The Children’s Defense Fund — Cincinnati, OH

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Excerpts from remarks by David Lawrence Jr., the chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida, on July 23, 2012, before a national gathering of The Children’s Defense Fund in Cincinnati.

This is my life or, better said, some of the story of my early years a half-century and more ago: One of nine children. Raised in the snowbelt of upstate New York on a chicken farm that teetered financially (which is how we came to move to the west coast of Florida 56 years ago when I was 14). It was a time and place where the water fountains in the grocery stores were labeled “colored” and “white.” Where the motto of my senior class at all-white Manatee High in Bradenton was: “We’re the best. We’re from Dixie. We’re the class of 1960.” Where the black kids were bused across the river to Lincoln Memorial High. Where in my senior year the sheriff escorted the Ku Klux Klan through the streets of black East Bradenton.

Off then to college. In my junior year at the University of Florida, the undergraduate division was desegregated. Perhaps half the students thought this was good and right. The other half seemed quite sure that Satan or the Communists – and maybe both – had taken over.

The first newspaper I worked for – The St. Petersburg Times, generally considered a progressive newspaper for the South of that time – had a “colored news” page that only black subscribers received. It took a long time – a very long time – for newspaper reporting and editing staffs to begin to reflect the communities they serve. I am proud to have helped lead that change.

The backdrop, of course, was change. America had to change were we to have any credibility whatsoever as any sort of beacon to the world. That change came slowly. Painfully. Insistently. Ultimately, inexorably. Journalism was charged with covering that story of change, but itself was slow to change. Way too slow.

I am a lifelong learner. Almost all my life I have I read at least a book a week. Much of my reading is history and biographies with a special focus on hatred and racism and anti-Semitism and any sort of prejudice. Racism remains the great cancer of American society.

You and I live in a nation with vast and unfulfilled promises of pluralism. A nation where discrimination is not yet infrequent, where millions of people still do not have an equal opportunity for their fair share of reward and responsibility. Meanwhile, each of us remains, to some extent, a prisoner of our own biases. Most often, the faith or color or gender or nationality we know most about is our own. We build our biases based on what we have seen, what we have experienced, what we have been told, what we have read or learned. Too often, though, we have not learned enough to accumulate the wisdom to challenge our own prejudices. Each of us must struggle all our lives with the human tendency to feel most comfortable with people like ourselves.

Today the American people are in a great eye-gouging, ear-deafening wrestling match for the American soul, and that is reflected most obviously in the presidential campaigns. Never have I seen more hatred and anger than now, aided by short attention spans and much of the media who have figured out you can make a lot of money by crapping on other people. A lot of American anger has to do with racism – racism more nuanced than it once was, but nonetheless palpably ugly and deeply destructive of the republic and those who dream of a better America with the wisdom and the decency to embrace everyone’s chances to succeed.

History teaches us that while people of goodwill are central to vision, goodwill is not the central driver of progress. Real progress requires pushing and shoving and urging and cajoling and coaxing – and then pushing some more (courteously when you can, not so mannerly if the former doesn’t work). For those who might think that suffrage and Social Security and Medicare and the civil rights and feminist movements came to pass because good people came to their senses and decided to do the “right thing” by humankind, I would encourage them to read much more history. We also must remember that what once seemed “radical” to many in this ever-evolving country became, over time and after struggle, what we have come to see as basic and decent and fundamental to an America of genuine justice. Progress simply cannot come without struggle. Personal struggle. As each of us musters the inner wisdom and fortitude to confront ourselves, the deepest learning comes to pass.

I share with you a quite specific, quite pragmatic approach to real change, real fairness and real opportunity for all Americans. So, now, what would save us from slipping backwards? How do we go forward? We will find the answer in building a movement – a movement for children. All children.

The best definition of a “movement” is that it is about everyone. The Civil Rights Movement, in its fullest definition, was about all Americans and a commitment to equity and fairness and justice for everyone. So it was for the Women’s Movement, and suffrage, and much more. I frequently use kindergarten as an example – invented by a fellow named Friedrich Froebel in 1837. For more than a century it was mostly about two sorts of children – the poor and the well off. In many ways this is how America works today – that is, a means-tested safety net where eligibility is based on helping “those” people; meanwhile, those of real means know how to work “the system” and can access the best society has to offer. In the middle are tens of millions of Americans who are simply “left out.” Kindergarten came to be a “movement” when it came to be about everyone.

I give you an example of how to make that happen from my own community. Back in 1988 the then state attorney, a woman named Janet Reno, and others led an effort to pass a dedicated funding source for early intervention and prevention for children. They made great arguments about helping “those” children – the poor, the at risk, the so-often left out. But it failed, 2-1.

In 2002, we argued that it was about all children (realizing, of course, that some children and families need more support, and ought to get it). This time it passed, 2-1. Just imagine: The people of one American community – larger than 16 states and on the very cutting edge of pluralism – decided to raise their property taxes for everyone’s children. This year The Children’s Trust will have an extra $123 million for brain-stimulating child care, higher-quality after-school care, and health teams in 165 public schools.

Building on the twice-now successful passage of The Children’s Trust, we worked for a year and a half before launching less than two years ago “The Children’s Movement of Florida.” Already we have 325,000 followers, 17 regional leadership committees throughout Florida, and a steering committee of 21 distinguished and bipartisan Floridians. Our aim is to build something enduring and sustainable – and the power to insist on a real change in priorities.

The Children’s Movement priorities already have led to a growing commitment to higher-quality prekindergarten as well as a statewide outreach effort to make available health insurance for children. This coming month we will launch a major reading-and-mentoring initiative in 10 major Florida cities. We will have thousands of trained volunteers and real outcome measurements.

Change and challenge are, of course, are our country’s constant. Already we have reached the tipping point where births of children of color are in the majority. By the middle of this century, those we call “minorities” will be in the majority. Tomorrow’s future for today’s children, tomorrow’s future for our country, will depend on how well prepared all children are to succeed in school and in life. What has raised our five children – that is, the right blend of health and education and nurturing and love – are just what all children need.

I tell you one little story. A few months ago I visited a child care center to read “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with 21 three- and four-year-olds. On the front cover was a figure in overalls and red-and-white checked shirt and a straw hat on his head. Through that hat came two floppy ears because, in this book, Mr. MacDonald was a bunny rabbit. Not one of those children knew it was a rabbit; two thought it was a cow. I could have cried. Can you just imagine what’s ahead for these children in first grade and beyond? That’s how important the early years are for everyone’s child. Only a real “movement” can make the difference in their lives and in ours.

I close with the words of Fred Rogers, with whom my children grew up. “Our goal as a nation,” he said, “must be to make sure that no child is denied the chance to grow in knowledge and character from the very first years.” In Mister Rogers Neighborhood, he added, “every child is welcome into the world of learning – not just a few, not just ones from certain neighborhoods but every child.”

None of this can happen without our insistence. In the words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

Thank you, and God bless you.

My life is full. Sometimes too full. But I am not saving my energy for the next world, and I willing to help make the case for the mission, and help figure out how to reach every audience we need.

The future of our beloved country is being built on your work. Our work. May God bless all of us, and all our children. May we play a great role in helping every child succeed. It could be done. Let us do it. We are overdue, my friends. More than a century ago, The New York Times wrote an editorial with these words: “Given one generation of children properly born and wisely trained…what a vast proportion of human ills would disappear from the face of the earth.”

Those words are as true today as then.

Thank you for your great commitment and caring. The future depends on all of us. Thank you.