- “An Interracial Movement of the Poor”: Community Organizing and the New Left
“She looked at me and said, “You can’t help me.” I said, “Well, we are going to help each other.” And she said, “No, you don’t know what I mean. I understand about politics. You can’t help me today. I need groceries today.” And it was true, I couldn’t help her todayI remember having this feeling of deep inadequacy.(103).
Bob Ross’ recollection of organizing the poor in 1964 captures the idealism and frustration activists experienced in their effort to foster participatory democracy in America’s urban neighborhoods. Ross was a member of the Economic Research and Action Project [ERAP], an organization sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society [SDS]. Founded in 1963, ERAP attempted to build “an interracial movement of the poor” that would challenge mid-century liberalism and empower underrepresented people to determine their own political destinies.
Jennifer Frost’s “An Interracial Movement of the Poor”: Community Organizing and the New Left focuses on ERAP in an attempt to broaden understanding of New Left activism. As Frost succinctly puts it, studying ERAP helps “belie the image of SDS members as ‘spoiled brats’ with ‘disdain for the lives of ordinary people,’ [and] demonstrate[s] that the white New Left was not monolithic and that not all participants experienced it in the same way” (3). To this end, Frost conducted some fifty oral interviews and mined archival records to examine the evolution of ERAP from its roots in campus-based idealism to its collapse in the fractious days of 1968.
ERAP grew out of civil rights activists’ gradual recognition that social and economic inequities at the local level, not just racism, disenfranchised African Americans. SDS members, many already civil rights veterans, hoped that organizing among the urban poor would address economic inequality and break down racial barriers by creating common bonds around the problems of poverty. Yet early thinking about such organizing divided SDSers, who debated the efficacy of launching direct action programs without adequate research. Should activists organize communities around issues of poverty and racism or focus instead on the “radical education” of college students? This “action versus theory” debate proved prophetic for ERAPers, who would struggle to balance ideology with the practical needs of the poor.
ERAP established a number of community projects, enjoying limited success in cities like Chicago, Boston, Newark, and Cleveland. Initially, ERAPers focused on securing full employment or guaranteed income and on empowering the poor to shape national economic planning. Yet ERAPers soon realized that their emphasis on unemployed men did not reflect community interests. Instead, they often found poor women more concerned with housing conditions and access to welfare than with jobs for men. Moreover, ERAPers’ assumptions that they could organize “the poor” into a political force overlooked the diversity in [End Page 255] poor communities. ERAPers soon had to admit that “[n]eighorhoods were not always communities” and that poor people did not always think alike (69).
Reacting to community diversity and the impracticality of much of their strategic agenda, ERAPers embraced flexibility, which eventually allowed constituent voices to determine the direction of community action. Through canvassing and recruitment ERAPers introduced themselves to the neighborhood while generating information about community needs. This process revealed that, despite ERAP’s initial focus on men as both the primary activists and constituents, women proved to be more effective organizers, and traditionally women’s issues, such as housing and child welfare, key constituent interests. This realization forced ERAP and the New Left in general to expand the “political” to include personal issues—an understanding that would galvanize second wave feminists. As Frost notes, “Changing ERAP’s organizing focus necessitated opening up putatively apolitical spaces and activities to politics, and defining concerns associated with women’s responsibilities for home, family, and community as legitimate elements of a social movement” (99).
ERAP’s successes were few compared to its failures. The rise of Black Power discouraged white activists from...