Commentary: Generations lost, generations waiting

Trump, Biden need solid rescue plan for poverty

By Richard Gebelein, Tyrone C. Johnson Sr. and Robert Marshall

In the early 1960s, the country’s optimism was pervasive with the election of a young president who stirred the nation with hope, enthusiasm and a vision for a better America.

President John F. Kennedy challenged the best spirits of America with his call, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”; with his commitment to place an American on the moon; with his call for civil rights legislation; and with the creation of the Peace Corps. He promised to address civil rights with the Voting Rights Act and anti-discrimination statutes. He sought to build on the progress made in race relations acknowledged by Dr. Martin Luther King in his seminal speech in St. Louis in 1957. In that speech, Dr. King said America had come a “long, long way” in improving race relations, ending Jim Crow laws, eliminating lynching almost entirely, desegregating schools and abolishing the separate-but-equal decision of the Supreme Court. But Dr. King noted that there remained a long road ahead to eliminate the remaining vestiges of racism.

Then, in November 1963, he was assassinated.

A career politician and Southern Democrat from Texas became president. To the surprise of many, Lyndon Johnson carried through on the promises of John F. Kennedy by creating a bipartisan coalition to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Indeed, there were more Republicans voting for the act in the House than there were Democrats, and it took the votes of most Republicans in the Senate and a substantial majority of Senate Democrats to overcome the longest filibuster by Southern Democrats in Senate history and finally enact this law. The Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination in public places and in other matters, opened the door for better opportunities for minorities, a key for the true equality Dr. King sought seven years earlier and worked for thereafter. Through his efforts and those of the bipartisan coalition, the doors of opportunity were opened for the next generations of Black Americans.

Great Society concept introduced

In a speech by President Johnson after being elected in his own right in 1964, he stated: “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.”

Thus, the concept of the Great Society was born. It would be a place where all would have equal access to opportunity and education to become successful and share in the bounty of the American economy. As the 1960s progressed, this view became obscured as division and disturbances abounded in America. The war in Vietnam divided the nation and polarized society. As a result of the war and the internal turmoil, the assassination of Dr. King and of U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and civil unrest, the national attention turned away from the vision of a Great Society.

The 1970s ended the Vietnam War and began a return to normalcy and of attention to the problems of American society. Poverty remained and was concentrated in certain areas, frequently in the inner cities and certain other geographic areas.

Little improvement on poverty issues

Politicians and candidates of both parties and at all levels promised to address this poverty. Policies came and went with little improvement of the situation. Frequent programs were advanced to solve the problems of access to better jobs, better education, better nutrition, income disparity, etc.

Despite these politically motivated programs, presidential administrations and congressional sessions since 1973 to 2020 have failed in one significant area. In many areas, especially urban centers, there are overwhelming numbers of lost learners and citizens living in poverty, illegal drug activity, guns and violence.

In these poverty areas, the schools do not provide quality education. Few, if any, opportunities exist for children to access quality educational programs designed to allow them to succeed. In addition, there are few, if any, opportunities for children to develop skills that would enable them to succeed in areas such as construction trades, licensed professions, etc. Likewise, there are no opportunities for children to learn the skills necessary to successfully build their own businesses. Since the announcement of the Great Society, there have been at least three generations of lost learners and lost opportunities for poor children to achieve the American dream. We cannot afford to have more.

Questions for presidential candidates

In so many of these areas, the poverty is accompanied by crime and substance abuse. Despite this, heroic parents, in many cases, fight for educational opportunities and then support, encourage and even coerce their children into success. Society should acknowledge these efforts and provide the opportunities for the current and future generations of children to succeed. Government must help heroic parents in their efforts and provide similar encouragement and support for the children whose parents cannot do so because of their own difficulties. Government at all levels has failed to do this. An example of such failure in Wilmington is the boarded-up Moyer Academy. This “role model of failure to reach lost learners” sits on East 17th Street, vacant for years. While similar sorts of situations exist throughout Delaware at varying levels, Wilmington has hundreds of boarded-up abandoned houses, and we are not motivating young people to be homebuilders, home remodelers or entrepreneurs so they can be successful in rebuilding their own city.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden: What specific plans do you have to break this cycle of lost learners and lost generations? What will you do to assure that all children in the poverty census tracts have safe access to quality education and access to skills training to create a new generation of urban homebuilders, home remodelers and entrepreneurs? What will you do to stop the violence and crime in our urban poverty centers?

We are still waiting to make the American dream available to all, regardless of their place of residence or their economic status.

The presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, need to define a “Project Rescue.” Without the same old tried and successful campaign rhetoric to get elected, what is your new plan to reduce the illegal drug trade and gun violence and build a new education and business model for America’s inner cities?

Richard Gebelein is a former Republican state attorney general and Superior Court judge. Tyrone C. Johnson Sr. is a member of clergy. Robert Marshall is a former Democratic state senator.