When Sargent Shriver passed away on January 18 at age 95, we lost a man whose life’s work improved the lives of millions of people around the world. He was sometimes best known for being a famous “in-law.” During the 1960s and 1970s, when he served in the federal government and as a candidate for Vice President and President, he was often noted for being the brother-in-law of President and the Senators Kennedy. In his later years, as his health faded from Alzheimer’s disease, he was sometimes best recognized as the father of Maria Shriver and father-in-law of her husband, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But his connections to the Kennedy family only helped put him in the right place at the right time to use his own marvelous gifts and passion for public service on a national and global stage.
Sarge Shriver is rightly championed for serving as the founding director of the Peace Corps and working with the Special Olympics which his wife and partner, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded. But as the head of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and the “general” of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, Sarge Shriver made a profound difference and had a lasting impact on the lives of millions of poor people in the United States, including the millions of children served by Head Start.
President Johnson convinced him to take on the role as the head of the newly formed OEO in 1964 although he was already heading the popular Peace Corps, an assignment he had been given by President Kennedy. But President Johnson saw him as the ideal person for this newly formed position to coordinate the federal government’s efforts to fight poverty. As the Washington Post puts it, “A skilled navigator of the federal bureaucracy, Mr. Shriver said the war on poverty was, and would continue to be, ‘noisy, visible, dirty, uncomfortable and sometimes politically unpopular.’ Nevertheless, under his leadership, the OEO developed and implemented signature anti-poverty programs that still exist. Among them are Head Start, which aims to prepare poor children for kindergarten; Volunteers in Service to America, the domestic Peace Corps; and Job Corps, a youth job-training program.”
As Scott Stossel explains in the biography Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, some of the impetus for Head Start came early on as Shriver was reviewing data he had requested on the demographics of poor people in America. He was struck that at the time nearly fifty percent of poor people were children, and a large number of those poor children were under age six. He realized many poor children came to school “‘beaten or at least handicapped before they start…They don’t get a fair, equal start with everyone else.'” He began considering how OEO could help get those poor children “at the starting line even with other children,” and concluded that programs would be needed as early as possible to reach them before poverty had damaged them for life.
Shriver soon asked pediatrician and child development expert Dr. Julius Richmond to join him at the agency to help develop what became Project Head Start. The need in Mississippi was glaring and after the state of Mississippi turned down the Head Start program, civil rights and church groups applied for the money after forming the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), for which I was privileged to serve as legal counsel. Many rural communities in the state were still virtually a slavery-like system, where Black families rented or sharecropped land and bought their food from the same White landowners for whom they worked—and at the end of the year, found they owed the owners money. These plantation owners also maintained a tight lid on any political and civic expression including the right to vote. Black children had no opportunity to develop their full potential. As the first and only Black woman lawyer in Mississippi at the time, I experienced, along with local parents and civil rights workers, what Julius Richmond later described as the harsh resistance he and his colleagues encountered as OEO officials funded CDGM centers serving primarily poor Black children. White protestors threatened workers, and churches and other buildings that housed the centers were targeted. Powerful segregationists Senators Stennis and Eastland threatened to hold up OEO appropriations unless CDGM was de-funded. But poor parents and their advocates fought back and Dr. King joined us in one refunding session with Shriver and his OEO advisors. Eventually, OEO refunded the Child Development Group of Mississippi, and Head Start expanded nationally serving 500,000 children at 2,700 sites around the country including Mississippi in its first six months. Programs like Head Start became not just an educational revolution but an economic revolution creating jobs for Black adults outside the plantation and state structures in the South and sparking new visions and hopes within parents that their children’s lives could be better than theirs.
Hope and positive expectations for realizing children’s future potential reflected Sargent Shriver’s personal optimism and characterized his lifelong work—whether with Head Start children, communities that hosted Peace Corps volunteers, or Special Olympics champions. As Scott Stossel put it in a memorial essay, “a good case can be made that Shriver, through the programs he started and ran, and through the generation of public servants he inspired, may have positively affected more people around the world than any twentieth century American who was not a President or other major elected official or Martin Luther King.” Sargent Shriver’s legacy runs deep and wide, and all of us owe him a great debt of gratitude.