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John Ben Shepperd: No Place for Silent Partners

April 11, 1957

Spring Conference of the Seventeenth District of the Texas Congress of Parents and Teachers (Odessa, Texas)

No Place for Silent Partners

I think it only proper at the outset of my thoughts with you tonight to pay tribute to the founders of the Parents and Teachers movement that has been of such tremendous benefit to the cause of freedom and humanity.

I have always thought that the history books are snobbish in their treatment of human events. They tend to exclude from prominent mention the names and accomplishments of many personages whose total influence upon our national life is actually greater than that of many presidents, generals and statesmen. In particular I am thinking of two women—Alice Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst—whose battles for an ideal have made a deeper impression on the face of time than many clashes of arms that have received epic treatment in the chronicles of the last hundred years.

I have wondered, since I first became acquainted with the history of the Congress of Parents and Teachers years ago, if ever an orator stood up in the marble halls of Greece, or a senator in the forums of Rome or a statesman on the floor of Congress to expound a nobler principle, broach a more vital issue or challenge a more insidious wrong than did those two women. They moved mountains in a day and age when any woman who tried to move anything bigger than a knitting needle was treading on dangerous ground.

It took courage to speak out for child welfare when the wheels of industry were turning on child labor or to stand up for universal and equal education when powerful influences still held that mass education was a danger and a curse.

Those two women had the audacity to assert that every little mind was entitled to enlightenment; that every little body was entitled to health and that every little soul deserved spiritual guidance. They believed that the future of this nation and of freedom in the world depended on the intelligence, the morality and the patriotic devotion of all the people’s children.

These women were not pioneer mothers who braved the hardships of the frontier to give birth to Lincolns and Houstons in backwoods cabins. Mrs. Birney and Mrs. Hearst were more fortunate; they were able to give their children every advantage and to send them out to make their mark in history. Mrs. Hearst’s son, William Randolph, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and became one of the most important figures in the history of American journalism. Mrs. Birney was a woman of considerable culture and social attainment and for most women it would have been enough to pass these advantages on to their daughters as she did.

But these two women were not satisfied to take care of their own while other children went without the same advantages. They enunciated the belief that what is right and good for the most favored child is right and good for all children.

It was Mrs. Birney who conceived the idea of a national organization dedicated to the welfare of children. She interested Mrs. Hearst in the idea and in 1897 they called a meeting in the hope of setting the plan in motion. They hoped to attract as many as fifty people.

I like to imagine how happy and surprised they were when more than a thousand people crowded through the door. There were businessmen, teachers, clergymen, mothers, fathers, officeholders—even an old bachelor from California, one of those rare citizens who knew he was not only his brother’s keeper, but also the guardian of his brother’s children. A mother of seven youngsters was there, in a day when baby sitters were at a premium.

The National Congress of Mothers, organized that day sixty years ago, was an immediate success and it has been a success ever since, just as any organization will succeed which sincerely devotes itself to promoting the welfare of children in home, school, church and community.

Only three year’s ago I had the privilege of witnessing a parallel incident that to me was no less inspiring than the formation of the organization thot has become the P-TA.

In February, 1954, less than two weeks after we moved into Duval County, where we found the school district being looted and the children being subjected to a system of unbelievable discrimination based on the relationship of their parents to a political boss, an organization was formed called the United Mothers and Wives of Duval County.

Their purpose was, and I quote “To protect our children from the influence of political bosses and to combat all persons or forces in Duval County which destroy or distort the ideals of American Democracy taught in the classroom. To protect our children from any effort to instill in them a fear of individuals or to make them afraid of punishment for speaking, thinking or voting according to their own conscience.”

Can you imagine such a statement being necessary anywhere in Texas or America today?

The hundreds of mothers in that organization were tired of seeing needy children denied free lunches and milk at the school cafeteria while others got free meals whether they were needy or not because their parents voted the way they were told.

The mothers were tired of not being able to find out where the school board held their meetings, who the trustees were, what the school budget was or who was on the school payroll. They were tired of seeing their children gradually corrupted by a system of boss rule that reached into the life of the smallest child in the classroom.

Those women were heroic too. Only a few weeks before we opened our investigations in Duval County, most of them were afraid to drive through the county seat after dark and nothing but a matter of life or death could have induced them to enter the courthouse. It was George Parr’s courthouse and if he didn’t like you, you stayed away from there.

But overnight those women became an army. To this day they are religiously attending the meetings of the school boards and the Commissioners’ Court in such numbers that they often stand out on the lawn. They attend every session of court; they vote in every election; they debate every local issue and take a stand on it; they demand an answer to every question; they are undoing forty years of bossism, corruption and fear.

You know, the more you think about it, forty years was an awfully long time to take the people of Texas to get around to the job of restoring simple democratic processes to the people of Duval County.

Yes, this organization has made a mighty difference in Duval County, just as the P-TA has made a vast difference in this country. It would be impossible to enumerate the accomplishments of this worthy organization in these sixty years. There is no yardstick to measure the volume of public opinion the P-TA has swayed or the votes it has mustered for better and wiser legislation.

The P-TA’s of Texas alone have raised millions of dollars for new school facilities, provided for physical examinations for school children, made great improvements in safety, given hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships, fought for increases in teachers’ salaries, promoted the building of hundreds of new schools and placed multiplied dozens of laws on the books to promote the welfare of children.

But you and I know the real and great contributions made to our country by this institution that we know as the P-TA do not consist merely in legislation or other visible milestones of progress. The real achievements are the unchronicled little sacrifices made by millions of unsung parents and teachers who have established a protective bond of personal concern around the children of our communities.

There is no appropriation of public funds that can bring the comfortable atmosphere of home into the classroom. It depends on the women who find the time to be room mothers, put curtains on the windows, visit the class, work with the teachers and provide the extra magazines and other teaching aids for which there is no provision in the school budget.

It is you who raise the money for the debating team to go and compete in other schools, for classes to visit the State Capitol and for the hundreds of other activities that would otherwise be impossible. The strength of this organization is in the quality of its basic human relationships. It provides the means to give advice and counsel to teachers in solving the multitude of problems they face every day. Teachers are like officeholders—they’re the lonesomest people in the world. They work hard and long and tangle with problems, conflicts and frustrations. They are as dedicated as ministers and just as poorly paid. Like politicians, they can wage just about any fight they have to without giving up, but the hardest and most discouraging is the fight against apathy and indifference to the ideals and principles they are struggling to keep alive.

It means a great deal to teachers to know that others are behind them. It means a lot to be able to go to somebody and say, “Johnny Jones is not getting enough to eat at home,” or “Mary Smith is timid and embarrassed because she hasn’t a decent dross to wear to school”. They can then sit back and watch the P-TA committees or individuals in action as they “work in a mysterious way their wonders to perform”.

It means a lot to have someone at hand who can answer a child’s need for a little more attention and affection and who can work to give all children the understanding help and attention that we want our own to have. This is what makes an idea work. This is what makes an organization successful. This is what makes the P-TA important and endears it to the hearts of the people—these little things that count.

It is these same little things that make all the difference when it comes to realizing the ultimate objective of the Founders of the P-TA—raising up responsible citizens who are competent to defend and preserve their heritage of freedom.

Yes, the child, the parents and the teacher are partners in this great cause and there is no room for silent partners.

Our boys and girls must understand the value of private property, respect for their elders and have faith in our American ideals. They must have courage. Courageous children are not reckless children. Courageous children are not immoral. They are not lazy or irresponsible and are not easily swayed by foreign “isms”. The greatest emotional need of young people today is faith—faith in their parents, faith in their teachers, faith in their country and faith in their God. To help them have faith and be working and thinking members of this partnership, we need all the resources of the home, church and school. They cannot have faith in people who are fearful and pessimistic, in democratic institutions that are not put to use, nor in a God who is ignored.

Our children cannot be full partners if they believe, as too many do, that politics is crooked, that everything is fixed and that laws are made for poor people and suckers.

I’ve heard them say “why try to live a moral life? Where does it get you? All your friends just call you a ‘square’. You have to get all you can out of life before the Army gets you and you get rubbed out in a war that nobody understands or wants to fight.”

If you try to tell them about sound American ideals and good citizenship, they point at you and say, “Man, dig that square from the country.”

Sometimes we think our children could never be a responsible partner in any kind of venture.

But we must remember that there is no pedagogical device half so effective as a good example. A child will never under­value the privilege and duty of voting if he sees his teacher and his parents leave a warm building on a cold day to go out and cast a cool ballot in a hot election.

The man or woman who packs a car full of yelling kids on Sunday morning and drives to church has preached a great sermon to the neighborhood—but anybody who thinks he is going to imbue his children with religion by merely tipping his hat to the church has flipped his lid.

These are individual responsibilities and cannot be met merely by pitching our lot with the group. The P-TA was never intended to be a sun-lamp under which children could be exposed collectively to some kind of cosmic ray that would make them good citizens.

There are many things that all of us have to be as individuals which this organization cannot be and must not. The Congress of Parents and Teachers used to call itself non-political, but that was a misnomer. What we meant was non-partisan. We are still non-partisan. We endorse no parties, political platforms or candidates and if we ever start doing it, we will lose our value and effectiveness plus most of the almost ten million members we now have.

But this country has no need for non-political or non-partisan individuals. Show me a parent or teacher with no identifiable stand on a vital public issue and I’ll show you a person with no identifiable importance to the civic welfare of his community.

The Congress of Parents and Teachers was founded because there were children who needed help, guidance and care and a country that needed those children. Has our objective been realized? Have our many accomplishments eliminated our reason for being?

Not as long as there is one home in which the family car is in greater demand than the family Bible. Not as long as there is one empty pew in church, an empty seat at the meetings of civic clubs, one unnecessary excuse to get out of jury service or one public office with a closed door and drawn curtains.

The challenge still confronts us while there is a politician in office who got there through pull and then stopped pulling . . . who lets constitutional government die of cold feet because he is afraid to get into hot water . . . who is so concerned with the left and the right that he forgets the above and below.

If there is a Texan alive who is following the crowd instead of his conscience or is sacrificing a dot here and a dash there in the Constitution to get a dollar sign on the ledger, there’s a job for the P-TA.

As long as there is one little face prematurely bruised by the hard knocks from which irresponsible parents were unwilling to shield it . . . one child deprived of health, learning, love, sympathy and spiritual guidance . . . one young American denied the chance to rise to whatever heights God will lead him and by his strength to strengthen others, there is plenty of work for the P-TA.

Nowadays some people work for a living, others try to vote for it and all of us fall victim to the tendency to measure the value of things in terms of economic prosperity. In our eagerness to maintain a high standard of living, we tend to let other standards decline.

In this contest between gold and government we ought to remember that the good things of life can neither be bought with money or voted into existence. Nobody can open a safety deposit box and file away a title to a Texas sunset. No one can lay gold on the counter and buy the look of trust and innocence in a child’s eyes. No man can trade hard cash for the companionship of a true friend or purchase at any price the love and devotion of a good wife. All the money in all the treasuries of the world is not worth the sound of a mother’s lullaby or the laughter of a free man.

Surely then all the wealth, resources, railroads, oil derricks, cotton fields industries and herds of cattle in the great state of Texas will not be enough to purchase freedom for a single toe-headed [sic] boy or pig-tailed girl unless we have filed away in our hearts this priceless knowledge:

Freedom is old, not young; yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak, but strong; yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him who is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;
It is not small, but great; yet once lost it is never, never found again.
Yes, to be born free is an accident;
To live free is a responsibility;
But to die free is an obligation.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]