Carry It On: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, 1964-1972 (review)
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Book Reviews Carry It On: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, 1964–1972. By Susan Youngblood Ashmore. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008. xiv, 398 pp. $69.95 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-8203-3007-5. $24.95 (paper). ISBN 978-0-8203-3051-8. What happened to the Civil Rights movement after the 1965 Selma-toMontgomery march? Susan Youngblood Ashmore answers that the federal War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed the movement from agitation to, as activist Shirley Mesher said, “grinding head-on work” (p. 13). This work occurred at the local level, as poor, disempowered blacks organized to improve their lives in the face of institutionalized white supremacy held in place by a bastion of conservatives. Both sides tried to access or manipulate federal assistance to their own ends. Federal law altered the terrain, but for both sides the battle continued with only incremental changes. Ashmore examines the connection between economics and politics, tracing the growth in Alabama’s Black Belt of bottom-up economic endeavors encouraged by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), as well as black political achievement and the Black Power movement in the area, to 1972. But this is not a story of foreordained success. She writes that “in many ways, the civil rights movement carried on, but so did the forces of white supremacy” (p. 15). How she arrives at this conclusion makes her work exceptionally valuable to the histories of Alabama, the War on Poverty, and this era in general. An expansion of her dissertation, Carry It On opens with a dense legislative history of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 followed by a discussion of how the Office of Economic Opportunity was supposed to work. Later, Ashmore examines how the OEO actually did its work in the South as its liberal factions battled its own regional office in Atlanta and the Alabama state capital in Montgomery. Indeed, Governor George Wallace and his cronies stood both steadfastly and stealthily against African American political and economic progress in the wake of this federal legislation. Ashmore examines how Wallace, his immediate successors, segregationist local officials, state bureaucrats , and legislative allies opposed change until opposition became impossible, then erected phony structures to siphon off as much patronage as possible or forestall federal funding of local (read: black) initiatives . O C T O B E R 2 0 1 0 283 In the face of grinding poverty, African Americans used the momentum of the Civil Rights movement to secure and protect their livelihoods. Ashmore pays most attention to efforts near Selma, where the battle for the ballot was only part of the picture. Rural blacks depended on the good will of planters and made too little in cash to access Department of Agriculture and Future Farmers of America (FFA) farm improvement loans—if they knew such loans existed. In the immediate aftermath of the Selma march, Ashmore looks at how these sharecroppers organized local breakaway parties to gain a political foothold in the 1966 election. To the poor of west Alabama, politics was really an economic tool. Ashmore illustrates this with the dual stories of the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative Association and the national Democratic Party in Alabama. Unfortunately, she cannot give equal coverage to both, but to make her point, she cannot separate them. The result is an unbalanced chapter. Nevertheless, the exceptional quantity of information she provides about both organizations overshadows this imbalance. Ashmore’s final chapters, particularly her evaluation of the OEO’s Community Action Agencies (CAAs) and Community Action Programs (CAPs), are a searing indictment of southern chicanery abetted by Washington’s feet of clay. She passionately describes the OEO’s failure to live up to the law’s mandated maximum feasible participation by the poor in the CAAs and CAPs. She castigates the OEO’s neglect of its Atlanta office’s complicity in the sham CAPs that pilfered funds or stood in the way of real progress. She blasts the Department of Agriculture for ignoring discrimination by field agents, state affiliates, and FFA of- fices. This is bad stuff, and...


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