In a way, Stan Salett is an American hero. He personifies a myriad of ideal qualities: the conscientious work ethic, talent, tenacity, and intuitiveness about the various communities of social action. His memoir, “The Edge of Politics: Stories from the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty and the Challenges of School Reform,” tells the story with resonance and zip.
Born in the midst of the Depression, Salett was raised by a family with modest financial resources, and an impressive dedication to its neighborhood/district. His parents were a part of various political causes and campaigns, and an uncle was the assistant US attorney for Boston.
During Salett’s graduate school years at Columbia he joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a Civil Rights organization, exposed the discriminatory housing policies at the University, and later, helped fashion the strategy for Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington — of 250,000 participants. That and the post-election “buzz” from John F. Kennedy’s presidency lured him to Washington.
Initially, he obtained a position with the Department of Labor that routed into the Administration and its Persons of Influence.
Heady contact with Ted Sorenson, Sargent Shriver, Robert F. Kennedy, and members of Congress pumped the twentyish Salett — and the country — with endless optimism and hope.
“The first bellwether for my generation was the election of President Kennedy. Kennedy’s characterization of his prime audience as a ‘new generation of Americans’ seemed to speak to us directly that it was our time to assume the country’s leadership.”
Educational and social projects simmered, as did the not-quite-publicly-confronted issue of Civil Rights, and few knew — yet — about Viet Nam.
After the assassination, the country was deflated, but Johnson picked up Kennedy’s important initiatives and swept most of them through Congress within his self-imposed benchmark of a thousand days. Salett’s beloved Head Start and Upward Bound programs emerged from the Johnson era; nearly 50 years later, they persist, capitalizing thousands of college tuitions for underprivileged students.
Later, Salett, and then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, would inaugurate the Economic Recovery Act to underwrite before, after, and summer school programs, and shape legislation to curb juvenile delinquency.
In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, he — alongside others — would restore the New Jersey public schools to a system of excellence, become an advocate for more efficient federal governance and a deputy finance director with the 1980 Presidential Campaign of Ted Kennedy, relocate to Maryland, reconstitute himself into an educational consultant for pupils and parents, campaign successfully for a position on the school board, and proceed to advise American and Soviet businesses for strategic guidance.
Still, with all of his tentacles of importance in corporate, scholastic, and political orbits, Salett has not received out-loud, public recognition. That may be his choice. Either way, he is worthy of it.
David Bruce Smith is the author of 11 books and founder of the Grateful American™ Foundation, which is restoring enthusiasm about American history for kids — and adults — through videos, podcasts, and interactive activities.