A People’s War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston by Wesley G. Phelps
Sam Houston State University professor Wesley G. Phelps has written an engaging and informative case study that highlights the rise, development, and unraveling of the grassroots War on Poverty movement in Houston, Texas. Through primary and secondary sources, Phelps asserts that grassroots activists not only desired the War on Poverty programs but wanted to confront the democratic status quo of how government should serve its people. Central to Phelps’s narrative was the economic and political philosophies of Mayor Louis Welch, Saul Alinsky, and William V. Ballew Jr. The broad range of these philosophies blended religious connotations with the modern liberalism of the 1960s.
In contrast with many academic scholars, Phelps asserts that Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) was the most crucial War on Poverty program that could be implemented at the grassroots level. The author maintains that the most overwhelming challenge of grassroots efforts was the empowerment of poor residents to believe that there could be institutional change in Houston. Local leaders created Operation Discovery in order to achieve this empowerment. Community action committees focused on four inadequacies in Houston: housing, employment, educational [End Page 439] opportunities, and health facilities. In order to bring about institutional change, local activists’ actions ranged from non-confrontational tactics to agitation and aggressive visions. Phelps claims that these activists not only wanted to establish poverty programs but to expand the meaning of democracy for all citizens. According to Phelps, by the spring of 1967, Houston’s mayor and chief of police were at odds with local community leaders. Phelps thus claims that “the window of opportunity for using the War on Poverty to expand democracy began to close by the beginning of 1967” (88).
Due to the 1967 public eviction of Betty Gentry and the race riot at Texas Southern University, national leaders such as Stokely Carmichael began to pay attention to the poverty programs in Houston. Phelps maintains that with the passage of the Green Amendment, the Nixon administration shifted power back to city administrators and further limited the authority and jurisdiction of local activist leaders. Because of the defeats, misinformation, and internal divisions that plagued Houston’s poverty programs, Phelps states that community efforts created nothing more than a series of charitable agencies. Phelps challenges his readers at the end of his narrative to consider that “democracy itself is inherently unstable, open to interpretation, and inextricably tied to power . . . any expansion of democracy requires struggle, conflict, and even crisis” (183–184).
The reviewer recommends this work to both academic and general readers interested in American civil rights history. Phelps has written a narrative that elicits strong feelings and asks important questions about the political and environmental impact of Houston’s development in the overall historical context of the individual and collective experience. Phelps has provided a valuable and significant contribution to the scholarship on America’s War on Poverty.