FDR University of Georgia Commencement Address, August 11, 1938
President Roosevelt’s Commencement Speech,
University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.
August 11, 1938
It is with particular pride and increased devotion to this state that I become today an alumnus of the University of Georgia. During many years I have had important contacts with your trustees and faculty and I can therefore appreciate the excellent service which you are rendering to the cause of education not only in Georgia but in the nation.
Many years have gone by since I first came to Warm Springs and got to know and to love the state and its people. I wonder if you, who live here all the time, can realize as well as I, who have been coming here once or twice a year, the amazing progress that has been made here in a short decade and a half—and especially in the past five years. If you see a person morning, noon and night you do not note the changes of growth or health of that friend as readily as if you see him only at intervals; and that is why I feel that I can speak with perspective.
In my earlier years here I saw a South in the larger sense forgotten in the midst of an unhealthy national speculation—a boom era which thought in terms of paper profits instead of human lives. And for those days what has the South to show today? A few fortunes perhaps, but most of the profits went north.
Then came the tragic years of the depression. Closed banks in almost every community, ruinous crop prices, idle mills, no money for schools or roads—a picture of despair.
Yet, through all those years the South was building a new school of thought, a group principally recruited from younger men and women who understood that the economy of the South was vitally and inexorably linked with that of the nation, and that the national good was dependent causally on the improvement of the welfare of the south. They began asking searching questions: Why is our pay—in other words our earning capacity—so low? Why are our roads so bad? Why is our sanitation and medical care so neglected? Why are our teachers so inadequately paid? Why are our local school buildings and equipment so antiquated?
I do not mince words because first of all, I have a right—a nationwide right, a state right and withal a sympathetic and understanding right to speak them, and secondly, because you as well as I know them to be true.
It may not be politic but it is good American idealism to recognize, to state boldly, that in 1932 the conditions of human life in Georgia and in other states of the lower south were as a whole at the bottom of the national scale. At the same time let us rejoice and take pride in the undoubted fact that in these past six years the South has made greater economic and social progress up the scale than at any other period in her long history. It is my objective and yours to maintain that march and to accelerate its pace.
On the side of education a long experience teaches us that the improvement of educational facilities is inevitably bound up with economic conditions. Years ago I was told by a distinguished citizen of Georgia that public school education was well provided for because there was a law or perhaps it was in the state constitution itself—providing that every child should have a full school year—and that attendance for each school year through grade school was compulsory. But I soon discovered school after school in the rural districts, and most of them are rural districts, where the school was open only four months or five months a year or was too small to hold all the children or couldn’t employ enough teachers or where children, whose parents wanted them to work, could stay away from school with complete immunity.
Apparently a law or a clause in the constitution was not enough. What is law without enforcement? Apparently the divine method ‘let there be light and there was light’ did not work as mere man’s dictum.
Then I began to analyze: Was it due to lack of interest? No, it was due to lack of money. Every man and woman I talked with deplored the wretched school conditions, wanted more teachers and wanted a full school year. But the answer was always the same—we cannot get more money from taxes.
And why not? The answer is simple: The taxable values were not there. The tax rates were not too low but the actual going value of property were so meager that when taxes on those values were collected the sum received could not pay for adequate teachers or equipment. Public education was therefore dependent on public wealth. Public wealth was too low to support good schools.
That analysis of mine—made even before I was elected governor of New York—led my mind to many other questions. Why were land values and therefore taxable values in Georgia so low? With that question came a study of land use, of worn over land, of cheaper fertilizer, of forestation, of erosion, of crop diversification, of crop prices, of marketing, of freight rates. And all of these things bore directly on the problem of better schools.
Why were people getting such low pay for a day’s work? That led to a study of purchasing power, of decent wages, of the cost of living, of taxable income, of sound banking, of small merchants. And these things, too, bore directly on the problem of better schools.
In other words, social conditions—schools and hospitals and clothing and building and food were intimately dependent on economic conditions, higher wages, higher farm income and more profits for small business men.
So you will see that my thoughts for the South are no new thing. Long before I had any idea of re-entering public life I was planning for better life for the people of Georgia. In the later years I have had some opportunity to practice what I have long preached.
Obviously the federal government cannot carry the load alone. In education, for example, Washington has greatly assisted by using the labor of people who really need help to build school houses, to give student aid, and to pay many teachers. And Washington will help by giving some grants in aid to those communities which need them the most. But Washington should not and cannot rightly subsidize public education throughout the United States. Education should be run by the states and their subdivisions.
Therefore in the long run, the best way for your national government to assist state and local educational objectives is to tackle the national aspects of economic problems—to eliminate discrimination between one part of the country and another—to raise purchasing power and thereby create wealth in those sections where it is far too low—to save the waste and the erosion of our natural resources—to encourage each section to become financially independent—to take the lead in establishing social security—and at the same time to explain to the people in every part that constant progressive action is better than following either those who want to slow up or those who promise they will hand you the moon on a silver platter a week after they are elected.
At heart Georgia shows devotion to the principles of democracy. It has occasional lapses, but it really does not believe either in demagoguery or feudalism dressed up in democratic clothes. You of the university are greatly responsible for the present and the future. Well are you doing your part. From today onward I share proudly and more fully in that part.”