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Top Down

The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism

By Karen Ferguson

Publication Year: 2013

At first glance, the Ford Foundation and the black power movement would make an unlikely partnership. After the Second World War, the renowned Foundation was the largest philanthropic organization in the United States and was dedicated to projects of liberal reform. Black power ideology, which promoted self-determination over color-blind assimilation, was often characterized as radical and divisive. But Foundation president McGeorge Bundy chose to engage rather than confront black power's challenge to racial liberalism through an ambitious, long-term strategy to foster the "social development" of racial minorities. The Ford Foundation not only bankrolled but originated many of the black power era's hallmark legacies: community control of public schools, ghetto-based economic development initiatives, and race-specific arts and cultural organizations.

In Top Down, Karen Ferguson explores the consequences of this counterintuitive and unequal relationship between the liberal establishment and black activists and their ideas. In essence, the white liberal effort to reforge a national consensus on race had the effect of remaking racial liberalism from the top down—a domestication of black power ideology that still flourishes in current racial politics. Ultimately, this new racial liberalism would help foster a black leadership class—including Barack Obama—while accommodating the intractable inequality that first drew the Ford Foundation to address the "race problem."

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Politics and Culture in Modern America


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-20

On August 2, 1966, McGeorge Bundy made his first major policy statement as Ford Foundation president in a speech to the National Urban League in Philadelphia. Entitled “Action for Equal Opportunity,” Bundy’s address was a clarion call for a new era at the Ford Foundation, by far the largest and most influential philanthropy in the world. ...

Part I. Sizing Up the Urban Crisis

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Chapter 1. Modernizing Migrants

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pp. 23-48

In 1967, the Ford Foundation’s annual report included a special message from its president, McGeorge Bundy. Writing in the context of what he termed “the terrible riots of 1967,” Bundy’s essay nevertheless put forth a relentlessly positive argument about the nation’s racial future, despite what he acknowledged were the dire facts of its past and present. ...

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Chapter 2. The Social Development Solution

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pp. 49-84

In 1962, the Ford Foundation’s trustees released Directives and Terms of Reference for the 1960s, an implicit call to action against Henry Heald, the Foundation’s president. Heald’s conservatism and top-down management style had been very attractive to the board just a few years before in the wake of the 1950s Red Scare, ...

Part II. Transforming the Ghetto

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Chapter 3. Developmental Separatism and Community Control

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pp. 87-129

When the Ford Foundation’s Fund for the Advancement of Education and the New York Board of Education joined forces in the early 1950s to deal with the “problem” of Puerto Rican migration to the city, their solution was clear. The authors of the study that resulted from their collaboration were confident ...

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Chapter 4. Black Power and the End of Community Action

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pp. 130-166

In the first months of 1968, the newly elected governing board for the I.S. 201 community-control demonstration district and its recently hired administrator, Charles E. Wilson, sent the Ford Foundation’s Mario Fantini their proposal for the schools in East Harlem, along with a request for the Ford Foundation to fund and otherwise support the plan. ...

Part III. Cultivating Leadership

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Chapter 5. Multiculturalism from Above

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pp. 169-209

On August 14, 1966, the New York Times published a guest editorial by Douglas Turner Ward, the African American playwright, director, and actor who had recently become a darling of the New York theater world. Ward’s breakthrough had come thanks not only to his undisputed talent but also to his race in a period when white audiences and critics ...

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Chapter 6. The Best and the Brightest

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pp. 210-254

In January 1979, the Ford Foundation announced that Franklin Thomas would replace the retiring McGeorge Bundy as the president of the Foundation, which was still the nation’s largest and most powerful philanthropy. In making this appointment, the trustees made a monumental gesture that symbolized the culmination of Ford’s long-standing commitment to racial assimilation. ...

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Epilogue. The Diminishing Expectations of Racial Liberalism

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pp. 255-270

The diminution of the purview and program of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC) matched the Foundation’s shrinking expectations for its community-development work overall. In the end, institution building and leadership development were the only concrete and lasting accomplishments of the Foundation’s efforts ...


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pp. 271-312


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pp. 313-324

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pp. 325-327

This book has been very long in coming. In fact I can trace its genesis all the way back to 1990, when I first read about the Ford Foundation’s engagement with black power. That original spark of curiosity about this unlikely relationship ignited a flame that still burns bright, fueled by all of the support I have received over the years. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209037
E-ISBN-10: 0812209036
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245264
Print-ISBN-10: 0812245261

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 15 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Politics and Culture in Modern America
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Margot Canaday, Glenda Gilmore, Michael Kazin, Thomas J. Sugrue See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 867739299
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Top Down

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Black power -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- Political aspects -- History -- 20th century.
  • Liberalism -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • Ford Foundation -- History.
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