- Freedom is Not Enough: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Texas
In his introduction, William Clayson states that he intended to “trace the connections between the War on Poverty and the civil rights movement using Texas as a statewide case study” (5). He largely succeeds in doing that and more. Based on archival and journalistic accounts as well as several interviews conducted by the author, Clayson proves his case that the War on Poverty, particularly the Office of Economic Opportunity’s community action programs, had an almost symbiotic relationship with the civil rights movement. His focus on Texas works well for him, as it provides both rural and urban settings as well as active civil rights movements among both African American and Mexican American citizens.
According to Clayson, liberals such as Lyndon Johnson believed that defeating poverty and eliminating racism went hand in hand. These postwar liberals argued that the fastest path to achieving social equality was eliminating the obstacles that kept minorities from full participation in the social and economic life of the nation. Declaring “war on poverty,” therefore, fit in with the larger goal of creating a color-blind, integrated world. LBJ and his associates were not naïve, however. They recognized that civil rights and antipoverty programs had better chances of getting through Congress and meeting with the approval of the American public if they were not directly associated with one another. Consequently, they emphasized that antipoverty programs would benefit all races.
Things did not go as smoothly as Johnson hoped. Clayson points out several problems in the original plan. First, LBJ based his War on Poverty on work done during the Kennedy years. The preliminary design called for a trial implementation in a limited number of cities. LBJ expanded the program to include the entire country. Second, although states such as Texas housed a greater number of poor whites than poor minorities, most poor whites did not participate in a program they associated with blacks and Hispanics. Perhaps most important, LBJ allowed the original bill creating the Community Action Programs to include a call for “the maximum feasible participation of the residents” of the community. Asking for input from the people who lived in the poorer areas threatened the local power structures in many areas. City and state officials frequently disagreed with residents as to the best use of federal funding to benefit the community. The “maximum feasible participation” clause did not last long.
And yet, as Clayson points out, it was that clause that reinforced the connection between the war on poverty and the war on racism, though not in ways anticipated [End Page 230] by the Johnson liberals. Clayson argues that the Office of Employment Opportunity (OEO), particularly through its maximum feasible participation clause, helped minority groups coalesce. By requiring the involvement of the poor, various OEO projects taught minorities how to organize, provided funding for their projects, and encouraged them to think of themselves as political entities. This sometimes led to confrontations between local Democratic officials and participants in the OEO projects. Moreover, as attitudes among minority groups hardened and competition for federal funding increased during the latter half of the 1960s, the consensus LBJ hoped to achieve disappeared. Although not all of the projects succeeded in their goals, those that did had long-term effects of their communities. Sometimes the lessons of community action outlasted the federal funding.
Clayson’s use of case studies from throughout Texas provide both the evidence to support his argument and the human element necessary to make the book an interesting read. My only complaint would be his obvious enthusiasm for community action, which colors the last section of the book and might make others question the legitimacy of his case.