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War on Poverty

A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980

Annelise Orleck

Publication Year: 2011

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has long been portrayed as the most potent symbol of all that is wrong with big government. Conservatives deride the War on Poverty for corruption and the creation of “poverty pimps,” and even liberals carefully distance themselves from it. Examining the long War on Poverty from the 1960s onward, this book makes a controversial argument that the programs were in many ways a success, reducing poverty rates and weaving a social safety net that has proven as enduring as programs that came out of the New Deal.

The War on Poverty also transformed American politics from the grass roots up, mobilizing poor people across the nation. Blacks in crumbling cities, rural whites in Appalachia, Cherokees in Oklahoma, Puerto Ricans in the Bronx, migrant Mexican farmworkers, and Chinese immigrants from New York to California built social programs based on Johnson’s vision of a greater, more just society. Contributors to this volume chronicle these vibrant and largely unknown histories while not shying away from the flaws and failings of the movement—including inadequate funding, co-optation by local political elites, and blindness to the reality that mothers and their children made up most of the poor.

In the twenty-first century, when one in seven Americans receives food stamps and community health centers are the largest primary care system in the nation, the War on Poverty is as relevant as ever. This book helps us to understand the turbulent era out of which it emerged and why it remains so controversial to this day.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii-ix

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Introduction: The War on Poverty from the Grass Roots Up

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pp. 1-28

On a blistering Las Vegas day in 1972, a desolate, dangerous corner of the city’s black West Side came to life. Sweating, skinny teens carried load aft er load of garbage out of an abandoned hotel while their mothers, arms laden with cleaning supplies, set to work making the long- abandoned interior habitable again. Over the next few months, poor African American women and men ...

Part I. Battles over Community Action

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“This Government Is with Us”: Lyndon Johnson and the Grassroots War on Poverty

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pp. 31-62

On a summer morning in late June 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson set out to visit the ghetto. On his way to Texas for a long weekend at his ranch, Johnson made a side trip to Philadelphia, where he toured the headquarters of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC). A community- based job training program, OIC had been founded three years earlier by a group of ...

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“To Challenge the Status Quo by Any Means”: Community Action and Representational Politics in 1960s Baltimore

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pp. 63-86

Proclaiming his desire to fulfill each citizen’s “basic hopes, ones all too oft en circumscribed by poverty and race”—hopes for “a fair chance,” “fair play from the law,” “a full-time job on full-time pay,” “a decent home for his family in a decent community,” “a good school for his children with good teachers,” and “security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age”— ...

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Ideological Diversity and the Implementation of the War on Poverty in Houston

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pp. 87-109

In Houston, the largest city in the American South, as in other cities and in some rural communities, the War on Poverty was profoundly shaped by a multifarious group of local actors that included public officials, financial elites, grassroots antipoverty activists, program administrators, federal volunteers, civil rights activists, and poor people themselves. In particular, the Community ...

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Defining the Space of Participation in a Northern City: Tejanos and the War on Poverty in Milwaukee

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pp. 110-130

Many of the important social movements of the 1960s played out dramatically in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a midwestern industrial city known for the brewing of beer. One of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, Milwaukee is divided along a north- south axis by the Menomonee River. The river also divides the city’s two largest minority communities, African ...

Part II. Poor Mothers and the War on Poverty

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Saving Babies in Memphis: The Politics of Race, Health, and Hunger during the War on Poverty

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pp. 133-158

Barbara McKinney, who has worked for the same African American community action organization in South Memphis, Tennessee, for more than forty years, first encountered severe symptoms of malnutrition among infants and children in her neighborhood in 1967, when she began visiting homes as a newly employed neighborhood aide in one of the most poverty- stricken ...

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“Someday . . . the Colored and White Will Stand Together”: The War on Poverty, Black Power Politics, and Southern Women’s Interracial Alliances

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pp. 159-183

Few federal programs in the past four decades have been the target of as much vitriol and distortion as President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s War on Poverty. Critics on the right deride it as a glaring example of federal waste, fraud, and misguided handouts to the undeserving poor. Some on the left complain about the failure to eradicate poverty, while feminists castigate its focus on ...

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“Parent Power”: Evelina López Antonetty, the United Bronx Parents, and the War on Poverty

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pp. 184-208

Anyone in New York’s City’s South Bronx in the late 1960s would have found it hard to miss the “United Bronx Parents” sign at 791 Prospect Avenue. Stretching across the building’s facade, the large sign hinted at a complex and until now mostly hidden history of life, politics, and economics in one of America’s poorest urban communities. This history turns on the desires and ...

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Gender, Civil Rights Activism, and the War on Poverty in Los Angeles

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pp. 209-228

Three women of color, Opal Jones, Francisca Flores, and Graciela Olivarez, made signal contributions to the War on Poverty in Los Angeles. In the process, these women challenged the racial and gender status quo in that city’s African American and Mexican American activist communities, in Los Angeles city government, and in the administration of the federal War on Poverty. Jones, ...

Part III. The War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Movement, and Southern Politics

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Poverty Wars in the Louisiana Delta: White Resistance, Black Power, and the Poorest Place in America

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pp. 231-255

A quarter century aft er President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared an unconditional War on Poverty, the U.S. Census revealed Lake Providence, Louisiana, to be the poorest place in America. In 1990, an almost four-square-mile census block covering the town’s southern half earned the troubling distinction of having the nation’s lowest median annual income, beating out other ...

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Plantation Politics: The Tufts-Delta Health Center and Intraracial Class Conflict in Mississippi, 1965–1972

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pp. 256-279

In 1965, the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) approved a proposal to establish a community health center in the all- black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The center promised to serve impoverished residents of northern Bolivar County, who had almost no access to medical care. Initiated and staff ed by civil rights activists, the project sought to move beyond providing ...

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Fighting for the Child Development Group of Mississippi: Poor People, Local Politics, and the Complicated Legacy of Head Start

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pp. 280-307

The Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), a network of child care and educational centers and one of the most controversial programs to emerge from the Community Action Program (CAP) of the War on Poverty, began as a hopeful outgrowth of the movement schools established during the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign. Civil rights activists organized Freedom ...

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Going Back to Selma: Organizing for Change in Dallas County after the March to Montgomery

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pp. 308-333

The national history of the civil rights movement is oft en remembered by using specific locations to explain how racial segregation met its end. In popular memory, the dramatic events that unfolded in Montgomery, Little Rock, Birmingham, the Mississippi Delta, Selma, and Memphis are commemorated most. Museums have been built to explain what happened, monuments ...

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The War on Poverty and the Chicano Movement in Texas: Confronting “Tio Tomás” and the “Gringo Pseudoliberals”

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pp. 334-356

In October 1967, U.S. president Lyndon Baines Johnson went to El Paso, Texas, to meet with Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, the president of Mexico, and Texas governor John Connally. The purpose of the visit was to return the Chamizal Territory, a six-hundred-acre strip of land along the Rio Grande, to Mexico. Mexico had disputed U.S. claims to the land since the late nineteenth century, when the ...

Part IV. What Do They Really Mean by Community Development?

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Looking Back to the City in the Hills: The Council of the Southern Mountains and a Longer View of the War on Poverty in the Appalachian South, 1913–1970

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pp. 359-386

Though usually associated with racial minorities in decaying urban centers, the War on Poverty rhetorically and symbolically began with Appalachia. Shortly aft er he declared “unconditional war on poverty” in his January 8, 1964, State of the Union address, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced that he would “launch a special effort in the chronically distressed areas of ...

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The War on Poverty in Mississippi and Oklahoma: Beyond Black and White

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pp. 387-410

The War on Poverty is typically seen in black and white. Economists and political scientists marshal statistics to argue that it either succeeded or failed. Sociologists debate whether the approach taken toward poverty was right or wrong. These disputes are seldom painted in shades of gray. Historians have looked through a similar lens. Historical assessments overwhelmingly focus ...

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The House That “Equality” Built: The Asian American Movement and the Legacy of Community Action

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pp. 411-436

President Lyndon Baines Johnson liked to quote the prophet Isaiah. “Come, let us reason together,” Johnson sometimes said (assuming the voice of God) as he prepared to exercise his famous powers of persuasion.1 But Johnson was no literalist. Jesus told his disciples that the poor would be “with you always.” Johnson and the other architects of the Great Society disagreed. Convinced ...

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Conclusion: The War on the War on Poverty and American Politics since the 1960s

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pp. 437-462

The War on Poverty and the programs it spawned have had a complicated and ambivalent history since the 1960s. They have been attacked rhetorically on all fronts. Politicians across the political spectrum have consistently portrayed Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society as symbols of all that is wrong with big government and as arguments against future expansions of federal poverty ...


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pp. 463-466


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pp. 467-503

E-ISBN-13: 9780820341842
E-ISBN-10: 0820341843
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820331010
Print-ISBN-10: 0820331015

Page Count: 480
Illustrations: 13 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Community development -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Public welfare -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poor -- Political activity -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Economic assistance, Domestic -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poverty -- Government policy -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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