America lost a leader in the war on poverty this week with the passing of Sargent Shriver. Son of Catholic activists and brother-in-law to the Kennedys he is most remembered as the man who launched the Peace Corps. But his other monumental undertaking was as an advocate for civil rights in the 1960s, which culminated in his appointment by President Lyndon Johnson to lead the country’s War CCUSAon Poverty. The progressive social programs that were initiated under this mantle brought millions of Americans out of poverty, programs like Head Start, the Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America, the Community Action Program and Legal Services for the Poor. The Washington Postcalled him “a skilled navigator of the federal bureaucracy,” and noted that “Mr. Shriver said the war on poverty was, and would continue to be, ‘noisy, visible, dirty, uncomfortable and sometimes politically unpopular.’” And indeed these same programs are at the heart of vigorous and often heated debate today,
Sargent Shriver believed in public service and served when called. As the The New York Timesnoted in its obituary this week, Shriver “tapped into a spirit of volunteerism, and within a few years thousands of young Americans were teaching and working on public health and development projects in poorer countries around the world.” President Obama said in his statement , “Sarge came to embody the idea of public service.” He acted on and appealed to our higher nature.
The War on Poverty of the Johnson Administration made great strides, but soon was eclipsed by the Vietnam War, which consumed and defined a generation. We at Catholic Charities believe it is time to pick up the mantle that Sargent Shriver left behind and redouble our efforts to defeat poverty in America. The challenge to do this is great. It requires us to overcome division, to enter into calm, rational discussion, to act as our higher selves, as individuals and as a society. We must answer the call to service, in service to the Higher Power through which we are all connected as brothers and sisters, as our brother Sargent and thousands of others did nearly a half century ago.