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Civil Rights Advocacy on Behalf of the Poor

By Catherine M. Paden

Publication Year: 2011

Representation of the poor has never been the top priority for civil rights organizations, which exist to eradicate racially prejudiced and discriminatory practices and policy. Scholars have argued that the activities and ideologies of civil rights groups have functioned with a distinct middle-class bias since well before the 1960s civil rights movement. Additionally, all political organizations face disincentives to represent the poor—such advocacy is expensive and politically unpopular, and often involves trade-offs with other issues that are more central to organizations' missions.

In Civil Rights Advocacy on Behalf of the Poor, Catherine M. Paden examines five civil rights organizations and explores why they chose to represent the poor—specifically low-income African Americans—during six legislative periods considering welfare reform. Paden's archival research into groups such as NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and her extensive interviews with movement leaders and activists reveal that national organizations advocate on behalf of the poor when they have incentives to do so. Organizational decisions to represent the poor are sometimes strategic, sometimes based on an ideological commitment, and sometimes both. However, Paden points out that decisions are never purely ideological—groups are always aware of strategy and of their positions within their issue niche when they fix their priorities.

Civil Rights Advocacy on Behalf of the Poor also points to the critical role that radical organizations play in increasing representation in the U.S. political system. Paden maintains that radical groups matter not because their representation affects long-term policy change or is particularly effective in representing the interest of marginal groups. Rather, she argues, it is because they compete with more mainstream or conservative organizations for their constituencies.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: American Governance: Politics, Policy, and Public Law


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1. Anti-Poverty as a Civil Rights Issue?

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pp. 1-22

On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, eventually killing between fifteen hundred and two thousand people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. The images of New Orleans surprised some Americans, who were struck by the poverty there and that the majority of those affected were African American.1 The disproportionate levels of poverty experienced by African Americans in New Orleans became front page news; media outlets displayed imagery of...

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2. Assessing and Explaining Shifts in Organizational Priorities

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pp. 23-37

Before exploring why civil rights organizations advocated on behalf of the poor during some periods and not others, it is necessary to establish when, and to what extent, such advocacy occurred. When did civil rights organizations shift their level of attention to representation of the poor? As I discuss in the previous chapter, my analysis of organizational decision-making is based on the archives of five civil rights organizations: CORE, NAACP, NUL, SCLC, and SNCC.1 After explaining my approach...

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3. Civil Rights Organizations and the War on Poverty

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pp. 38-73

Because of the persisting relationship between race and poverty, civil rights organizations have advocated on behalf of low-income African Americans throughout their histories. Civil rights organizations vary in their founding level of commitment to poverty, and to economic issues in general. One of the NUL’s founding missions was to provide job training for African Americans; SNCC’s founding statement indicated the effects of poverty on African Americans. In fact, each civil rights...

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4. Civil Rights Organizations' Anti-Poverty Activities During the Late 1960s and Early 1970s

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pp. 74-88

Anti-poverty activism benefited from the civil rights movement and became integrated into the purposes of many groups during the mid-1960s. After the height of the movement, the landscape of organizations changed. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, newer groups were disintegrating and were not engaged in national level advocacy on behalf of the poor. The NAACP and NUL priorities were affected by these changes...

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5. Explaining Priority Shifts During the 1960s

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pp. 89-117

Throughout the civil rights movement, national and local activists gained deeper understandings of the extent and effects of poverty.1 Activists saw firsthand the depressive effects of poverty on political participation—poverty interfered with the organizations’ goals of voter registration. For some national organizations, like SNCC and CORE, this exposure at the local level pushed poverty onto their agendas. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, some civil rights organizers argued that economic equity should be the...

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6. Explaining Priority Shifts During the Early 1970s

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pp. 118-133

Beginning in the late 1960s, and certainly by the early 1970s, the universe of civil rights organizations had changed a great deal—SNCC held its last staff meeting in 1969, and CORE and SCLC were no longer mounting national-level campaigns. The NAACP and NUL fared better during this period, although both were facing financial challenges. Due to such challenges, changes in the civil rights issue niche, and political...

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7. Recent Battles, Recent Challenges

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pp. 134-157

Civil rights organizations varied in their responses to the needs of the poor during two recent, and different, policy battles—welfare reform during the mid-1990s and the response to Hurricane Katrina between 2005 and 2008. Drawing on organizational documents and interviews with leaders and staff, I assess NAACP and NUL attention to issues of poverty during each period. Since organizational archives are not yet available for such recent times, I largely rely on public documents and...

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8. Conclusions

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pp. 158-168

During the 1960s, local groups and affiliates of national civil rights organizations worked in African American communities throughout the South, and in northern cities, registering people to vote. Local workers for national organizations were consistently struck by the levels of poverty in these communities, and understood that one’s economic concerns interacted with one’s potential for political participation, making...

Appendix A: Archival Research and Coding

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pp. 169-180

Appendix B: Shifts in Organizational Attention to Anti-Poverty Policy

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pp. 181-182

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 183-184


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pp. 185-212

Notes to Figure Sources

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pp. 213-214


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pp. 215-224


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pp. 225-228

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pp. 229-232

I am very grateful to have had the support of family, friends, and colleagues throughout the many years this project has endured. I am exceedingly thankful for their insights, patience, and support throughout this process. Most important, I would like to thank the civil rights leaders and staff who were interviewed for this project. I was very...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204605
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242973

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: American Governance: Politics, Policy, and Public Law
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Richard Valelly, Pamela Brandwein, Marie Gottschalk, Christopher Howard See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 793012541
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Civil Rights Advocacy on Behalf of the Poor

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Social advocacy -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poor African Americans -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poor -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- Societies, etc. -- History -- 20th century.
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