Freedom Is Not Enough
The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Texas
Publication Year: 2010
Published by: University of Texas Press
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In March 1965 television audiences got a jarring glimpse of the violence that enforced segregation in the Jim Crow South. Mounted sheriff’s deputies and Alabama state troopers, menacing in protective masks, trampled and beat young marchers in a cloud of tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Such brazen racist violence captured on the television news seemed to discredit the recent legislative triumph of the Civil Rights Act and pending voting rights legislation for southern blacks. To reaffirm the nation’s commitment to civil rights, Lyndon Johnson responded with a speech that compared the bravery of the marchers, who risked their lives for the right to vote, to the...
One. Poverty, Race, and Politics in Postwar Texas
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Michael Harrington’s The Other America may have sparked a “rediscovery” of poverty in the 1960s, but chronic poverty was no revelation in the Lone Star State. Texas had more poor people than any other state when Lyndon Johnson took office.1 Yet poverty in Texas had been on the decline since 1945 as the state followed the nation into the dramatic economic and social transformation of the postwar decades. By the time the War on Poverty began in 1964, many more Texans had moved into John Kenneth Galbraith’s affluent society than remained in Harrington’s other America...
Two. Postwar Liberalism, Civil Rights, and the Origins of the War on Poverty
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The vitriol of political talk in recent decades has clouded historical understanding of liberalism in the twentieth century. Conservatives have largely driven the political discourse in America since LBJ left office, defining liberal Democrats as, more or less, feminist proponents of abortion and gay rights who are soft on defense and cater to minorities with affirmative action and welfare programs. Ronald Reagan made “liberal” an epithet—“the L word”— and made “big government” liberalism nearly synonymous with “socialism.” Reaganite myth held that government of the New Deal and the Great Society intruded on individual liberties, stole from working families with oppressive taxes, made people hopelessly dependent, weakened the national defense in the face of mortal threats, and sought to erase the moral codes that defined...
Three. The War on Poverty and Texas Politics
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The Democratic Party in Texas began to unravel in the postwar period. No other state, George Norris Green asserts, “could boast of a governor (conservative John Connally) and a senator (liberal Ralph Yarborough) in the same party who hardly spoke to each other and who took every opportunity to undermine each other for six years.”1 No other issue informed this enmity more than civil rights. Conservatives who identified with Governor Connally maintained that civil rights legislation violated states’ rights. Liberals, represented through the sixties by Senator Yarborough, firmed up their commitment to civil rights with a strengthening coalition of African American and Mexican American voters. The newly emergent Republicans, led by Senator John Tower, became the primary beneficiaries of the civil war among the state’s Democrats. Tower renounced the Johnson administration’s civil rights initiatives and drew many Texas voters who could not disassociate Connally’s...
Four. Launching the War on Poverty in Texas [Includes Photo Inserts]
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The battery of programs introduced by the OEO, presented as a bewildering list of acronyms, confused local officials when the War on Poverty came to the Lone Star State. In Brownsville the Cameron County Commissioners’ Court invited the local press to a discussion of the unfolding fight on poverty. County Judge Oscar C. Dancy’s understanding of the OEO’s role reflected that of many local officials in Texas: “I’m in favor of cooperating with the President and the governor as far as we can on this poverty thing . . . The beautification of highways, parks, seems to be the first on the President’s program.”1 Dancy and many others seemed to believe that LBJ intended more or less to revive the New Deal. When a reporter asked the judge, “Is it a make work program, like the WPA was?” Dancy replied, “Yes, I would say it is, at...
Five. Making Maximum Participation Feasible: Community Action in Urban Texas
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Recent scholarship on the War on Poverty focuses on the significance of community action and other OEO programs to the political mobilization of marginalized groups at the grassroots level. African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and women in general, already activated politically for the civil rights revolution, saw the OEO as a means to include and advance the cause of economic justice on their agendas. Civil rights activists took the OEO’s principle of maximum feasible participation seriously—for them it was feasible for the poor to participate by running the programs in their communities.1 This represents a departure from the earliest scholarship on the War on Poverty, which tended to depict confrontations over OEO funds between local civil rights groups and city hall, often controlled by local Democratic machines, as a liability for LBJ and the overall Great Society agenda. There was little or no acknowledgment that in many cases community action was...
Six. Race Conflict and the War on Poverty in Texas
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On September 12, 1968, more than two thousand angry protesters marched through the narrow streets of downtown San Antonio to stage a demonstration at city hall. SANYO supporters staged the protest to compel the EODC to place control of funds for the Concentrated Employment Program (CEP), a new effort introduced by the OEO to bring jobs into low-income areas. Police and reporters stood by as speakers provoked “a super-charged emotional upheaval” of shaking fists and chants from the crowd.1 The protesters, mostly Mexican American, endured the late-summer heat because they had grown impatient with the lack of nonwhite involvement in the administration of the local War on Poverty. Albert Peña brought the protest to a climax when he declared, “The city and the county should stay out of the poverty program and let the poor people run it . . . San Antonio will never be the same again...
Seven. The War on Poverty and the Militants: The OEO and the Chicano Movement
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The events of 1965 cast doubt on the substance of the liberal legislative accomplishments of 1964. The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Economic Opportunity Act and Lyndon Johnson’s electoral victory all seemed less substantive as Watts burned and Alabama state troopers beat young marchers at Selma. For those civil rights activists who would lead the militant phase of the civil rights movement after 1965, Selma and Watts were unsurprising evidence of the failure of the liberal agenda. That mounted police beat peaceful marchers in Selma proved that the Civil Rights Act had failed to vanquish racist violence. Similarly, the riot in Watts proved that the Economic Opportunity Act and the War on Poverty had done little to alleviate chronic urban poverty. For the militants, Lyndon Johnson was just another white politician, big on promises but unwilling to share power and unable to...
Eight. A "Preventative Force"? Urban Violence, Black Power, and the OEO
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The Black Power movement did not develop as extensive an organizational base in Texas as did the Chicanos with MAYO. Black Power nevertheless paralleled the Chicano movement in the state. Young people came under the influence of national leaders like Stokely Carmichael, who rejected integration as a goal when he assumed leadership of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in 1966. The only black Texan to gain national recognition within the movement was Bobby Seale, who grew up in various Texas cities as his father, a single parent of three children, moved frequently to look for work. Seale came of age in Oakland, California, where he helped create the Black Panther Party (BPP). Carl Hampton, a Black Panther organizer originally from Houston, returned to his hometown from Oakland to open a Houston chapter of the Panthers. Unable to get an endorsement from the national Black Panthers, in 1969 Hampton instead formed the largest militant organization in the state, the People’s Party II (the first people’s party being the BPP). Like the Panthers, the People’s Party II focused on teaching self- defense, confronting police brutality, and providing services to the poor such as food and clothing. The Houston Police killed Hampton in a 1970 shootout...
Nine. After LBJ: Republican Ascendance and Grassroots Antipoverty Activism
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In 1968 Ralph Abernathy, the new chair of the Southern Christian Leader- ship Conference (SCLC), chose to go ahead with a march on Washington that Martin Luther King Jr. had been planning when he was murdered. King called it the Poor People’s Campaign. He hoped the event would be a show of unity as people of all races gathered in the capital to dramatize the plight of the poor. King wanted to make clear to the nation that the demands of economic injustice compelled the civil rights movement to continue. In the summer after King’s death, some seven thousand protesters gathered on the national mall in Washington and built a camp of tents they called Resurrection City. The march drew very little attention at the time and had no impact on national economic policies. There was just too much going on in 1968 for the Poor People’s Campaign to capture public attention.1 King’s assassination and the riots that followed, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the Tet offensive, and Lyndon Johnson’s abdication combined to make Americans weary. Even people sympathetic to King when he came to Washington in 1963 had grown tired of marches. Bertrand Harding, who took over the OEO when Shriver left, wondered whether the Poor People’s Campaign accomplished...
Conclusion: Texans and the "Long War on Poverty"
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It seems mandatory in any study of the War on Poverty to repeat Ronald Reagan’s notorious assessment of the effort, which he offered in his final state of the union address in 1988: “My friends, some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”1 In response to Reagan’s assessment, liberals concluded that the “War on Poverty didn’t fail. It was called off.”2 Recent scholarship has made it clear that both assessments are wrong. The fact that poverty still exists does not mean poverty won the war, if for no other reason than the War on Poverty was not called off. The federal government began a retreat near the end of the Johnson administration, but the fight against poverty continued independently on the local level. Movements for economic justice have emerged with less federal assistance since the sixties. Historians have now begun to trace the contours of a “long war on poverty,” just as Jacquelyn Dowd Hall introduced the concept of the “long...
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Page Count: 230
Illustrations: 15 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2010