A war to be won

Jan. 09, 2014 @ 05:38 PM

Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon Johnson was riding a wave of sympathy and national unity after the tragedy of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

He would eventually be brought down by a real war, the conflict in Vietnam that over the next five years would bitterly divide the nation.

But in his 1964 State of the Union address, he launched another war, a symbolic war the outcome of which, five decades later is unclear and the conduct of which is hotly debated.

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,” Johnson told a joint session of Congress – and the nation.

“It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won,” he said. Many might argue that not only have we rested short of victory, we have abandoned the struggle or denied the presence of the enemy. Others would argue that it is not the enemy, but the strategy that we have gotten wrong.

Poverty, as Johnson said that day, “is a national problem,” but here in Durham, we know that it is a local challenge, too -- as it was in 1964. Durham played a role in the war’s initial strategy, as was noted last year on the 50th anniversary of the North Carolina Fund.

Gov. Terry Sanford launched the fund -- initially based in Durham -- to remove barriers of poverty and discrimination in North Carolina. Its tactics influenced many early anti-poverty efforts in the wake of Johnson’s declaration.

Today, Durham has a tangible stake in reducing poverty and our era’s twist on it -- economic inequality not seen in generations.

“Durham is a thriving city with a median income of $48,900, yet it has a 27 percent child poverty rate; and an 18 percent adult poverty rate,” End Poverty Durham notes on its website. The interfaith group is linked with MDC -- a think tank that is an offshoot of the N.C. Fund.

“This disparity is unacceptable, shameful, and contrary to the teachings of our faith,” End Poverty’s website continues in words that echo Johnson’s. Indeed, Johnson said correctly, that the war, while a national effort, “Must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.”

The war’s impact has been mixed. But given the persistence of poverty, its successes may be overlooked.

“A broad range of researchers,” the New York Times reported Sunday, “stressed the improvement in the lives of low-income Americans since Mr. Johnson started his crusade. Infant mortality has dropped, college completion rates have soared, millions of women have entered the work force, malnutrition has all but disappeared.”

The war is far from over – and now is not time to abandon the fight. These words of Lyndon Johnson are as true today as when he uttered them 50 years ago, and we should embrace their challenge to our best instincts:

“The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”