns organized labor is Section 14B. They would like to get rid of a lot of those right-to-work laws. And I'm not so sure how eager Mr. Carter is going to be to tangle with some of those Southern states which have right-to-work laws. So labor could come up unhappy on that score.

However, I think Mr. Carter will grant them their request, for example, on common situs picketing. You know that's the law that would permit a union involved in a dispute with a single contractor to shut down the entire construction job.

Labor thought it had a commitment out of President Ford to sign the bill that recently was passed by Congress. Certainly the secretary of labor thought the commitment was there. But Mr. Ford finally turned around his thoughts and vetoed the bill, causing his secretary of labor to resign. I can almost guarantee you that Congress will quickly pass another common situs picketing bill, and that Jimmy Carter will sign it.

I think the unions are also going to try to make it extremely expensive for companies that go too far in violating the rights of their employees. Now they want a law requiring triple damages in the case of an employee who has been illegally fired. I think that they're going to get that out of Mr. Carter.

But the reason I talk of what might happen is that there are a lot of restraints working on Mr. Carter, and not all of them have anything to do with his slim electoral margin of victory.

I think Mr. Carter is aware that before he can do a lot of things that he might wish to do, he's got to work on public attitudes in the United States. Some people were saying during the campaign, "why aren't they really talking about the issues?" And I said or I concluded that one reason they weren't talking about a lot of issues was that they didn't want to say where they stood. They looked at some polls and discovered that a lot of Americans held opinions that they didn't want to run up against. I looked at a survey done by the Washington Post and Harvard University of the attitudes held by the leaders of 10 groups in this country. They polled young leaders, women leaders, black leaders, Republican workers, Democratic workers, business leaders, farm leaders, and asked them some questions and got some interesting responses.

They asked, for example, how many of these leaders believed that it was right for government to tax the rich to help the poor. Business leaders, farmers and GOP workers overwhelmingly said no, that government ought not tax the rich to help the poor. Blacks, feminist leaders, young leaders and intellectuals said just as overwhelmingly, yes, government should tax the rich to help the poor.

They asked these leaders what they think is the cause of poverty in America. Is it our system, which does not give everybody an equal chance? Or are the poor responsible for their own poverty? Young people, feminist leaders, blacks, Democrats and intellectuals, five of the groups, were on one side saying that the system is to blame. Businessmen, farmers and GOP leaders were very outspokenly of the view that poor people are poor because of their own faults and weaknesses and mistakes.

Unless Mr. Carter can do a great job of reshaping the public attitude, he's going to run into resistance for a great many of these social programs we're talking about, and I guarantee you those attitudes don't exist just with those groups that I mentioned. I think the mail that I get is a pretty good barometer of what's on the mind of the great mass of the American people.

I perceive that it's almost impossible for minorities, for the down-and-out people in this society, to make progress except in good times. When the recession set in a few years ago, my mail reflected a dog-eat-dog attitude setting in on the part of the American public. All of a sudden, nobody was of any mind to sacrifice, to have any anti-poverty programs or anything else. Everybody was interested primarily in what he could get for himself.

There was a period when times were good when everybody talked happily about having a nice affirmative action program to get some blacks into Plant X, or on the faculty at College X. They were talking about scholarships and so forth. Then all of a sudden my mail turned around, and people were saying: "What about this reverse discrimination, letting blacks into a medical school, when my son didn't get into medical school and my son's boards or my son's grades were higher than that black guy's?" Well that is the attitude that exists today.

But I'm going to close by telling you how that attitude is most rampant, most pervasive, and has influenced this society down through the ages. If I could be sure that Jimmy Carter could do anything to change that, I'd be a happy guy.

And, believe it or not, I'm talking about something as revered as the good, old Horatio Alger syndrome. I personally could solve the poverty problem in America if I had a million dollars for every fatcat who has walked up to me and said, "Mr. Rowan, I sure do admire the way you lifted yourself by your bootstraps out of all that poverty down in Tennessee. Now if you could do it without a bunch of government handouts, I don't know why we gotta have all those giveaway social programs for these lazy bums."

I know that that's an invitation to me to stick my thumbs in my lapels and say, "Yeah, I'm a self made man!" and rush out and put mv black heel on the throats of America's hungry and harassed.

Well, I pray to God that no matter how sweet they make the introductions, I'll never believe them to the extent that I fall for that nonsense. Sure, I grew up in poverty; it's no secret. I don't quite brag about it the way my brother does. He goes around telling people, "Naw, we weren't born in a log cabin. But as soon as our daddy got enough money he bought one."

I tell you that I lived in enough poverty long enough to know how it kills dreams, destroys ambition, wipes out hope, forecloses horizons, to the extent that it's only the very lucky or the extremely able who can jump enough barriers and leap enough hurdles to get even close to an even chance in that race we call the pursuit of happiness.

Now there are a few people around who will say, "Carl Rowan he was extremely able." And I'm not much inclined to debate that point. But I'll tell you this: I know how lucky I've been.

Would you believe that on a spring day of '43 I stood on the steps of Tennessee State College's administration building in Nashville, saying goodbye to my buddy Joe Bates because I didn't have the $20 with which to pay the next quarter's tuition?

"Hate to see you go, buddy," Joe said. "Before you leave, walk with me to the greasy spoon, I want to get a pack of cigarettes."

I said, "Joe, the greasy spoon doesn't open until 11."

He said, "I gotta check, I'm dying for a smoke."

So we walked down. Sure enough the little campus restaurant was padlocked. We turned to walk away and we had to cross a little dirt circle where the dinky bus made its u-turn. The students got off and threw away their green transfers, and there were always a zillion lying everyplace.

We took a few steps up the walk and something said to me, "Carl Rowan, one of those green wads you just saw in the weeds was not a bus transfer." I walked back, picked it up and rammed it in my pocket. I said, "Hey Joe, I just found some money. And it didn't look like a one."

When I got behind the hedges I opened it up; it was a $20 bill. I quickly surmised what had happened. A student on his or her way to pay tuition had lost it. I said, "Joe, I just pray to God that whoever lost it doesn't need it as badly as I do." And I walked right up to the administration building and paid my tuition for the next quarter.

A few days later and so help me God every word of this is true, I was sitting in the history class of Professor Merle Epps noting that he was late, and to be perfectly honest, trying to make the most of it by conning a little girl named Evelyn Boykin into cutting class and going for a stroll in Centennial Park, when in walked Professor Epps. Apropos of nothing he pointed at me and said, "Carl Rowan, come with me to the dean's office."

Oh, Lord, my heart creased my scalp. You see those were the days when if the student went to the dean's office the student wondered what he'd done wrong. I walked down with Professor Epps saying nary a word. We walked into the office of Dean George W. Gore, and Epps said, "Dean Gore, here's the young man who's volunteering to join the Navy."

I said, "I ain't volunteering to join any Navy."

He said, "Shut up, boy, you're going to join the Navy."

Dean Gore said, "Just a minute Professor Epps." Then he said, "Young man, are you aware that in the history of this nation there's never been a Negro officer in the Navy?"

I said, "Yes, sir, I read the Pittsburgh Courier."

He said, "Are you aware that here at all Negro Tennessee State the federal government often sends messages that they really intended for the all white University of Tennessee in Knoxville?"

I said, "No, sir, I didn't know that."

He said, "I want to show you a series of telegrams between the Secretary of the Navy and me." He handed me the first one, which said, "Nationally competitive exam. Navy officer training. April so and so. Hope some of your students will take the exam." He said, "I sent the secretary this one: 'Do you really mean us?' I got this one back. 'Yes, we mean you.' "

Dean Gore then said: "Now you know, young man, we don't want the school to be embarrassed; we want somebody to pass the exam. So I've asked Professors Epps and Boswell to look around campus and pick out a half dozen young men who might pass that exam, and Professor Epps has selected you. Now that's a marvelous tribute from your professor. And I know that out of loyalty to your professor, and loyalty to your school, and loyalty to your race ..."

I said "Yes, sir, I volunteer to join the Navy."

Well I took that exam, and fortunately I passed. And that's how I came to Washburn University as a Navy V-12 student. I survived Washburn and midshipmen's school and got a commission that turned out to be absolutely the great turning point in the life of a green country kid from a little red clay town in Tennessee.

Oh, I know what the Horatio Algers will say. "Ah, but you had to pass that exam!" I say, "Of course, and you'll never hear me preaching anything other than preparedness. But let me remind you of this. I wouldn't have even been at Tennessee State to know I could take that exam if I hadn't found that damn $20 bill."

So ask me what I'm asking of the Carter administration and I'll make it very simple. I'm asking it to support and sustain the kinds of programs that will make it possible for millions of American youngsters to find their $20 bills, so to speak, without scrounging around in the weeds of American life. Because I still believe in helping eight million children who live in poverty, and hunger and squalor; making education available to youngsters who never had it before, who's families never had it. Nobody in my family had ever graduated from high school, let alone college, before I went to Tennessee State. So I can tell you what happens in terms of turning a whole family around in one generation with a little luck and a little opportunity.

And I'm saying that these programs will help not just the direct beneficiaries, but they'll make this nation whole again, stronger again. The result will be that we can all go about living a bit more happily with each other.

Thank you very much.

The transcription of this Landon Lecture was accomplished through the cooperation of the Kansas State University Libraries and the Office of Mediated Education.

Bottom Navigation Bar
Contact us at: (785) 532-5566 or 1-800-432-8222