AN ARMY OF THE POOR
By 1965, community organizing was also very much on the minds of policymakers in Washington. The Economic Opportunity Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed into law on August 20, 1964, included in Title II a requirement that federally supported community action programs (caps) provide for the “maximum feasible participation of the residents of the areas and the members of the groups” that they sought to serve. That mandate echoed guidelines that the North Carolina Fund had spelled out a year earlier in its call for cap proposals from local communities. Initially, such requirements seemed to pose no obvious threat to established power. They simply asked middle-class Americans to consider the concerns and outlook of their less fortunate neighbors. But as federal officials, local activists, and the poor themselves sought to give meaning to “participation” and “understanding,” they moved the antipoverty battle onto terrain that was more openly political. That certainly had been the case for members of the North Carolina Volunteers. Their experiences ultimately convinced Fund staff and many of the young people themselves to “chuck” the “volunteer approach” and instead to organize “poor power” so that the “vested interests [of the downtrodden] could be served.” That shift laid bare the relationships of power and privilege that structured economic inequality into the very fabric of American life and, in doing so, ignited a firestorm over the objectives and methods of the War on Poverty. [ 1 ] Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 87; and The North Carolina Fund: Program and Policies, series 1.1.1, folder 8, and clipping, “‘Poor Power’ Need Seen,” Fort Lauderdale News, series 4.11, folder 4954, North Carolina Fund Records, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (hereafter cited as NCFR).
Ironically, the call for maximum feasible participation made its way into the work of the North Carolina Fund and the framing of the Economic Opportunity Act with little debate or anticipation of its disruptive potential. The idea derived primarily from the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas projects and related urban reform initiatives, particularly the Mobilization for Youth program, which was designed to battle juvenile delinquency in New York’s impoverished Lower East Side. There, Paul Ylvisaker and others had promoted community mobilization as a means of battling anomie and “awakening self-respect” among young people who felt alienated from mainstream society and powerless to alter their life circumstances. Ford officials and their local 166 allies also viewed community action as a tool for goading rigidified social welfare bureaucracies into adopting more responsive and effective methods for the delivery of services. [ 2 ] Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 41, 75–101.
The same thinking was critical to the establishment of the North Carolina Fund, which Washington policymakers took as a model for their own national efforts. In late January 1964, shortly after Lyndon Johnson proposed a war on poverty in his State of the Union address, White House aides identified three candidates to lead that effort: Richard Lee, mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, where the Ford Foundation had established one of its early Gray Areas projects; Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law and director of the Peace Corps; and Terry Sanford, who had “launched a very imaginative program . . . more or less along the lines [that Johnson was] considering.” Shriver got the job, but Sanford remained a close adviser to policymakers in Washington. As they drafted the Economic Opportunity Act, legislators and White House staff called on the governor and Fund director George Esser “to lend the value” of their experience. The two North Carolinians placed great emphasis on community action and the involvement of the poor. Sanford told a congressional committee that he “had come to believe that charity and relief [were] not the best answers to human suffering.” “Instead of providing for people,” he urged, “we ought to attempt to find ways to help them work out of their situations of poverty and become self-respecting and self-supporting.” [ 3 ] Memorandum from Charles Schultze to Bill Moyers, January 30, 1964, series 3.1, box 41, Robert Sargent Shriver Papers, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston; Sundquist, On Fighting Poverty, 26; “Three Years of Change: Narrative History of the North Carolina Fund,” series 1.1.1, folder 1, NCFR; “Johnson Administration to Use Some Tactics of N.C. Fund,” Winston-Salem Journal, January 17, 1964; and House Committee on Education and Labor, Hearings before the Subcommittee on the War on Poverty Program, 926, 933.
That conviction resonated with Shriver’s team, particularly Richard Boone, who in the Kennedy administration had been deeply involved with the Gray Areas idea and the work of the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime. Adam Yarmolinsky, a lawyer on loan to Shriver from the Department of Defense, recalled that Boone kept repeating the phrase “maximum feasible participation.” At one point, he confronted Boone, saying, “You have used that phrase four or five times now.” “Yes, I know,” Boone replied. “How many more times do I have to use it before it becomes part of the program?” “Oh, a couple of times more,” Yarmolinsky joked. Boone spoke up again, and the idea was soon “incorporated into the language of the bill.” There was humor in the exchange, Yarmolinsky explained, because at the time, “the possibility of major conflict between the organized poor and the politicians in city hall was simply not one that anybody worried about.” [ 4 ] Yarmolinsky, “Beginnings of OEO,” 49–51.
Lyndon Johnson’s political advisers embraced maximum feasible participation for reasons of their own. Anxious to establish himself as a worthy successor to John Kennedy and eager to maintain the Democratic Party’s lock on black votes in the urban North, the new president sought early on to signal 167 his responsiveness to the civil rights movement. That concern quickly became part of the planning for the War on Poverty. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor, recalled that aides close to the president started to ask, “What about Negroes in the South?” “Inasmuch as the local white power structure would control” federal funds allocated for community action, “how could it be ensured that impoverished Negroes would get something like a proportionate share?” The answer was to write such a provision into law, and here the call for poor people’s participation served a practical political purpose. It would guarantee “that persons excluded from the political process in the South . . . would nonetheless participate in the benefits of the community action programs of the new legislation.” At the time, Moynihan added, no one involved in drafting the Economic Opportunity Act viewed it as an instrument for remaking southern politics. Indeed, “it was taken as a matter beneath notice that [community action] programs would be dominated by the local political structure.” [ 5 ] Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 86–87.
Members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation took a less sanguine view of the legislation. On August 8, 1964, they called Shriver to a meeting in the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and demanded “as a price of their support” that Adam Yarmolinsky not be appointed deputy director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (oeo). The lawmakers’ opposition derived from the fact that as assistant to the secretary of defense, Yarmolinsky had argued vigorously for the constitutional rights of black military personnel stationed in the South. Knowing that passage of the Economic Opportunity Act depended on support from southern Democrats, Shriver and Johnson sacrificed the man whom many observers regarded as the brightest of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “wiz kids.” The North Carolina legislators walked away from the showdown confident that they had limited the War on Poverty’s potential to become yet another instrument for federal involvement in southern race relations. But, in fact, they had opened the door to an antipoverty warrior who embodied their worst fears. With Yarmolinsky off the short list, Shriver offered the position of deputy director of the oeo to Jack T. Conway, a United Auto Workers (uaw) union official and a chief architect of efforts to forge a political alliance between organized labor and the civil rights movement. [ 6 ] Ibid., 91, 95. See also L. H. Fountain to Paul Whitaker, August 21, 1964, and Fountain to T. J. Hackney Jr., September 4, 1964, series 2, folder 360, L. H. Fountain Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Jesse Helms, “Viewpoint” editorial 912 (August 12, 1964), North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Scholars have largely overlooked Conway’s role in shaping the work of the oeo and for that reason have missed connections that tied the War on Poverty to a larger tradition of progressive social action. Conway grew up in Detroit in a working-class family. As a student at the University of Chicago during the late 1930s, he became active in Socialist Party politics, and in 1942 168 he took a part-time job at the General Motors plant in Melrose Park, Illinois, and joined Local 6 of the uaw. Less than a decade earlier, the United Auto Workers had bolted from the American Federation of Labor (afl) and had joined other dissidents in establishing the Congress of Industrial Organizations (cio). The cio committed itself to organizing workers according to industry rather than craft tradition, and to that end it recruited aggressively within the ranks of semi and unskilled laborers, including women, blacks, and other minorities who, with few exceptions, had been excluded from the AFL. The uaw and other cio unions undertook that campaign against the backdrop of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which dramatically enlarged the role of the federal government as a guarantor of the public welfare. The New Deal stretched a social safety net beneath the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, provided a basic measure of economic security for the aged and unemployed, and, through the Wagner Act of 1935 and establishment of the National Labor Relations Board, affirmed working people’s right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. Conway and like-minded labor activists of his generation embraced those policies as instruments for fashioning a new national consensus around broadened notions of political and economic citizenship. They rallied to the project of “peaceful revolution” that Roosevelt outlined in 1941 in his famous “Four Freedoms” State of the Union address. “There is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy,” the president declared. “The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are equality of opportunity. . . . Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it. The ending of special privilege for the few. The preservation of civil liberties for all.” [ 7 ] Barnard, American Vanguard, 227, and Roosevelt, “Annual Message to Congress,” <http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/4FREE.HTML>.
From the end of World War II through the early 1960s, Conway served as chief aide to uaw president Walter Reuther, a labor statesman known to his detractors as “the most dangerous man in Detroit.” Reuther led the uaw from 1946 to 1970, and during that long tenure he distinguished himself by insisting that the union could be a force not only for bettering conditions in the workplace but also for improving the welfare of all Americans. Throughout the better part of two decades, he and Conway devoted their considerable political talents to forging a cross-class, biracial alliance of organized labor, white middle-class liberals, and blacks. Such a coalition, they believed, could bridge the historic fault lines of American politics and work a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the nation’s economic life. In its broadest terms, theirs was an old dream, one that echoed the social democratic aspirations of ardent New Dealers and would have rung true with the black and white Fusionists 169 who, in the late nineteenth century, sought to create a similar moment of democratic possibility. [ 8 ] Lichtenstein, Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, and Boyle, UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 5.
The uaw was often at odds with itself on matters of race. Union leaders lacked the ability—and oftentimes the will—to eradicate deeply held prejudices and structural inequalities on the shop floor and within their locals. Nevertheless, they threw the uaw’s institutional weight behind the civil rights movement. The union supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) by filing an amicus curiae brief in Brown v. Board of Education, and in 1954, when the Supreme Court struck down the doctrine of separate but equal, Reuther welcomed the judgment as a “heart-warming affirmation of . . . American democratic principles.” The uaw also provided financial backing for the Montgomery bus boycott, and in 1963 it organized a bail fund for demonstrators arrested in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s assault on racial discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama. When police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor insisted that the protesters’ bond be paid in cash, uaw emissaries traveled to Birmingham with the money hidden beneath their clothes. [ 9 ] Lichtenstein, Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, 316, 381, and Boyle, UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 121, 168–70.
In the summer of that same year, Reuther and Conway joined forces with black labor and civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin to stage the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The uaw leaders rallied support from white religious and civil liberties organizations in what Reuther called a “coalition of conscience.” Departing from the “neutrality” of most other unions, the uaw also paid for the sound system that was installed at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, provided transportation for five thousand of its members (the largest delegation representing any single organization), and distributed thousands of placards that proclaimed the inseverable relationship between civil rights and economic opportunity. “We March for Jobs for All at Decent Pay Now,” the signs shouted. “Freedom is a Lie for America’s Not So Invisible Poor.” “Civil Rights Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom.” [ 10 ] Boyle, UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 161–84, and Lichtenstein, Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, 385. Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car 370 Porters, and Rustin had first proposed such a march in 1941. They called off the protest when President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that barred racial discrimination in war industries employment.
On August 28, more than a quarter of a million Americans—black and white, from all walks of life—gathered in the nation’s capital to demand passage of the civil rights bill then pending in Congress, adoption of a $2-an-hour federal minimum wage, and amendment of the Fair Labor Standards Act so that agricultural and domestic workers—the vast majority of them black—would be included in the law’s wage and workplace protections. Today, most Americans remember the August rally as simply the March on Washington. Few recall its more expansive name and purpose, and with that forgetting has come diminished understanding of the event’s significance in joining two of 170 the twentieth century’s most dynamic social movements. The march reflected civil rights advocates’ concern for economic justice as well as social equality and their awareness, in Reuther’s words, that “without a job and a paycheck,” triumph over Jim Crow would be “a largely abstract and empty victory.” It also represented the uaw’s conviction that the black freedom struggle could provide the kind of mass mobilization required to forge an enduring realignment in American politics. The civil rights movement promised to deliver black votes that could break the hold of white supremacy in the Solid South and, in so doing, undermine the alliance of conservative Republicans and segregationist southern Democrats that had frustrated efforts at reorganizing the nation’s economy and redistributing its abundance. [ 11 ] Boyle, UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 162, and Lichtenstein, Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, 370–95.
During the years immediately after World War II, that alliance steered American politics sharply to the right and halted—in some cases, even rolled back—the advances of the New Deal. In 1946, Republicans, campaigning on the slogan “Had Enough?” won control of both houses of Congress in landslide victories. Together with hard-line southern Democrats, they rejected President Harry Truman’s call for strengthened civil rights protection; defeated legislative plans for full employment, universal heath care, and expanded Social Security coverage; and in 1947, over the president’s veto, passed the antiunion Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed the closed shop and authorized individual states to adopt right-to-work laws. [ 12 ] Chafe, Unfinished Journey, 82.
Walter Reuther and Jack Conway saw in the War on Poverty an opportunity to institutionalize a labor–civil rights coalition capable of reversing that tide and reinvigorating a social democratic agenda. At the request of White House aides, they provided language for the State of the Union address in which Lyndon Johnson announced his campaign against poverty, and months later, Reuther wrote to the president pledging the uaw’s support as “loyal soldiers in the unconditional war” against deprivation and want. From the beginning, however, Reuther and Conway had a more expansive conception of the battle than did Johnson and most liberals. Daniel Patrick Moynihan incisively characterized the difference. “Where the President hoped to help the poor,” he wrote, UAW leaders “wished to arouse them.” Reuther made that point clear in a resolution set before the uaw’s March 1964 convention and in testimony before Congress. “The fight against poverty must not develop along the lines of a well-intentioned social welfare program of the rich doing favors for the poor,” he cautioned. It should seek instead “to organize the poor so that they are not only visible but have a voice.” [ 13 ] Lichtenstein, Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, 389–90, and Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 96.
That idea became the leitmotif of Conway’s work as deputy director of the oeo. He made his mark on the agency early and indelibly as cochair of the 171 committee that prepared grant guidelines for local community action programs seeking federal financial assistance. Key parts of the oeo’s Community Action Program Guide read like a union-organizing manual. From the outset, it placed a premium on grassroots participation. “A vital feature of every community action program,” the Guide explained, was to be “the involvement of the poor themselves—the residents of the areas and members of the groups to be served—in planning, policy-making, and operation of the program.” That was common sense for Conway and uaw colleagues who understood that it was not organizers from the outside but workers on the shop floor who had built their union. Walter Reuther observed that John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers and the cio’s fiery first president, “didn’t go into a single General Motors plant. . . . The guys in the plants did the job and that is what has got to be done with the poverty neighborhoods.” The oeo Guide insisted accordingly that poor people’s participation in the War on Poverty should be organized from the bottom up: “It should be brought about by ‘traditional democratic approaches and techniques such as group forums and discussions, nominations, and balloting.’ It should be stimulated by ‘grass-roots involvement’ committees; by ‘block elections, petitions, and referendums’; by ‘promotional techniques, including use of films, literature, and mobile units operating from information centers.’ Further, residents should be given ‘meaningful opportunities . . . either as individuals or as groups, to protest or to propose additions to or changes in the ways in which a community action program is being planned or undertaken.” The ultimate objective of these activities was to identify and train leaders from within impoverished neighborhoods, to articulate shared problems and concerns, and to provide the poor with the human and institutional resources necessary to bargain with local political leaders, their employers, and social welfare agencies. [ 14 ] Community Action Program Guide, 7; Lichtenstein, Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, 390; and Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 97–98.
Daniel Moynihan argued that “the Conway group” gave to community action “a structure that neither those who [proposed the War on Poverty], those who sponsored it, nor those who enacted it ever in any way intended.” That assessment is misleading—the architects of the War on Poverty were a diverse lot who often disagreed about the capacity of the poor to solve their own problems—but Moynihan did put his finger on something important about Conway’s influence. The uaw official came to the oeo when the agency was still a blank slate. For his own political reasons, President Johnson had pressured Congress to act swift ly, and as a result, the War on Poverty was launched with minimal planning and little more than a general mandate to “eliminate the paradox of [want] in the midst of plenty.” Conway brought to an as yet uncharted battlefield more than three decades of personal and institutional 172 experience in securing a middle-class standard of living and a political voice for blue-collar autoworkers. That knowledge gave practical meaning to the otherwise vague notion of the maximum feasible participation of the poor. To Conway’s ear, the idea echoed the cio’s call in the 1930s to “organize the un-organized.” Such thinking saturated the work of the early oeo. In explaining his agency and the law that created it, Sargent Shriver often drew explicit links between the activism of the 1960s and that of the 1930s. The Economic Opportunity Act, he said, was “for the poor what the National Labor Relations Act [of 1935] was for unions. . . . It recognizes the principle of representation, full participation, of fair bargaining. It establishes a new relationship, a new grievance procedure between the poor and the rest of society.” [ 15 ] Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 98; “Economic Opportunity Act,” 88th Cong., 2nd sess., Congressional Record 110 (August 11, 1964): 19008; Boyle, UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 188; and Kramer, Participation of the Poor, 14.
For fiscal year 1965 (beginning October 1, 1964), Congress approved an initial budget of $800 million for the Office of Economic Opportunity. As soon as the new antipoverty agency was open for business, the North Carolina Fund insisted that the eleven caps it had approved and financed a year earlier apply for federal support. The reasons were obvious. The cap were precisely the type of agency through which Congress intended to funnel public funds; securing grants from Washington would heavily leverage the Fund’s investment of private capital; and partnership with the oeo promised to integrate the Fund’s work into the national effort for which it served as an important model. The initial response from the local caps was enthusiastic, and by year’s end all had begun negotiations for federal funding. Before long, however, the process of preparing grant proposals brought to the surface old concerns about the consequences of linking local initiatives to federal largesse. [ 16 ] Levitan, Great Society’s Poor Law, 93, and North Carolina Fund, Process Analysis Report, part 1, p. 78, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (hereafter cited as North Carolina Fund, Process Analysis Report).
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the South had managed to sup at the federal trough while maintaining a rigid system of Jim Crow. Under the New Deal, the region benefited from millions of dollars invested in agricultural subsidies, and in the 1940s southern congressmen lobbied aggressively to lure billions more in the form of defense contracts and new military bases. After World War II, however, preservation of the “southern way of life” became more difficult, first as President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, and then with passage of federal civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1964. With that history in mind, many of the more conservative members of the cap. boards perceived the federal War on Poverty, with its insistence on nondiscrimination and participation of the poor, as little more than a “way of forcing integration by dangling funds.” The North Carolina Fund reported that “in every community at least one Board 173 member resigned as a direct result of the switch to Federal funding. Virtually all protested that this was not what they had anticipated.” One local official stated his objections bluntly. “If . . . we must concede to any given segment of the population, [the Negroes],” he declared, “we will not have it.” [ 17 ] William Keech notes, series 4.11, folder 4963, NCFR, and North Carolina Fund, Process Analysis Report, part 1, pp. 78–79.
The work of craft ing proposals for the oeo also exposed opposition to key objectives of the War on Poverty. The founders of the local caps appreciated the need for economic development in their communities. They welcomed federal dollars that would help them train the unemployed in new job skills and provide opportunity as a reward for ambition and industriousness. They understood that better housing, nutrition, and health care not only would improve the lives of the poor but also would lighten the welfare burden on local taxpayers. But few were prepared for the truly radical implications of a seemingly simple and compelling idea: the eradication of poverty. Local leaders worried about the consequences for an economy built on cheap labor and for their own economic security and position of privilege. “We just about can’t get any colored people to work anymore,” complained one mayor. “I guess in 4 or 5 years we won’t even be able to get maids. I just don’t know what we’ll do.” In other locations, cap board members hesitated to enlarge their “work training programs” too quickly. The “economic stability of [their communities] depended upon the availability of a large pool of unskilled workers,” they explained, and “many industries . . . would move if they were no longer able to hire at the current low wage rates.” [ 18 ] North Carolina Fund, Process Analysis Report, part 1, pp. 75, 77.
And so the objections mounted, piling high one upon another as local leaders hedged their commitment to an “all-out war on poverty.” Over time, the Fund compiled a catalog of equivocation and outright obstructionism: “In one rural area an association of farmers sought to force the [local cap] not to hire anyone or support any jobs during the harvesting seasons since they claimed they were unable to get workers to pick their crops. . . . In another county public welfare programs including the food stamp programs are regularly curtailed during the summer months to ‘make sure we have a labor supply that is willing to work.’ In this county the local welfare agency officials sought to get the [cap] to take similar action. In this same county it is the practice of the welfare board to give food stamps, during those months that it issues them, to the owners of the land on which . . . tenants live. This enables the landowner to regulate the tenants more closely.” North Carolina Fund staff observed that evidence of this sort “could be continued at length. The point is, however, that there [was] considerable opposition to the anti-poverty program, by elected officials and [cap] board members alike, because of the changes that would occur if incomes were raised and jobs 174 provided for the marginally employed.” As that opposition revealed, the persistence of poverty amid plenty—despite the proclamations of politicians and pundits—was not truly a paradox. Poverty was instead intimately bound to relationships of power—political and economic—and for many cap board members, rearranging those relationships was not the fight for which they had volunteered. [ 19 ] Ibid., 76–78.
The story of each cap is, in and of itself, a fascinating tale of the interplay of race, class, and politics. But despite the particularities of place and personality, the experience in every community demonstrated just how difficult it was for the poor to mobilize themselves and to effect substantive social change. As Fund staff explained, the advantage always belonged to the “power structure”: “In our political system those who would block action, who would exercise veto power, who would delay change have every structural advantage. Positive changes can be made only if the action is approved on numerous occasions and before numerous legislative, executive and judicial bodies. You must be a winner at every decision point (and there are many in a pluralistic system). But to defeat change one must be victorious at only one place in the network of decision-making situations. Objectors, if they can muster support in only one arena, can be victorious. So in many ways the specific structural characteristics of our governmental system give a distinct advantage to those unwilling, for example, to grant true equality to the Negro.” That reality, one Fund report observed, was “what Paul Ylvisaker referred to when he complained that [the establishment] had ‘nay saying power’ but [those advocating change] had no power”—or, at best, limited power—“to say yes.” [ 20 ] Ibid., 80–81.
In the end, this disparity meant that cap officials who were wary of federal intrusion into local affairs had considerable leeway to play for time and to bend new initiatives to their will, even as they complied nominally with oeo guidelines. They put “representatives” of the poor and of black communities on their boards, but never in proportionate numbers. They also chose individuals whose capacity for independent expression was compromised—for instance, a black school principal who served alongside his white superintendent. In similar fashion, cap boards curtailed or declined federal support for programs they deemed too controversial. Summer youth employment programs, for instance, were welcomed, but only if they limited the number of participants so as to minimize the impact on local wage rates. That same ambivalence greeted Head Start, the oeo’s flagship school-readiness program. Although cap boards and local politicians appreciated its benefits for young children, they were prepared to reject the initiative outright rather than let 175 it become a Trojan horse for “forced integration” or an alternative source of employment for poor mothers that bid up the price of labor. In short, cap leaders were constantly on the lookout for programs that threatened to make too much change too quickly.
In North Carolina, the mobilization of the poor—what one antipoverty warrior described as the building of “an army of dissenters”—gained its strongest foothold in two locations: the tobacco and textile manufacturing city of Durham and the rural Choanoke region in the northeastern corner of the state. At first glance, those places could not have been more different. Durham, with its “Black Wall Street,” had a vibrant black business community, while outsiders often referred to the Choanoke as “North Carolina’s ‘little Mississippi.’” Beneath those differences, however, lay two crucial similarities. The black community in both places had a long tradition of independent political activity that dated back to the late nineteenth century, while the white establishment lacked cohesion and was only loosely organized as a political force. Durham’s industries were operated by absentee corporate owners, and as a result, day-to-day governance fell to a loose-knit group of merchants, realtors, and lawyers. In the Choanoke, white landlords exercised extraordinary authority over their tenants, but they seldom acted in concert as an organized bloc. The region resembled a collection of small fiefdoms more than a tightly integrated political and economic system. Those circumstances left open opportunities for the poor—particularly the black poor—to organize their own institutions and to test the War on Poverty’s capacity to make meaningful change. [ 21 ] Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, xxv; Weare, Black Business in the New South; and John Salter to Jim Dombrowski, April 28, 1964, folder 22, Hunter Gray (John R. Salter) Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison (hereafter cited as Gray [Salter] Papers).
durham, perhaps more than any other city, symbolized North Carolina’s aspirations as a “progressive” New South state. The city did not show up on the census of 1870, but by the early twentieth century, it had developed into a booming center of tobacco and textile manufacturing. Tobacco was one of the few industries in the segregated South that offered factory employment to blacks, and for that reason, Durham, along with Winston-Salem, became a magnet for African American migration off the land. The city’s large black population, in turn, helped support a thriving black business sector and a small but prosperous black middle class. Hillside High School and North Carolina College—the first publicly funded African American liberal arts institution in the United States—offered educational opportunities that were rarely available elsewhere in the state or region, and two of the city’s financial institutions, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company and Mechanics and Farmers Bank, ranked among the largest black-owned 176 enterprises in the nation. Blacks across the South saw in Durham a testament to the potential of self-help and the power of “the almighty dollar [to knock] the bottom out of race prejudice and all the humbugs that fatten it.” White supremacists, looking at the same city, found evidence that Jim Crow might yet endure on the pretense of separate but equal. [ 22 ] “Operation Breakthrough, Inc.,” series 4.8, folder 4352, NCFR, and Weare, “Charles Clinton Spaulding,” 169. On Durham generally, see Anderson, Durham County.
In the 1960s, Durham was poised for another great transformation. Duke University, along with North Carolina State University in Raleigh and the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill, anchored the Research Triangle Park, a high-tech industrial campus carved out of the pine forests of southern Durham County. With the arrival of IBM and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences in 1966, the project began its steady growth toward becoming the largest facility of its kind in the world. Duke University’s Medical Center worked similar changes in the field of health care. By the mid-1960s, Duke had become the largest employer in Durham County, and the city, once known around the globe for its tobacco products, was on its way to becoming a self-styled “City of Medicine.” [ 23 ] Anderson, Durham County, 412–15, and Research Triangle Park, <http://www.rtp.org/main>.
When compared to North Carolina at large, Durham appeared to be thriving. The county ranked seventh in the state for median family income and twelfth for average years of schooling among persons over twenty-five years of age. But, as one student of the city has observed, “the law of averages obscured the vast gulf between the rich and poor in Durham.” Twenty-eight percent of families lived below the Fund-designated poverty line of $3,000 a year, and roughly an equal share of the city’s housing stock was classified as “unsound and/or lacking adequate plumbing facilities.” An official of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who visited in 1966 wrote, “Never before have I seen a Southern city that looked so much like a depressed backward country.” In Durham’s most impoverished black neighborhoods, “the streets [were] narrow, unpaved, and unlighted, the houses uniformly dilapidated, the plumbing nonexistent . . . and the rats and the cockroaches abundant.” [ 24 ] Brooks, Dimensions of Poverty, 6, 12; Gioia, “‘How to Get Out of Hell by Raising It,’” 9; “Operation Breakthrough, Inc.,” series 4.8, folder 4352, NCFR; Greene, Our Separate Ways, 128; and Bertie Howard and Steve Redburn, “uoci: Black Political Power in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4563, NCFR.
John Wheeler, president of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, had lobbied hard to have the North Carolina Fund headquartered in Durham, and he urged local civic leaders to embrace the new agency as a means of addressing the problems of the city’s poor. That appeal struck a chord with the merchants, bankers, and real estate developers who ran city hall. In the midst of the civil rights unrest of 1963, they were eager to calm black protest. From their offices atop the city’s tallest buildings, they could also see the scars that poverty left on the urban landscape. Such scenes were incompatible with 177 their vision of a “Greater Durham” reaching for the fruits of an emerging high-tech economy.
Wheeler found a willing partner in Durham mayor R. Wensell Grabarek, who had actively campaigned for black votes and had run on a platform of moderation in race relations. Grabarek won election on May 18, 1963—one day after the ninth anniversary of Brown and on the same day that Durham’s black youth, organized by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the naacp, began an “all-out drive for desegregation.” The city’s jail quickly filled with protesters, and each day ever-larger crowds of angry whites gathered to jeer the civil rights demonstrations. Grabarek attempted to avert a crisis on the order of Birmingham by pressuring a handful of white restaurant owners to serve blacks on an equal basis. With that concession in hand, he appeared at a large gathering at one of Durham’s leading black churches and pledged his support for efforts to “resolve and reconcile” the city’s racial troubles. Grabarek left with an agreement from black leaders to “suspend mass demonstrations ‘for the time being,’” and a day later he appointed an interracial committee to work toward voluntary desegregation. The truce, however, did not last. Defiant to the end, Durham’s white restaurant owners association voted “to continue its practice of segregation.” [ 25 ] Waynick, Brooks, and Pitts, North Carolina and the Negro, 63–67.
Grabarek viewed antipoverty work as a key component of his effort to manage social change through negotiation rather than public confrontation. As the standoff between civil rights protesters and segregationists continued, he convened a small working group of Durham civic leaders to consider how the city might benefit from a partnership with the North Carolina Fund. In addition to Grabarek, the committee included the Durham County manager, the president of the city’s chamber of commerce, and Robert Foust, a social worker who headed the Durham Community Planning Council, a United Fund agency responsible for coordinating the work of public and private welfare services. The group held a series of public hearings during the summer and early autumn in which they presented the benefits of an antipoverty campaign in terms calculated to appeal to fellow business owners. They promised that raising the income of Durham’s poorest citizens above the poverty line would increase tax revenues by $2.4 million a year, would decrease welfare payments by $3.6 million, and, as those funds circulated through the economy, would produce a total stimulus of $68.7 million. That was a compelling message. With the support of Durham’s white business community, Grabarek appointed a forty-seven-person ad hoc committee called Action for Durham Development (ADD). Its charge was to plan a local community action program 178 and to submit a proposal to the North Carolina Fund. Victor Bryant, a prominent local attorney, chaired the group, and J. A. McLean, vice president of Central Carolina Bank and Trust Company, served as vice-chair. Remarkably, the committee included only three representatives of Durham’s black community. [ 26 ] “Operation Breakthrough, Inc.,” series 4.8, folder 4352; Paige Young, “History of the Formation of Breakthrough,” series 4.8, folder 4432; and Action for Durham Development proposal addenda (board list), series 4.8, folder 4488, NCFR; and Gioia, “‘How to Get Out of Hell by Raising It,’” 17.
Everett Hopkins, professor of psychology and vice president for planning and institutional studies at Duke University, led the work on ADD’s proposal. In keeping with the military tone of the War on Poverty, he dubbed the Durham plan “Operation Breakthrough.” Hopkins sketched a conventional, top-down approach to poverty reduction that focused on the rehabilitation of poor families and individual self-improvement. The program was to proceed in two stages. In the preparatory phase, teams of social welfare professionals would work with target families to diagnose their problems and develop “breakthrough plans” for escaping poverty. Then, in the action phase, the families would implement the plans by seeking out a variety of social services, such as after-school tutoring, vocational training, and job placement. To support the poor in that effort, a group of up to one thousand community volunteers would work to “bridge the gap between community resources” and participating families, thus ensuring the efficient and effective delivery of welfare assistance. [ 27 ] Gioia, “‘How to Get Out of Hell by Raising It,’” 17; and “Operation Breakthrough, Inc.,” series 4.8, folder 4352, and Action for Durham Development, proposal submitted to the North Carolina Fund for Operation Breakthrough, series 4.8, folder 4487, NCFR.
The North Carolina Fund awarded ADD a grant of $11,000 in early July 1964. In August, the committee incorporated Durham’s new community action program under the Operation Breakthrough banner, and in October, it named Robert Foust to serve as the agency’s executive director. Foust’s first challenge was to square Operation Breakthrough with the oeo’s emphasis on maximum feasible participation. That proved to be an arduous task. Operation Breakthrough’s founders had embraced antipoverty programs, at least in part, as a means of “pre-empting Durham’s scrappy civil rights organizers” and quelling dissent. The oeo’s policy of maximum feasible participation, however, pointed in the opposite direction. Federal officials aimed to develop indigenous leaders among the poor who could provoke and sustain vigorous, open debate. To that end, the oeo demanded that one-third of Operation Breakthrough’s board come from Durham’s low-income communities and that the board be thoroughly integrated. After several failed drafts, Operation Breakthrough finally satisfied the oeo by adding to its funding proposal a plan to organize neighborhood councils in the areas targeted for intervention. Foust and his associates conceived of the councils in strictly practical terms: they were a means “to get some representatives of the poor elected by the poor on [Operation Breakthrough’s] Board of Directors.” Little did Breakthrough’s 179 founders imagine that those councils would soon challenge them for control of the local assault on poverty. [ 28 ] “Operation Breakthrough, Inc.,” series 4.8, folder 4352, NCFR; Gioia, “‘How to Get Out of Hell by Raising It,’” 19; and Howard Fuller, “A Brief Accounting of Community Organization,” series 4.8, folder 4420, NCFR.
The oeo awarded Operation Breakthrough a grant of $181,000 in late December 1964. Five months later—in May 1965—Foust hired a young black activist named Howard Fuller to coordinate the program’s community organizing efforts. Fuller had been born in Louisiana and at age six moved with his family to Milwaukee. He grew up in public housing and learned to play basketball in neighborhood pickup games. An athletic scholarship took him to Carroll College, a Presbyterian liberal arts institution in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where for three years he was the only black student on campus. After graduating, Fuller moved to Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he earned a master’s degree in social work, joined core, and participated in voter registration drives, school boycotts, and other civil rights protests. Fuller worked briefly for the Urban League in Chicago but found the position frustrating. As an employment counselor, he operated in an environment that compromised his principles. Too often, his task was to find “a Negro who was just the right color brown to fill a job slot.” Eager for a change, Fuller welcomed news from his friends James McDonald and Morris Cohen, both Fund employees, that Operation Breakthrough was “looking for a black man with a master’s degree in social work to head [its] community organizing component.” He had known Cohen, a Chicago native and former director of a South Side settlement house in that city, when they were in graduate school together at Western Reserve. McDonald grew up in Milwaukee, studied law at the University of Wisconsin, and returned home to direct an Urban League youth program that Fuller participated in as a teenager. When Fuller arrived in Durham, he was struck immediately by the Janus-like character of white North Carolina politics. He had been drawn to the state by Governor Sanford’s progressive reputation and the “innovative idea” of the North Carolina Fund, but soon after arriving in Durham he tuned in to Raleigh’s wral-tv and heard Jesse Helms disparage the work of Martin Luther King Jr. “That’s when I understood that I was in the South,” Fuller recalled, “and that this was going to be an interesting experience.” [ 29 ] “Operation Breakthrough, Inc.,” series 4.8, folder 4352; Bertie Howard and Steve Red-burn, “uoci: Black Political Power in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4563; Bertie Howard, “Beginnings of Community Action in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4466; and staff biographies, series 1.4, folder 537, NCFR; and Fuller interview.
By his own account, Fuller moved to Durham with a head full of theory and limited practical experience as a community organizer. But his personality and approach to people made him highly effective in the job. He focused initially on a section of Durham identified in the original Operation Breakthrough plan as Target Area A. It was one of the city’s most deprived districts, consisting of six geographically distinct neighborhoods: Hayti, Pickett Street, St. Teresa, Hillside Park, Morehead, and a public housing project called McDougald 180 Terrace. Fuller took seriously the idea of identifying and developing indigenous leadership, so to organize these communities he and his field superviser, Charlie Hedgepeth, assembled a staff recruited from among the poor. Hedgepeth was a Durham native and graduate of North Carolina College. She had become involved with the North Carolina Fund during the summer of 1964 and had received through the agency some training in community organizing. To work under her direction, Fuller selected five North Carolina College students, all of them from poor families. During the summer of 1965, Hedgepeth and the students introduced themselves to residents of Target Area A by inviting neighborhood children to attend a day camp run by the North Carolina Volunteers. With that entrée into individual households, Fuller’s team then undertook a round of regular visits to build personal relationships with parents. The process was time-consuming. “Workers spent from eight to ten hours a day in their various neighborhoods . . . ask[ing] questions about the community” and acquiring “some notion of the problems that were facing the residents.” [ 30 ] “An Experience in Community Organizing,” series 4.8, folder 4422, NCFR.Howard Fuller on the porch of a Durham home. Photograph by Billy E. Barnes, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Billy Ebert Barnes Collection. 181
Fuller sought not to impose organizational structures on the target communities, but to facilitate a more organic process of self-organization. “I can’t say that there was any big theoretical construct that drove me,” he recalled. “You go talk to people, you identify [what] they see as problems, and then you bring them together to try to go do something about it. It’s not like rocket science or anything. It’s like, here’s a street that ought to be paved. How come this street’s not paved? Well, what do you do to get the street paved? And you go from there. Or people got rats in their house. People shouldn’t have rats in their house. Who’s responsible for this house? If it’s an absentee landlord, what are we going do to make him or her do something that they’re supposed to do? What is the city supposed to do about this? And what do you mean they can’t do anything about it because you’re black?” [ 31 ] Fuller interview.
To Fuller, this process seemed “logical,” but for Durham’s black poor, it required conquering the apprehension instilled by decades of Jim Crow’s rule. “What’s going to happen to us?” they wanted to know. “Would life really be better? It hadn’t changed in all these years, why would it change now?” “We saw all of that,” Fuller recalled, “people not understanding their own power, not believing in their capacity to exercise leadership.” By forging personal relationships with the poor, by winning their trust and encouraging neighbors to talk to one another, Fuller and his coworkers sought to break through that wariness and sense of vulnerability. We “aimed at strengthening people’s resolve and getting them not to be fearful, and not to be intimidated by people who had power,” he explained. “Our view was to get people to see that [they had] dignity, [that they didn’t] have to be intimidated by anyone. That wasn’t always easy; it’s easy to say, but it was harder to get people to the point that they had that kind of confidence in themselves.” [ 32 ] Ibid.
Ann Atwater, a resident of Hayti, turned out to be one of Fuller’s most important neighborhood allies. Atwater had grown up in Hallsboro, a small lumber town in the southeastern corner of the state. She and her husband, French Wilson, moved to Durham in 1950, hoping to find work in the tobacco factories and to escape deteriorating economic circumstances in the countryside. The struggle to make ends meet soon took its toll. French turned to drink, and when he became abusive, Ann had him arrested. After several failed attempts at reconciliation, French abandoned Ann and their two daughters. In 1965, when Howard Fuller first met her, Atwater was surviving on a welfare check for $57 a month and occasional earnings from domestic work in white homes. She remembered that at the time she took little interest in politics and “didn’t participate in anything”; she was too busy “concentrating on taking care of [her] children.” The family lived on a diet of fried fatback, 182 rice with gravy, and cabbage. Atwater used flour and rice bags to make slips and dresses for her daughters. “The bags had little designs on them,” she explained, “and I thought they were right pretty. I thought the children were right cute, clean—I wanted them to be clean.” [ 33 ] Atwater interview, and Davidson, Best of Enemies, 32–36.
Atwater’s life changed one August evening when Howard Fuller and Charsie Hedgepeth knocked on her door. Earlier that week, she had visited the welfare office looking for $100 to pay her overdue rent and avoid eviction. When Fuller and Hedgepeth asked about the things that concerned her, she showed them around her house. The front porch leaned precariously toward the street, the roof was so full of holes that Atwater had to put out buckets during storms, and her bathtub had fallen through the floor. “The house was [also] so poorly wired,” she said, “that when the man cut off my lights for nonpayment, I could stomp on the floor and the lights would come on, and I’d stomp on the floor [again] and they’d go off. So I kept the lights like that for about a year. They came back out to try to see where I was getting the electricity from, but they never could find out—it was one little wire that they were always missing to cut off.” Atwater thought of the faulty wiring as a blessing from the Lord. [ 34 ] Atwater interview.
Fuller asked if Atwater wanted help getting her house repaired; she answered skeptically, “Yes, [but] how are you going to get the landlord to fix my house?” “Well,” he said, “if you come to the meeting tonight, we’ll talk about that.” So Atwater went, and she shared her story with neighbors who told of living in equally deplorable conditions. The next morning, Fuller and Hedgepeth accompanied her to a face-off with her landlord. Fuller told the man that he had the $100 in back rent that Atwater owed, but he would pay only after necessary repairs had been made. The landlord relented—at least partially. He sent a carpenter to lift Atwater’s tub up through her bathroom floor and to secure it with fresh timber. The repair fell far short of all that the house needed, but it was more than Atwater had ever been able to extract on her own. She was impressed by Fuller’s ability to carry through on his promises. Later that week, she joined him, going “door to door telling people how they could get their house repaired.” As Atwater went on those visits, she began to believe that she had found her calling. “I had it at the heart,” she remembered, “and I really wanted to help not only myself but other people. God had given me the gift of reaching out, touching, and I wanted to fulfill the obligation that God gave me to do. I just didn’t know how to go about doing it until the North Carolina Fund and Howard taught us. [They] taught me that whatever I believed in, stand on that, don’t let nobody change me from it. If I knowed 183 it was right and I believed it, then stand on it, and I’ve been doing that ever since.” [ 35 ] Ibid.Ann Atwater canvassing for Operation Breakthrough. Photograph by Billy E. Barnes, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Billy Ebert Barnes Collection.
Fuller and Atwater were soon canvassing Target Area A as comrades in arms. Together, they worked out the tactics of successful community organizing, each teaching and learning from the other. Fuller impressed upon Atwater and her neighbors the importance of working the process of petition and complaint, so that when public confrontation became necessary, it could be framed as a reasonable act of last resort. “You learn the process,” he explained, “because you don’t want [the bureaucrats] to jam you [by saying], ‘Oh, you didn’t fill out the right form.’ That’s one thing I learned as an organizer. You have to first understand how the system is supposed to work, so that when you follow all of those steps and it doesn’t work, you can’t get jammed on. If it gets to the point where you’ve got to demonstrate in front of city hall to get the building inspector to come out and do an inspection, 184 you’re able to say, publicly, ‘We filled out the form, we talked to this man, he still didn’t come, this is why we’re out here.’” [ 36 ] Fuller interview.
Atwater proved to be a masterful practitioner of that strategy. As an on-again, off-again recipient of welfare services, she understood firsthand the condescending and paternalistic treatment that poor people often had to endure. Caseworkers used information as a mechanism of control and dependency. “They wouldn’t tell the poor folks anything,” and when clients applied for assistance, “they’d swear they was out of money.” Atwater set out to help her neighbors get what was rightfully theirs by beating the welfare office at its own game. “One day we were working with a welfare problem,” she recalled. “People weren’t getting the type help that they were supposed to get. So, I took one of the ladies and went down to the Department of Social Services. Right out front was the [program] manual. I had my coat on, and I took the big book off the desk and put it under my coat while she was fussing about coming there and not getting any help. While they were fussing, I went back down the street to [Operation Breakthrough], and we xeroxed the part that told the welfare recipients their rights.” Afterward, when she and her neighbors sought public assistance, they were prepared to cite chapter and verse from the welfare department’s own rules and regulations. “When we found out what the rights was, we stood on it, and got some changes made.” [ 37 ] Atwater interview.
Atwater also insisted that black welfare clients be treated with common decency and respect. “You would go in the [welfare] building and it was just open space,” she remembered. “They’d call the white people up to the desk and ask them, ‘Your name, address? And what are you here for?’ And they would whisper like, talking to them. But I could be sitting there and they would holler, ‘What you here for? What’s your name?’ And then if you’re fat like I am, they wanted to know if you was pregnant.” It was all terribly humiliating. When Atwater decided to take action on this issue, she employed a tactic that soon became her trademark. She leveraged the strength of numbers by organizing small groups of women who visited the welfare office regularly and pressed for reform. The women argued that if caseworkers could not—or would not—change their prejudiced attitudes, they should at least give their clients “a little bit of privacy.” Eventually, the welfare office conceded, at first constructing small booths and then remodeling the building so that each caseworker had a semiprivate office. “That’s one of the changes that we made,” Atwater noted with pride, “and it’s still like that now today.” [ 38 ] Ibid.
Howard Fuller’s concern for encouraging the poor to become their own best advocates struck a chord in Target Area A. By fall 1965, he had organized five neighborhood councils. Out of those groups, he hired additional field185 Howard Fuller and Ben Ruffin (standing in the truck) help community residents clear broken-down furniture from porches and yards. Photograph by Billy E. Barnes, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Billy Ebert Barnes Collection.
staff, and by early 1966, the number of councils had grown to seventeen. One of the new community organizers was a student from North Carolina College named Ben Ruffin. Ruffin had grown up in Durham and had learned about social activism from his mother, a tobacco and domestic worker who had led an earlier effort to build a community center in their neighborhood. He attributed Operation Breakthrough’s success to the fact that the agency did not immediately push big issues such as housing and voter registration, but began instead by helping communities discover their own untapped capacity. “I remember one of the first activities we involved ourselves in was a cleanup campaign,” he said. “We would drive through these neighborhoods and there were old refrigerators and just a whole bunch of junk outside the houses, not because the people didn’t want to move it, [but because] they didn’t have money to rent a truck to move it. So we got the city to let us have garbage trucks on a Saturday. People brought all the stuff out to the front, and the men went around picking it up. And the ladies fixed the food, and after we finished working, we went over and had a great big repast. Everybody was involved and there was a lot of pride. The communities were clean. Folk came together 186 and they could see it, everybody could see it. They said, ‘Dag gum, this is the first time this has ever happened. Our numbers really count.’” [ 39 ] Bertie Howard and Steve Redburn, “uoci: Black Political Power in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4563, NCFR, and Ruffin interview.
As the neighborhood councils began “putting their issues on the table,” public officials grew wary that even the most innocuous demands had the potential to upset settled structures of authority. Perhaps no case better illustrated that point than the troubles of Joyce Thorpe. Thorpe had grown up in Roxboro, a tobacco town thirty miles north of Durham, in a middle-class black family. Her father was a carpenter and her mother, a schoolteacher. Thorpe married in the mid-1950s, and for several years, life seemed promising. Her husband had a good job as an auto mechanic and she was working toward her degree at North Carolina College. Then her marriage fell apart and she found herself alone and vulnerable. She dropped out of school and in late 1964 traded the home that she and her husband had bought for an apartment in the McDougald Terrace housing project. “[It] was devastating,” Thorpe remembered. “Here I am coming from a middle-class neighborhood to public housing. . . . I’m bringing my children from a house with a yard to an apartment.” Concern for the children drew Thorpe into efforts by Operation Breakthrough to organize a neighborhood council at McDougald Terrace. In a community meeting in 1965, tenants agreed that their most pressing need was for a day care center, which would have made it easier for the mothers of young children to seek employment. When housing authority officials refused even to discuss the issue, residents organized a mothers club and elected Thorpe president. Howard Fuller remembered that he and his staff gave careful thought to the question of how best to characterize the organization. “We came up with that name [thinking], ‘Who’s going to mess with mothers?’ Well, the housing authority [did].” On August 11, the day after her election, Thorpe received notice that her lease was to be terminated on August 31. [ 40 ] Greene, Our Separate Ways, 110–11, and Fuller and Nichols (Thorpe) interviews.
Thorpe and her neighborhood organizer, Joan Alston, immediately contacted Fuller, who was traveling at the time. He took up Thorpe’s case with federal Housing and Urban Development officials in Washington and Atlanta, but in both instances was told that the conflict was a local matter in which they had no authority to intervene. Fuller realized that this was the first critical challenge to the neighborhood organizations that he and his coworkers had so carefully built during the summer. A loss at this stage would undermine the entire effort at developing indigenous leaders among the poor. Fuller fought back by orchestrating protests outside the Durham Housing Authority’s main office. He relied heavily on students from North Carolina College, because most McDougald Terrace residents were frightened of retribution—but 187 the Durham newspapers could not tell the difference. They announced with alarm that sixty tenants were involved. The local justice of the peace court refused Thorpe’s appeal and on September 17 ordered her eviction. Three days later, a Durham County sheriff’s deputy arrived to remove Thorpe and her children from their apartment. Thorpe remembered that at that point, she panicked. She locked the door and shouted to the deputy on the other side, “Step through . . . and I’ll blow your brains out!” Thorpe was unarmed, but the deputy took no chances. While he called for reinforcements, Thorpe got in touch with Howard Fuller and Joan Alston. For the next few hours, the three of them held the sheriff’s men at bay while Durham attorney Floyd McKissick obtained a stay from the North Carolina Supreme Court. [ 41 ] Greene, Our Separate Ways, 105–13, and Bertie Howard, “Beginnings of Community Action in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4466, NCFR.
While her case was on appeal, Thorpe remained in her apartment and paid her rent into a special trust fund rather than to the housing authority. In 1966, both the Durham County Superior Court and the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld Thorpe’s eviction. In December of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear her appeal, and in the following April remanded it to the state court with instruction to abide by new regulations from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which required public housing agencies to give explicit reasons for evicting tenants. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that those guidelines did not have the force of law and reaffirmed its original judgment that the grounds for Thorpe’s eviction were immaterial to her case. Finally, in January 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the matter by ruling in Thorpe’s favor and, in doing so, established landmark protection of due process for residents of public housing. [ 42 ] Greene, Our Separate Ways, 105–13; Bertie Howard, “Beginnings of Community Action in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4466, and Patricia Wallace, “How to Get Out of Hell by Raising It: The Case of Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4562, NCFR; Thorpe v. Housing Authority of Durham, 386 U.S. 670 (1967); and Thorpe v. Housing Auth., 393 U.S. 268 (1969).
As Joyce Thorpe was beginning her long battle with housing officials, members of other neighborhood councils were engaging in similar, though less highly publicized, skirmishes with local authorities. In the early summer of 1965, the Durham city schools fired a handful of black cafeteria workers with only a vague reference to “problems in the kitchen.” Officials were in fact troubled by the women’s participation in the newly formed School Employees Benevolent Society, which just weeks before had appealed to the school board and the state legislature to raise hourly wages from $.57 to the federal minimum of $1.25. The employees modeled their efforts on those of food workers and housekeepers at Duke University, who had organized their own benevolent association in the spring of 1965 and in August of that year affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as Local 77. Both groups demanded higher wages, better working conditions, and the use of courtesy titles (Mr. and Mrs.) by white supervisors. Duke administrators responded with small pay raises but otherwise 188 dug in their heels for a protracted struggle that would continue until final recognition of the union in 1972. The Durham city school board took an even harsher line. It refused to negotiate and forced a strike by more than two hundred cafeteria and maintenance workers in the fall of 1965. The workers had strong support from Operation Breakthrough’s neighborhood councils; even so, their protest collapsed. Their benevolent association lacked the financial resources to sustain a prolonged walkout, and in a Jim Crow labor market they had limited opportunities for alternative employment. [ 43 ] Greene, Our Separate Ways, 106–7.
The neighborhood councils’ agitation around economic issues provoked the ire of employers and public officials and at the same time opened a rift within Operation Breakthrough’s board of directors. From the beginning, there had been differences of perspective among the directors, but few had imagined that their antipoverty program would breathe new fire into the civil rights and labor struggles. Now, instead of calming unrest, Operation Breakthrough was mobilizing a stratum of the black community that had been largely on the sidelines of the youth-and church-led protests of the early 1960s. An army of the “organized and articulate poor” was in the making. As described by one North Carolina Fund staffer, its recruits were “creative, tough, and militant.” They were “people long kicked down” who were now determined to steer the War on Poverty along a radically democratic course that at the outset its generals had “only dimly perceived.” [ 44 ] “Negro and Community Action,” series 4.8, folder 4351, and John Salter to Mike Kenney, August 31, 1966, series 1.4, folder 590, NCFR.
By the late fall of 1965, meetings of Operation Breakthrough’s board of directors were becoming contentious. Several of the board’s more conservative members insisted that Operation Breakthrough’s purpose was to coordinate the delivery of social services, not to fan the flames of public controversy. Board chairman Julius Corpening, the white minister who led Durham’s Temple Baptist Church, saw things differently. “Many people on the Board of Directors seem to think that [Operation Breakthrough] has changed its philosophy,” he explained to North Carolina Fund officials, “but they are wrong. It is simply that now they are beginning to realize what Breakthrough stands for. When many of the Board members were selected . . . they thought Breakthrough would be a nice small experiment, a welfare program that would be a salve for their conscience. One which would not shake up their community too much. It is only recently that many of them are realizing what Breakthrough really stands for. That it really means to have social change here in Durham.” [ 45 ] Interview with Mr. Julius Corpening, April 26, 1966, series 4.8, folder 4425, NCFR.
Regardless of which view was more accurate, the division within Breakthrough’s board posed a serious challenge. Executive director Robert Foust defended Howard Fuller’s work with the neighborhood councils, but he also 189 recognized the importance of putting some distance between Breakthrough and grassroots militancy. “We can’t work with the school superintendent,” city council, and welfare agencies on “vital complex programs,” he explained, “when part of [our] staff is outside . . . picketing.” At the same time, Fuller and the neighborhood councils were anxious “to consolidate their growing strength in an organization separate and independent of [Operation Breakthrough], and safely outside the control of [Breakthrough’s] board.” Only in that way could they continue their campaign of direct action. By early 1966, Foust, Fuller, and their liberal allies at Breakthrough had worked out a new plan for waging Durham’s war on poverty. They pulled the neighborhood councils together in a confederation called United Organizations for Community Improvement (uoci), which had its own board and officers elected from the ranks of the poor. Their aim was to give neighborhood activists the freedom “to engage in . . . controversial activities such as ‘marches to city hall,’ picketing, and so forth, all without undermining Operation Breakthrough.” As Fuller explained, Foust could now answer critics of poor people’s protests by saying, “Well, that’s not a part of ob. [That’s] uoci.” [ 46 ] “Negro and Community Action,” series 4.8, folder 4351, and “Operation Breakthrough, Inc.,” series 4.8, folder 4352, NCFR; and Fuller interview.
The new alliance of neighborhood councils first flexed its muscles during the spring of 1966. In March, Durham school officials rejected federal funds for summer Head Start and teen employment programs because they objected to the nondiscrimination guidelines attached to the money. uoci responded immediately with a series of “mass rallies and marches” outside the city school system’s administrative offices. The local press largely ignored the black protests for “fear that publicity would help consolidate Negro power and damage Durham’s reputation as a modern Southern city.” That conspiracy of silence, however, failed in its desired effect. As uoci applied pressure in the streets, representatives of Operation Breakthrough and Durham’s middle-class black leadership carried on private negotiations. Together, the three groups choreographed a skillful assault. Operation Breakthrough and the black leaders kept “a mild punch going inside,” while uoci delivered the “knockout punch outside.” In late May, the Durham school board surrendered with a vote to reverse itself on the federal preschool and employment programs. [ 47 ] Bertie Howard and Steve Redburn, “uoci: Black Political Power in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4563, and “Negro and Community Action,” series 4.8, folder 4351, NCFR.
With this victory behind them, uoci moved forward simultaneously on several fronts to advance the concerns of the black poor. Given the determination of public officials to make change in only the smallest increments, electoral politics was an obvious point of engagement. Since the 1930s, blacks in Durham had made considerable inroads against disfranchisement. The city’s sizeable black middle class and black-owned businesses provided a 190 measure of protection from the intimidation and economic retaliation commonly visited upon blacks elsewhere in the state who aspired to the basic rights of citizenship. As a result, blacks in Durham registered and voted in significant numbers. In 1928, there had been only fifty black voters in the city, but by 1939 that number had increased to three thousand. This plunge into politics was the handiwork of the national naacp and the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, organized by Charles C. Spaulding, president of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company; Louis Austin, editor of Durham’s black newspaper, the Carolina Times; and other black leaders. These men recognized a clear connection between political participation and any constituency’s capacity “to command a decent share of the services and benefits of government.” They championed black voter registration in order to capitalize on the democratic thrust of the New Deal, to improve black access to federal relief programs, and, within Durham proper, to convert their own economic power into political influence. By 1960, more than two-thirds of eligible blacks were registered to vote in Durham. But even that increase was inadequate to dislodge white privilege. In 1949, as the number of black voters grew, Durham shifted from a ward to a modified at-large system for electing members of the city council. That arrangement made black voters an electoral minority even in those parts of the city where they made up an overwhelming majority of the population. By 1966, when 85 percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote, they managed to elect only one representative to the city council. [ 48 ] Johnson, “Does the South Owe the Negro a New Deal?,” 103; Weare, Black Business in the New South, 240–50; and Bertie Howard and Steve Redburn, “uoci: Black Political Power in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4563, NCFR.
This history of black political agitation in Durham taught uoci that change required not only an assault on the ballot box but also an incursion into the inner workings of party politics. In May 1966, as the confrontation with the Durham school board over Head Start and youth employment programs was still ongoing, uoci offered its members an object lesson in the making of political power. Across the city, Democratic Party faithful were convening precinct meetings to elect county officers and delegates to the state convention. In neighborhoods with a significant black population, uoci leaders loaded community activists into Operation Breakthrough vehicles and transported them to the gatherings. There, representatives of the neighborhood councils raised questions from the floor and spoke about the issues that concerned them. In one precinct, where they constituted a majority, they sidelined several of Durham’s most influential white power brokers, including Victor Bryant, who served on Operation Breakthrough’s board of directors. As uoci executive director Ben Ruffin remembered, Democratic Party bosses reacted with stunned disbelief. “What are you doing at a precinct 191 meeting, and why are you organizing to do this?” they asked. “You’re bringing people here . . . trying to tell us what to do! We’re not going to stomach that!” For Ruffin and his compatriots, that anger underscored the significance of their undertaking. The experience showed “people the process,” Ruffin said, and taught them “what their strength could be if they got involved.” uoci’s rank and file took the lesson to heart. They continued to push their way into precinct-level politics and to attend the meetings of county commissioners and the city council, seizing every opportunity “to get right up in [the] face” of those who wielded power. By 1968, the organized poor, in league with white liberal and labor allies, had grown influential enough to elect Ann Atwater as vice-chair of the Durham County Democratic Party. [ 49 ] Ruffin interview; Gioia, “‘How to Get Out of Hell by Raising It,’” 34; and John H. Strange, “The Politics of Protest: The Case of Durham,” series 6.10, folder 7422, NCFR.
uoci also fought to give the poor greater autonomy in their economic lives. Demands for higher wages and expanded job opportunities were an important part of that effort. So, too, was a campaign to address consumer issues. As uoci explained, “Credit, or more to the point, the lack of credit at reasonable rates plays a key role in the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty.” The “charge account and credit card” were “part and parcel of middle-class and upper-class life styles,” but the poor had no access to those financial tools. They relied instead on “credit from corner merchants and loan companies” that “stifle[d] selective buying, timing of purchases, and a program of saving.” The end result was a downward spiral of debt much like that experienced by an earlier generation who had worked the land as sharecroppers. [ 50 ] United Organizations for Community Improvement Planning Grant Proposal, series 4.11, folder 4951, NCFR.
In one of its proposals to the North Carolina Fund, uoci offered a practical example of poor people’s predicament: “Mrs. A is now paying for a washing machine on the installment plan. The washing machine had a sale price of $199.95. After the service and carrying charges were added, the cost of the washing machine was $213.41. This $213.41 was added to an old bill of $125.00. She was given 18 months to pay the total $338.41 in $25.00 monthly payments. At the end of these monthly payments, she will have paid $450.00. This is a true interest rate of 41.5%.” In an effort to help the poor escape such financial entrapment, uoci organized a federal credit union through which members of its neighborhood councils pooled their meager savings and made low-interest loans to one another. uoci also established a number of community buying clubs that offered groceries and other essentials at costs below the predatory prices charged by many corner stores. Over the long term, neither the credit union nor the buying clubs could be sustained; Durham’s poor simply lacked the necessary capital resources. Even so, both experiments served an important purpose. As Rubye Gattis, uoci’s first president, remembered, they provided “a learning experience on how to negotiate to get 192 things that you want, and [they were] helpful in teaching people how to save, or [to] take a look at how they shop[ped] in the stores.” “I was proud that we were able to [do] that,” she said. “Some good came out of it.” [ 51 ] Ibid., and Gattis interview.
By far, the largest item in poor people’s budgets was the monthly rent they paid to keep a roof over their heads. Concerns about housing conditions had sparked the creation of uoci, and they remained at the top of the organization’s agenda. Since the early twentieth century, Durham’s black working class had been confined to overcrowded Jim Crow neighborhoods, where they had few options but to rent at exorbitant rates from absentee landlords (most of them white, a few black). During the 1930s, the New Deal made federal funds available to replace dilapidated housing in urban areas across the country, but Durham declined to apply. As the Durham Herald noted in 1937, “Several members of both the city council and the board of county commissioners [were] known to be heavily invested in ‘shanty property,” and they evinced no interest in “support[ing] a movement [that] might seriously destroy or curtail their earnings.” [ 52 ] Anderson, Durham County, 371–72, and “Tenement Property Owners Opposed to Slum Clearance,” Durham Herald, September 26, 1937.
Durham did not establish a public housing authority until 1949, when a postwar surge in migration off the land created an acute shortage of rental property. With federal assistance, the city built two public housing projects, Few Gardens in 1953 and McDougald Terrace in 1954. Carvie Oldham, a former cotton mill executive, served as director of the Durham Housing Authority, a post he retained until the late 1960s. Oldham was notorious among project residents for his heavy-handed management style. As Joyce Thorpe’s case demonstrated in 1965, the housing authority’s standard lease offered no protection for tenants’ rights and allowed Oldham to evict residents at will and without cause. Oldham also had close ties to the Ku Klux Klan in Durham and often conferred with local grand dragon C. P. Ellis. When uoci challenged the housing director, Klan members provided visible public support by attending meetings of the housing authority, city council, and county commissioners. [ 53 ] Anderson, Durham County, 411, and Davidson, Best of Enemies, 203.
In the late 1950s, as whites abandoned inner cities for the suburbs, the federal government made billions in new funding available for the revitalization of the nation’s urban centers. Government programs encouraged the clearance of blighted slums, the construction of new public housing, and the building of expressways to move people and goods efficiently into and out of central business districts. In Durham, a broad coalition of power brokers, including real estate developers and the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, embraced the federal initiatives as tools for growing the city’s economy and addressing long-standing housing shortages. The city established a redevelopment 193 commission in 1958 and approved a plan to tear down and rebuild a 200-acre section of the all-black Hayti district. During the early 1960s, the redevelopment commission began buying up and demolishing homes in the area. Local residents were promised new and better accommodations in as yet unbuilt public housing. But in Durham, as in cities across the nation, such pledges were only partially fulfilled. Urban renewal, as Hayti residents (and their counterparts elsewhere in the country) joked with bitterness, became in the end a process of “Negro removal.” In 1965, Durham began construction of a new east–west expressway through the heart of Hayti to connect Duke University and the downtown business district to the rapidly expanding Research Triangle Park. [ 54 ] Anderson, Durham County, 406–9.A defiant tenant challenges Carvie Oldham and staff of the Durham Housing Authority. Photograph by and courtesy of Bill Boyarsky, Hillsborough, North Carolina.
The destruction of low-income housing and Durham’s failure to build adequate replacements tightened the rental market for the poor and gave slumlords free rein to exploit the situation. The most notorious case was that of Abe Greenberg. In the fall of 1965, Greenberg purchased twenty-one rental properties in the Edgemont community, a transitional neighborhood with a roughly equal mix of black and white residents. He immediately raised the rent on those houses and the twenty-two others he already owned in the area. When Greenberg refused to make needed repairs, Edgemont residents, supported 194 by Operation Breakthrough, complained directly to the Durham City Council. They demanded that the council enforce the city’s housing code and require Greenberg to bring his properties up to standard. Durham’s housing inspector visited Edgemont and sent Greenberg a letter detailing code violations, but when Greenberg took no action, neither the inspector nor the council followed up. [ 55 ] “Greenberg Housing Controversy,” series 6.7, folder 7120, NCFR.
In March 1966, Howard Fuller assigned two neighborhood organizers to work in Edgemont and bring new pressure to bear on Greenberg. The organizers found that black residents were eager to form a neighborhood council. Whites, however, were much less enthusiastic. They had more opportunities than blacks to find cheaper housing elsewhere in the city, and many were making plans to relocate. Most white residents also refused to participate in any organization that was interracial. Only blacks joined the Edgemont Community Council, which Fuller’s team and uoci established in early April. Through the end of May, council members made repeated efforts to convince the city housing inspector to force a response to their grievances, but the inspector replied that he was powerless to do so. Durham’s housing code provided no instrument of enforcement other than the issuing of notices like the one Greenberg had already received, or the boarding up of substandard housing. Neither promised much relief to black Edgemont residents, who had nowhere else to go. [ 56 ] Ibid.
By early June, the Edgemont Community Council had decided on more direct action. On the sixteenth, council members began picketing outside Greenberg’s downtown office and that of the realty company that managed his properties. “High Rent for Fire Traps,” their signs exclaimed. “Greenberg, Fix Our Houses.” For the first five days, Durham’s newspapers chose to ignore the demonstrations, which relieved some of the pressure on Greenberg and threatened to put the protest effort “in danger of failing.” On June 21, Edgemont residents raised the stakes. They traveled in Operation Breakthrough vehicles to the street on which Greenberg lived and marched in front of his house. “Your Neighbor is a Slumlord,” their placards informed nearby residents. “My Children Sleep with Rats,” they explained to “Mrs. Greenberg.” A few days later, the Durham Herald chastised Operation Breakthrough for involving itself in such “questionable practices.” The paper insisted that the agency would “be more effective in relieving poverty if it disregard[ed] the spectacular and follow[ed] regular procedures.” [ 57 ] Ibid., and “Questions Raised by Picketing,” Durham Herald, June 26, 1966.
That advice was misplaced. On June 27, Greenberg seemed to offer the protesters an olive branch. In an agreement brokered by Operation Breakthrough, he promised to complete repairs to his houses within ninety days. 195 But by mid-August, no work of any consequence had been undertaken. A month later, Greenberg’s attorney requested additional time to bring the properties up to code. The city council granted the extension over strong objections from Edgemont residents and the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs. In December, when the clock had once again run out on Greenberg’s promises, uoci made a final plea to Washington. President Rubye Gattis wrote to Robert Weaver, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the first black to serve in a cabinet-level post, asking that the agency mount an investigation and withhold urban renewal funds from Durham until the city developed a “workable plan” for housing code enforcement. “We are indeed poor, but we are trying to move out of our condition,” she explained. “We need your help.” This appeal, too, went unheeded. [ 58 ] “The Landlord Just Doesn’t Give a Damn,” series 4.8, folder 4585; “Greenberg Housing Controversy,” series 6.7, folder 7120; and Rubye Gattis to Robert Weaver, December 12, 1966, series 4.8, folder 4585, NCFR.Protesters marched daily to demand that the Durham City Council enforce the local housing code against slumlord Abe Greenberg. Photograph by Billy E. Barnes, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Billy Ebert Barnes Collection.
The months-long struggle with Greenberg and the Durham City Council left many in uoci deeply frustrated. As one contemporary observer noted, Durham was a city that “wanted a progressive image on race relations, but really did not want to give up its regressive ways.” That tension produced 196 deepening divisions within Operation Breakthrough’s board of directors. The community action program, Howard Fuller observed, was “ready to split right down the middle.” Conservatives on Breakthrough’s board, particularly attorney Victor Bryant and downtown merchant A. C. Sorrell, objected vigorously to the agency’s support of protests outside Greenberg’s home and use of the term slumlords to characterize “men of property and position in the community.” They and like-minded members of the board warned that such “activity was arousing public opinion to an extent that could well be fatal to the entire [Breakthrough] program.” Agency director Robert Foust answered with equal firmness that uoci’s picketing was “in line with Operation Breakthrough policy” and should continue to enjoy agency backing so long as it was “beneficial to the protesting group.” His allies on the board argued that Breakthrough’s “primary commitment was to the poor and held that to ‘desert’ them now—to ‘throw a rock and then run’—would seriously damage [the organization’s] standing with neighborhood residents.” Determined to “save the poverty program from itself,” conservative board members kept up the pressure on Foust, who resigned on June 25, 1966. For uoci, Foust’s departure raised serious questions about Breakthrough’s commitment to an effective assault on poverty. At a meeting on July 25, a uoci spokesperson read a prepared statement that challenged the board of directors. “We feel strongly that [public demonstrations] should continue and that this is the proper role for Operation Breakthrough,” he declared. “How can we put our faith and trust in an organization that will support us only if we remain complacent . . .? How can we support Operation Breakthrough if you will not support us?” [ 59 ] Pat Wallace, “Howard Fuller—Community Support Conference,” series 4.8, folder 4427; William Pursell, “Crisis and Conflict: The Story of Operation Breakthrough,” series 6.7, folder 7118; and “Greenberg Housing Controversy,” series 6.7, folder 7120, NCFR.
As the showdown over housing made clear, the North Carolina Fund had spawned in Durham a mobilization of the poor that was “tough, massive, and black.” That accomplishment forced the agency to confront a “crucial question,” for itself and for the larger War on Poverty. What, in practical terms, satisfied the mandate for maximum feasible participation of the poor? “Did [the term] mean simply the creation of advisory committees of the poor or, to go one step further, the inclusion of representatives of the poor or even the poor themselves” on cap boards? Activists in uoci insisted that neither arrangement was sufficient. In fact, they rejected any limitation on their participation in efforts to end poverty. After all, no one spoke in such terms when “men of property and position” organized to pursue their self-interests through the Jaycees, civic clubs, or chambers of commerce. Some of the North Carolina Fund’s advisers urged caution in associating the agency with such radical claims to equality and autonomy, lest it deviate from its founding purpose. 197 “I can imagine situations where the Fund’s right hand may be supporting a [cap] which its left hand is attempting to destroy,” warned one cap director. “I submit that this is a paradoxical situation which rational men would attempt to avoid.” Many within the Fund’s staff argued just the opposite. “The North Carolina Fund,” they contended, “should be[come] a ‘counterweight to traditionalism’ in the state, it should provide a loyal opposition to the status quo, and play the role of constructive critic, not afraid of conflict.” That line of reasoning crystallized changes in the Fund’s orientation that had been taking shape incrementally—and sometimes inadvertently—since the summer of 1964. The tension between these two points of view was not easily resolved. It would vex the Fund not only in Durham, but also a hundred miles to the northeast, in the rural region known as the Choanoke, “one of the most deprived areas in the state, and, indeed, in the country.” [ 60 ] “Operation Breakthrough, Inc.,” series 4.8, folder 4352; “Case Study in Community Action,” series 4.8, folder 4351; William Pursell, “Crisis and Conflict: The Story of Operation Breakthrough,” series 6.7, folder 7118; Ernest D. Eppley to Jim McDonald, July 22, 1966, series 4.1, folder 3369; notes from North Carolina Fund staff session with Ford review team, November 4, 1966, series 4.8, folder 4431; and “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 6.7, folder 7111, NCFR.
the choanoke spreads across broad flatlands that form the basins of the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers. The area encompasses four counties: Northampton, Hertford, Halifax, and Bertie. Although twice the size of Rhode Island, the Choanoke was in 1960 thinly populated by fewer than 150,000 inhabitants. Only the textile town of Roanoke Rapids in Halifax County had more than 5,000 residents; the remainder of the Choanoke’s population was scattered across the countryside in small farming communities. The local economy depended on the production of cotton, corn, peanuts, and tobacco, augmented by small-scale industry, most of it locally owned and centered on the lumber trade. [ 61 ] “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 6.7, folder 7111, NCFR.
Before the Civil War, the Choanoke had been home to some of North Carolina’s largest plantations and wealthiest slaveholders. A century later, it still bore the marks of that past. The region was predominantly black, and most of its citizens were desperately poor. The vast majority of rural families—black and white—worked the land as sharecroppers and tenants, much as their forebears had done since the end of the nineteenth century. On average, more than a quarter of the Choanoke’s adult population aged twenty-five and older had less than five years of formal schooling. As a result, the region offered little to potential investors and nonagricultural job opportunities remained limited. Black women found employment as domestics in the Choanoke’s small towns; men of both races labored in sawmills and lumberyards; and whites in Roanoke Rapids worked in the J. P. Stevens cotton mill. Like farming, these jobs provided a meager living. Thirty-five percent of the Choanoke’s white families and more than 80 percent of blacks lived below the Fund-designated poverty line. The human consequences of such deprivation 198 were obvious at every turn. Two-thirds of all Choanoke families lived in “unsound housing” that was either dilapidated or lacked indoor plumbing. Tuberculosis infection rates in the region were among the highest in the state, and for blacks, the infant mortality rate, ranging from 38 to 52 deaths per 1,000 live births, was twice that for whites. [ 62 ] Ibid., and “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823, NCFR.
The immediate future held few prospects for improvement. Since the end of World War II, conditions had in fact steadily worsened as white landowners chased new efficiencies and a competitive edge through the rapid mechanization of farming. By the early 1960s, machines had replaced human labor in more than 85 percent of the Choanoke’s peanut harvest and 50 percent of its cotton production. Hundreds of sharecropping families were turned off the land, and young people began to leave the region at an alarming rate. Between 1950 and 1959, the Choanoke lost nearly a quarter of its black population and 40 percent of its young adults under the age of twenty-five. These developments put new strains on meager family resources, increased the burden on already inadequate public welfare services, and pushed those who stayed behind even deeper into poverty. [ 63 ] Untitled document, series 4.11, folder 4825, and “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823, NCFR.
Electoral politics and local government offered limited options for addressing this suffering. The continued disfranchisement of black voters muffled dissent. It closed the polls to a majority of citizens and, along with the practices of Jim Crow, blinded poor whites to shared interests across the color line. As a North Carolina Fund staff report noted, “The leadership pattern in each of the four [Choanoke] counties was, true to tradition, predominantly white. Despite the fact that a majority of each county was black, there were no Negroes holding public office [and] the development of leaders among the indigenous poor”—white or black—“was strongly resisted by the white ‘power structure.’” A “poverty-segregation complex remained . . . intact,” retarded economic growth, and set the Choanoke apart from the general prosperity of the post–World War II era. One simple fact captured the extremity of the Choanoke’s plight: Bertie, its largest county, and neighboring Northampton ranked among the one hundred poorest counties in the nation, a status they shared with the most destitute areas of the Deep South. [ 64 ] “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823; untitled document, series 4.11, folder 4825; and People’s Program on Poverty Incentive Grant Proposal and accompanying undated letter, series 4.11, folder 4947, NCFR.
That was not the kind of distinction that Governor Terry Sanford wanted for his state. It underscored the need for decisive change, which he had championed on the campaign trail and in his call for a “New Day” in North Carolina. Sanford took that challenge directly to the Choanoke and other poverty-stricken areas. He pressured and cajoled local leaders to form multicounty, regional alliances to spur economic development. In November 1961, a group of the Choanoke’s most influential landowners, business leaders, and politicians 199 gathered at the Rebel Restaurant in Roanoke Rapids to make plans for such an organization. Archie Davis, chairman of Wachovia Bank and president of the Research Triangle Foundation, offered remarks about efforts elsewhere in the state to modernize North Carolina’s economy. Because the Rebel was segregated, no blacks—not even the black county extension agent who had participated in earlier discussions—were invited to attend the meeting. Five months later, in April 1962, a group of wealthy landowners, business leaders, and county agricultural agents chartered the Choanoke Area Development Association (CADA), which they imagined would operate as a regional “Chamber of Commerce, proclaiming the area’s positive aspects and great potential.” [ 65 ] “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823, NCFR.
CADA’s founders recognized the need for economic growth, but at the beginning they gave no specific attention to poverty. That changed in 1963 with the establishment of the North Carolina Fund. In November, Michael Brooks, the Fund’s director of research, and board member Thomas Pearsall visited cada officials to brief them on the new agency and the financial resources that it might make available for local programs. Pearsall, himself the owner of extensive sharecropping operations in Nash, Edgecombe, Halifax, and Martin Counties, was an effective envoy. His presence put to rest—at least for the moment—any concerns that CADA leaders might have had about the match between the Fund’s objectives and their own. By the end of January 1964, cada’s board had prepared a proposal for Fund support as a community action program and had amended the organization’s bylaws so that it might officially take up the antipoverty banner. [ 66 ] Ibid.
From the beginning, cada was a source of trouble for the North Carolina Fund. The association’s proposal was surprisingly disorganized and demonstrated little understanding of the Fund’s concern to coordinate the activities of government agencies responsible for aiding the poor. The document took note of the disruptive effects of farm mechanization and recommended compulsory “rehabilitation training” for the unemployed, but it said nothing about the kinds of jobs for which those thrown off the land would be prepared. Nor did the proposal link job training to the support requested for “industry hunting.” cada also trumpeted tourism as a potential cure for the Choanoke’s economic ills—the area, after all, was home to dozens of plantations and historical sites that dated back to the colonial era—but the only substantive discussion of benefits to the poor focused on teaching black women to make baskets for sale to visitors at roadside stands. For these reasons, the Fund “passed by” cada in April 1964 when it announced the first seven community action programs to receive financial support. The Fund 200 finally provided a start-up grant in October, after extensive negotiations with cada leaders and Governor Sanford’s insistence that no meaningful statewide poverty program could go forward without including the Choanoke, one of North Carolina’s poorest sections. “If it hadn’t been for Sanford,” one local official later remembered, “cada would never have gotten funded by the North Carolina Fund.” [ 67 ] Community action proposal, submitted January 28, 1964, series 4.11, folder 4883; “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823; and untitled document authored by John Miller, series 4.11, folder 4825, NCFR.
Money and persuasion, however, were insufficient to shake loose the grip of white paternalism. The enduring influence of that worldview became star-tlingly apparent in cada’s first application to the Office of Economic Opportunity, which it submitted in June 1965. The language and analysis that CADA leaders chose to describe the Choanoke’s situation echoed arguments that white supremacists had used since the turn of the century to deny any commonality of experience between the white and black poor. What mattered most for the poor white farmer, they insisted, was not the economic difficulty of the moment but the advantages associated with the “color of his skin.” “His children have attended schools with the children of the landed aristocracy,” the cada proposal explained. “His daughters have sometimes ‘married well.’ His sons have been exposed sufficiently to culture, art, crafts, the humanities, athletics and wealthy ‘cousin Jonathan’ that he has been and is beginning to break out of his state of economic depravity.” Even as mechanization caused an upheaval in southern agriculture, the poor white farmer managed to adapt. “He is being forced from the farms to a lesser degree than is widely believed,” cada insisted. “He stays, sometimes now as an employee drawing wages. He stays because he is mechanically inclined, and can both operate and repair the giant tobacco or grain harvester. But he stays. Perhaps he opens a small business or takes a part-time job ‘in town.’ Some, of course, do leave the farm completely. But when they do, they have some place to go.” [ 68 ] Proposal for Program Development Grant to Office of Economic Opportunity from Choanoke Area Development Association Economic Opportunities, June 8, 1965, series 4.11, folder 4886, NCFR.
cada officials acknowledged that rural blacks enjoyed few of those opportunities to escape poverty. But rather than explaining that fact as the flip side of white privilege, they attributed it to racial inadequacies that, if not inherent, had at least been made hereditary by generations of destitution. A majority of the Choanoke’s black inhabitants lived “in a state of poverty,” the cada proposal explained, because they lacked ambition and had no “desire for anything better.” That attitude, in turn, was to “be blamed on ignorance and the lack of exposure to anything outside the imprisonment that is the ‘Cycle of Poverty.’” cada’s leaders viewed themselves, and were thought of by their white contemporaries, as racial moderates. They conceded the need for change in southern race relations and willingly acknowledged the injuries of “inhumane slavery” and discrimination. But they could never quite escape 201 the shadow of an old idea—a mainstay of academic as well as popular historical understanding throughout the first half of the twentieth century—that slavery and Jim Crow had been schools of civilization, instilling in a backward race the virtues and habits of modern economic life. In their view, the way to win the battle against poverty was to accelerate that process of education and uplift, not to unleash a precipitous transformation of the political and economic order. As every white school child learned, rashness had been the “mistake” of the first reconstruction; it was, in like manner, the peril to be avoided in the second. [ 69 ] Ibid.
The Choanoke’s black citizens thought otherwise. They, too, had been organizing, and to quite different ends than cada. Schoolteacher Willa Cofield recalled that the “social revolution of the ’60s” came to the region in the spring of 1963, when her husband, Reed Johnson, director of one of the Cofield family’s funeral homes, ran for a seat on the town council in the small Halifax County community of Enfield. Inspired by his example—and by the mass demonstrations across the South led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (sclc), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (sncc), and core—local high school students affiliated with the youth branch of the naacp organized a “demonstration summer” of protests against segregation at the town’s theater, swimming pool, and library. In August, the students traveled north with busloads of Halifax County residents to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “They returned fired up to break the back of segregation,” Cofield recalled. “The mass demonstration in Washington gave them new spirit, and their conversations with youth from other communities gave them new ideas.” Taking a lesson from the SCLC’s Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, young people—some of them elementary school students—picketed Enfield’s business district and provoked an “all-out battle” with police. When they marched on city hall, the fire department “wheeled a truck into action” and turned hoses on the crowd. Police chief F. C. Sykes told newspaper reporters that the protesters “acted like a damn bunch of heathens. . . . If it becomes necessary . . . we’ll use anything we’ve got to stop them.” By year’s end, however, Enfield’s black community had prevailed. They responded to white intransigence by organizing an economic boycott that eventually persuaded merchants to employ black clerks and forced the town to hire a black police officer and desegregate public facilities. [ 70 ] Cofield, “Teaching Students to Read the World,” 101–5; A. Reed Johnson to Wiley Branton, March 27, 1964, folder 22, Gray (Salter) Papers; Laplois Ashford to [Henry Lee] Moon, September 4, 1963, in Bracey and Meier, Papers of the naacp , part 19, Youth File, series D, 1956-65, Youth Department files; “Enfield and Wilson Scenes of Trouble,” Rocky Mount Evening Telegram, September 2, 1963; “Arrest 15 at Enfield,” Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald, September 1, 1963; Waynick, Brooks, and Pitts, North Carolina and the Negro, 79–80; and John Salter to James Forman, January 29, 1964, folder 22, Gray (Salter) Papers.
Emboldened by that success, local activists incorporated a countywide political organization they called the Halifax Voters Movement and reached out to civil rights groups that were active elsewhere in the state. They made 202 contact first with John Salter, a field organizer for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (scef), the successor organization to the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, which University of North Carolina president Frank Porter Graham had led during the late 1930s. Salter joined the civil rights movement while employed as a professor of sociology at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. He took a job with scef in 1963 and moved to North Carolina to assist with core’s campaign to desegregate Chapel Hill. As that effort stalled, Salter turned his attention to the Choanoke region. He helped the Halifax Voters Movement field a slate of eleven black candidates for local and state offices, organize a voter registration drive, and win a federal court order “directing expeditious registration of Negroes on equal basis with whites.” With that injunction in hand, the Voters Movement added more than two thousand black voters to the Halifax County rolls. [ 71 ] Cofield, “Teaching Students to Read the World,” 105; Salter, “Upsurge in Carolina”; 501.NC.2. Alston v. Butts 501 N.C. 2 (ED N.C.) (Halifax Co.) May 1964; and John Salter report to SCEF board, April 15–16, 1965, box 2, folder 1, Gray (Salter) Papers.
Over the next year, Salter and local activists spread that upsurge throughout the Choanoke region. They called in Septima Clark and Dorothy Cotton from the SCLC to conduct citizenship schools that “taught unlettered people to read” and “gave . . . students and adults basic political education.” Volunteers from sncc assisted in that work and the League of Women Voters and the afl-cio’s Committee on Political Education provided financial support. The Halifax leaders also called home Ella Baker, veteran community organizer and founding mother of sncc who had spent her childhood in the Choanoke. In March 1965, she addressed a conference of over a thousand area residents who gathered to prepare for “concerted and intensive civil rights activity throughout the entire North Carolina Black Belt.” Baker, a champion of participatory democracy, called for “militant organized grass-roots action” to upend political power in a region where the black majority were poor and the white minority ran local government. The conference ended with the organization of new voters movements in Bertie and Northampton counties and with unanimous resolve to eliminate “all vestiges of discrimination.” [ 72 ] Cofield, “Teaching Students to Read the World,” 105; Salter, “Upsurge in Carolina”; “Over 1,000 Attend Civil Rights Conference in Bertie County,” Carolina Times, March 13, 1965; and CADA histories, series 4.11, folders 4823 and 4825, NCFR.
That militancy stood in stark contrast to cada’s wariness of “meaningful social change.” The agency’s loyalty to the status quo became particularly obvious during the summer of 1965, when it received its first oeo grant: $347,000 to fund a Head Start school-readiness program for nearly twenty-three hundred low-income students in the Choanoke counties. oeo guidelines required that the program be run on a strict nondiscriminatory basis, but cada officials and local school boards construed those regulations narrowly. They assigned mixed-race teams of teachers to some, but not all, of the Head Start centers. Beyond that, they were careful neither to reject racial 203 integration nor to confront the rule of Jim Crow. In Halifax County, for instance, school administrators declined to provide transportation that would have allowed children to attend centers outside their own segregated school districts. The school board excused that decision by citing not racial concerns, but rather the need to service county-owned buses in preparation for the fall term. A parent from Northampton County expressed the anger that such duplicity provoked among black families throughout the Choanoke. “As the program was conducted in our county,” she snapped sarcastically, “our children were ‘helped’ by experiencing a three-month ‘headstart’ in segregated education.” For her and others, cada’s management of the summer program amounted to nothing less than “a negation of the expected changes and equal opportunities” promised by the War on Poverty. [ 73 ] “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823; untitled 373 document, series 4.11, folder 4825; and Sargent Shriver to Fred Cooper, December 5, 1965, series 4.11, folder 4902, NCFR.Ella Baker visits with sncc organizers Ginny and Buddy Tieger at the civil rights conference sponsored by the Choanoke’s black voters movements. Photograph by J. V. Henry, courtesy of Hunter Gray (John Salter), Pocatello, Idaho.
When officials in Washington discovered what was happening in the Choanoke, they held back the final $138,000 of the region’s Head Start grant. CADA leaders protested that they were “shocked and disappointed” by the federal bureaucrats’ high-handed tactics; the local Head Start program, they insisted, had followed oeo “guidelines to the letter and in the spirit of the law.” Throughout the month of August, oeo and CADA officials traded bitter recriminations, each accusing the other of acting in bad faith. The standoff 204 ended when two senior members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, Representative L. H. Fountain and Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., interceded on CADA’s behalf. oeo director Sargent Shriver was in no position to refuse their appeals. His agency’s very existence required that he act cautiously and avoid giving offense to southern Democrats. But in notifying CADA of his decision to release the remaining Head Start funds, Shriver ceded no ground. To withhold the money any longer, he explained, would only injure hardworking teachers, not punish the officials who had flaunted federal policy. Shriver chided CADA’s board of directors. “Among the most gratifying aspects of the summer Head Start program just completed,” he wrote, “was the high level of compliance with the local requirement that there be no racial discrimination. . . . Only a very small minority of the 2,300 programs [funded nationwide] proved disappointing in this respect. Regrettably, your agency’s program was among the small minority.” Shriver put CADA on notice: “Your failure to comply with the nondiscrimination requirement this past summer, despite your written word of honor accepting clear instructions to do so, will be considered strong evidence of your intention not to comply with this requirement in the future.” For that reason, any subsequent requests to the oeo would “be given special scrutiny.” [ 74 ] CADA press releases, August 19, 23, and 27, 1965, series 4.11, folder 4837, and Sargent Shriver to Fred Cooper, December 5, 1965, series 4.11, folder 4902, NCFR.
In mid-September 1965, soon after the Head Start crisis had passed, CADA director Roger Jackson—a former state legislator from Hertford County—took a delegation of board members to Washington, where they met with oeo officials. Jackson’s intent was to demonstrate biracial support for CADA’s programs, but the visit did not go as planned. The delegation included Doris Cochran, an officer of the Halifax Voters Movement, wife of a local physician, and one of the small contingent of blacks who served on the CADA board. Over the summer, she had grown increasingly critical of CADA, worrying aloud to fellow board members about a lack of trust between the agency and the people who needed its help. When oeo regional administrator Harold Bailin invited Cochran to share her assessment of CADA, she answered forthrightly: there was “not enough Negro representation on the [agency’s] board, no poor people [served] on the board, [and] Negroes [were] not represented in policy-making positions.” Bailin probed further, asking Cochran for an appraisal of CADA’s director. With Jackson sitting across from her, she again gave a frank reply. “There was definitely a gap,” she said, “between the kind of leadership he is providing and that which he should be providing.” The conversation continued in that vein for two and a half hours. Finally, “Bailin made it very clear” that if CADA hoped to receive additional federal grants, it would have to follow oeo guidelines on nondiscrimination and maximum feasible 205 participation. He reminded his guests that the Choanoke included some of the nation’s poorest counties and suggested that the people there “should not be made to suffer” because of CADA’s intransigence. [ 75 ] “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823; Sarah Herbin report on telephone conversation with Doris Cochran, September 27, 1965; and Herbin field report on CADA, September 20–21, 1965, series 4.11, folder 4938, NCFR.
A week after the Washington meeting, members of the Northampton Voters Movement followed up with a letter of their own to Sargent Shriver. They complained that in the Choanoke “the whole anti-poverty program has been conducted very effectively to exclude both the Negro and the poor.” While it was true that CADA had added black representatives to its board, it had done so by selecting individuals who owed their livelihood to white power brokers. Two board members, for example, were principals of black schools who served alongside their county superintendents. “As such,” the letter writers explained, “they are not free from pressure from the school board. Nor are they poor. In fact, in this poverty-stricken county, they are among the wealthiest Negroes.” Shriver’s petitioners warned that such paternalistic arrangements made “a farce . . . of the War on Poverty,” and they urged the oeo director to join them in demanding that the Choanoke campaign be “completely reorganized.” “We are tired of having our spokesmen hand-picked by the white power structure,” they declared. “We are tired of the way we have been represented by the black power structure. When representatives must be chosen, we will choose them. We are ready now to speak for ourselves.” [ 76 ] Georgia C. Peerce, secretary, Northampton Voters Movement, to Sargent Shriver, September 30, 1965, series 4.11, folder 4879, NCFR.
CADA director Jackson and whites on his board of directors did not know what to make of such declarations. When challenged, they refused to engage their critics, closed ranks, and sought, “whenever possible,” to “avoid [further] contact with the Negro organizations.” The problem was that despite their moderate stance on race, they were nonetheless products of a Jim Crow world. They had been taught since childhood that blacks were incapable of self-direction and political responsibility. Jim Crow’s purpose, after all, had been to shore up the ideology of white supremacy by overwriting memory of a more complex past and, as W. E. B. Du Bois argued in his classic study of Reconstruction, “to treat the Negro’s part” in the story of American democracy “with silence and contempt.” But behind the veil of racial discrimination, black men and women preserved and passed from one generation to the next a different understanding of historical “Truth, on which Right in the future [might one day] be built.” When the Choanoke voters movements declared that they intended to take leadership of the War on Poverty, they drew on a legacy of self-organization and political engagement that reached from the end of the Civil War into their own time. The struggle had been long, but the weight of history, they believed, was on their side. [ 77 ] “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823, NCFR, and Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 721.206
the choanoke counties of Halifax, Northampton, and Bertie were part of North Carolina’s Second Congressional District, which had been created in 1872 by conservative Democrats in the state legislature who were eager to remove the majority-black area from the adjoining First and Third Districts. The Black Second, as it came to be known, soon developed into an important center of Republican political power. Over the next quarter century the district sent more than fifty black representatives to the general assembly in Raleigh and elected four black candidates to Congress. The last of those congressmen was George H. White, who first won his seat in 1896, when the state’s Fusion alliance of white Populists and black Republicans was at its zenith. White had been born in 1852 to free parents in rural southeastern North Carolina. He later graduated from Howard University, served two terms in the state legislature, and, before moving to the Black Second, practiced law as a federal solicitor. [ 78 ] Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, and Justesen, George Henry White.
When White ran for reelection in 1898, conservative Democrats pointed to his presence in the House of Representatives as evidence of the threatening reach of “Negro domination.” For Democratic Party leader Furnifold Simmons, the attacks on White and the larger campaign for white supremacy were, in part, about settling old scores. In 1888, after serving only one term in Washington, he had lost the Second District’s congressional seat to White’s brother-in-law and predecessor, Henry P. Cheatham. Simmons’s chief aide, Bertie County native Francis D. Winston, had also forged his political career amid shifting racial alliances. He had joined the Republican Party as a young man, and as late as 1890 declared himself to be “a friend of the Negro,” but by mid-decade he had switched sides and become a fierce champion of white rule. Winston came up with the idea of organizing White Government Unions to intimidate black voters and their white allies, and in 1899, he introduced in the state legislature the disfranchisement amendment to North Carolina’s constitution, which won approval a year later in a popular referendum. [ 79 ] Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, 179, 261.
George White won reelection in 1898, but he was powerless to hold back the tide of white supremacy. He decided in 1900 not to stand for a third term; with black men having lost the right to vote, his defeat was all but assured. But in his final speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, White made clear that he and his people would not surrender their claim to equal citizenship. “This,” he said, “is perhaps the negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress. . . . Phoenix-like [they] will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people—rising people, full of potential force.” [ 80 ] Justesen, George Henry White, 297–304; “Southern Negro’s Plaint,” New York Times, April 26, 1900; and remarks by George Henry White, 56th Cong., 2nd sess., Congressional Record 34 (January 29, 1901): 1638. White was the last black southerner to serve 207 in Congress until the election of Georgia civil rights veteran Andrew Young in 1972, and the last black North Carolinian to hold congressional office until the election of Mel Watt and Eva Clayton in 1992. Clayton represented North Carolina’s First Congressional District, which was redrawn in 1990 under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to include most of the counties that historically had been part of the Black Second.
Once forced from politics at the turn of the century, black North Carolinians focused inward on their own communities. They devoted themselves to building institutions—churches, newspapers, fraternal lodges, and women’s clubs—that strengthened the bonds of mutual aid and provided a measure of security in an otherwise hostile and uncertain world. They also seized every opportunity to forge alliances—whether with northern philanthropists, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, or national civil rights organizations—to restore in everyday life the ideals of American democracy.
Like their counterparts elsewhere in the South, the Choanoke’s black citizens gave particular attention to education, which was the resource they could most effectively leverage for self-help and racial advancement. They took special pride in the Brick School, located on the outskirts of Enfield, a small Halifax County town. The school dated to 1895, when local residents founded it with a donation of land from Brooklyn philanthropist Julia E. Brewster Brick and financial support from the American Missionary Association, which from the time of the Civil War had invested heavily in black education across the South. Throughout the early twentieth century, Brick operated as an industrial school on the model of Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes. It prepared young women to work as classroom teachers and offered young men training in skilled trades and farming. [ 81 ] Wynne, “Historical Study of the Joseph K. Brick School.” For a first-person account of the Brick School, see principal Thomas S. Inborden’s “History of Brick School,” Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, N.C.
During the Great Depression, the Brick School (now reorganized as the Brick Rural Life School) also helped black sharecroppers acquire farms of their own and establish some measure of economic independence on the land. In 1934, the Roosevelt administration sought to address the problem of rural poverty with a resettlement program that offered displaced tenants an opportunity to start anew in government-built communities in which they received forty acres of land, a house and outbuildings, and access to education and health services. One of the nation’s largest projects was located in Halifax County, where the federal government purchased several thousand acres of prime farmland along the Roanoke River and created a new town called Tillery. From the outset, federal officials ran the project in close collaboration with the Brick School. Tillery residents took classes that mixed the study of great books with lessons on farm management and scientific agriculture. The 208 objective was to educate participants to become active citizens and to prepare them to purchase and operate their own farms. By 1943, when Congress cut off funding for the resettlement program, ninety-three Tillery families had acquired homesteads and reclaimed a dream of independence that reached back to emancipation. A decade later, Tillery residents led in founding Halifax County’s first chapter of the naacp. [ 82 ] Brownlee and Morton, Brick Rural Life School; Brownlee, New Day Ascending; and “Families Re-visit Depression-Era Resettlement Farm,” Durham Herald-Sun, September 3, 1995.
This was the history, the collective memory that the Choanoke’s civil rights and antipoverty activists invoked when they declared their independence from CADA. They understood the War on Poverty as an opportunity to assert anew their claims to citizenship, to chart for their state and nation a future that was more just and equitable, and to redeem their “faith in American democracy.” The Reverend James A. Felton, a leader of the Hertford County naacp, laid out that vision in a play he wrote in 1957 and then published in 1965 as a novel titled Fruits of Enduring Faith. Felton was born in 1919 in Perquimans County, just east of the Choanoke, and served in World War II as a member of the Marine Corps’ first black company, which trained at Montford Point, North Carolina. After the war, he attended Elizabeth City State Teachers College and pursued a dual career as a schoolteacher and pastor. Felton drew on those experiences to craft a story of racial reconciliation. The tale turns on the efforts of a fictional white Marine Corps veteran, Ed Tuso, to convince his wife, Betty, and young son, Bobby, that “racial prejudice, inequality, segregation, and discrimination” no longer have a place in America. Tuso makes the point by telling his family of Jack Wynn, a black Marine who had saved his life in the battle for the South Pacific. He insists that in an America now threatened by Cold War with the Soviet Union, what matters most is the human bond between true patriots. “Betty!” Ed exclaims. “Can’t you understand? All this stuff about color and this man is better than another because of his race is nothing but ignorance. This stuff will sink our country. Listen! . . . The enemy! . . . They want to destroy America and rob all of us of our freedom. . . . Can’t you understand, Betty? Can’t you hear? . . . The Russians are trying to take this country, and all you care about is race and color.” To those who argued that the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty were divisive forces in American life, Felton answered that they offered instead an opportunity for “racial unity . . . peace, understanding, and prosperity within.” These would be the “fruits” of black citizens’ “enduring”—and long-suffering—“faith in God and true American democracy.” [ 83 ] Biographical sketch, James A. Felton and Annie Vaughan Felton Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Felton, Fruits of Enduring Faith, 26–28, 32, 63, 96. On the Montford Point Marines, see McLaurin, Marines of Montford Point.
For Roger Jackson and many other whites on CADA’s board, such pleas were too unsettling to comprehend. They did not know the history that Felton invoked, they were unprepared to surrender their own privilege, and, like 209 Betty and Bobby Tuso, they were deaf and could not hear. As relations with his black critics worsened, Jackson chose to resign from CADA. Board chair and president Fred Cooper, a retired insurance executive and former secretary of the Roanoke Rapids Chamber of Commerce, moved in immediately to fill the office of director and took two quick steps aimed at appeasing black activists. Neither was entirely satisfactory. [ 84 ] “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823, and John Miller, “Staff-Board Politics: Choanoke Area Development Association,” series 4.11, folder 4859, NCFR.The Reverend James Felton in his Marine dress uniform. Courtesy of the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, James A. Felton and Annie Vaughan Felton Papers.
Cooper first convinced the CADA board to add new black members, but the board insisted that it retain the authority to appoint those individuals and rejected the idea that representatives might be elected directly by the poor. Cooper next responded to a request made nearly a year earlier that CADA employ a black assistant director. He created such a position and promoted CADA staffer John Taylor to fill it. Taylor was a graduate of Hampton Institute and an Army veteran who had worked briefly as a plasterer in Norfolk, Virginia. The job paid well, but it required that he commute and left him with only the weekends to spend with his family. Working for CADA allowed Taylor to stay close to home and offered him an opportunity to use his college 210 education. During Roger Jackson’s tenure, Taylor had been an outspoken critic of the director’s failure to consult the poor, but, as a North Carolina Fund field-worker observed, his attitude changed after his elevation to a management position. Taylor felt “exceedingly grateful toward Cooper for having promoted him” and for “granting [him] real authority and responsibility” over CADA’s day-to-day operations. The two men got along well, and Taylor quickly adopted Cooper’s strategy of avoiding conflict, whether with conservative members of CADA’s board or black community organizations. [ 85 ] John Miller, “Staff-Board Politics: Choanoke Area Development Association,” series 4.11, folder 4859, and “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823, NCFR.
Cooper believed that conflict, particularly in matters connected to race relations, only “led to bad feelings with nothing to show in the end.” “Why,” he asked, “should there be conflict in administering an anti-poverty program?” Cooper and Taylor insisted that the wiser approach was to provide the CADA board and community groups “with as little information as possible.” They figured that the less either party “[knew] about a proposal, the fewer questions they [could] ask and the greater the possibility of avoiding” disagreements that would “solidify the Whites and Negroes into ‘two opposing camps.’” Cooper argued that “if the Fund would only let him do it his way—keep down conflict—he could prove his theory and they would have ‘the best CAP in the country!’” [ 86 ] John Miller, “Staff-Board Politics: Choanoke Area Development Association,” series 4.11, folder 4859, NCFR.
In the spring of 1966, the CADA administrators pursued that strategy to disastrous effect. In May, Cooper and Taylor submitted to the oeo a $500,000 proposal to establish in the Choanoke a network of facilities they described as “multi-service centers.” Their idea was to bring a variety of social welfare providers—adult education programs, job referral bureaus, public health clinics, and the like—under one roof, so that existing agencies might deliver their services to the poor more effectively and efficiently. Taylor wrote the proposal single-handedly; he and Cooper violated CADA’s bylaws by not sharing draft s for review by county subcommittees; and when they finally brought the document to the full CADA board, they did so nearly two weeks after submitting it to the oeo. Faced with that fait accompli, the board had little choice but to suspend its rules and endorse the proposal. [ 87 ] Ibid., and “Choanoke Area Development Association,” series 4.11, folder 4825, NCFR.
Cooper’s high-handed tactics angered conservative whites on the CADA board, who feared that the multiservice centers would become staging points for civil rights protests, as well as black community representatives, who felt marginalized yet again. The proposal and its handling also caused alarm at North Carolina Fund headquarters in Durham. A year earlier, the Fund might have embraced the idea of welfare service centers, but by early 1966, its thinking about effective strategies for an assault on poverty had changed. Fund staff characterized CADA’s proposal as “paternalistic.” It engaged the poor as 211 clients rather than partners in shaping an antipoverty program. It promised services to the poor but did nothing to engage them in building the institutions and skills that might make a long-term difference in their condition. Those shortcomings seemed so severe that some Fund staff recommended intervention with the oeo to scuttle the project. CADA and the North Carolina Fund had never been in total agreement about such matters; now they seemed at loggerheads over the core “purposes and objectives of the war on poverty.” [ 88 ] Sarah Herbin and Arch Foster to Jim McDonald, May 25, 1966, series 4.11, folder 4911; “Choanoke Area Development Association: Autonomy from OEO, NCF and Local Community Agencies,” series 4.11, folder 4859; and “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823, NCFR.
The situation alarmed George Esser, who asked field-workers in the Fund’s community support office to figure out how to mend the rift. Jim McDonald and his staff construed that request more broadly than Esser intended. They were inspired by the grassroots activists in the Choanoke whom they had come to know as friends and allies, and—unlike Fred Cooper, who sought to avoid conflict at all cost—they had concluded that effective change could be accomplished only through direct action and confrontation. In June, McDonald’s field-workers organized a round of consultations with leaders of the county voters movements in the Choanoke, and by early July they had settled on the idea of convening “a people’s conference on poverty.” The Fund staff took their cues from prior experiences with uoci in Durham and the Choanoke conference a year before that had seeded voters movement organizations across the region. Their aim was to give the poor a public venue for claiming their rightful role as leaders in the War on Poverty and assuming responsibility for the welfare of their communities.
George Esser did not learn of these plans until mid-July, and he initially “raised a ‘caution flag.’” He questioned the wisdom of putting the Fund at odds with itself by encouraging a challenge to one of its own community action programs. McDonald answered by arranging to have forty Choanoke activists stage a sit-in at Fund headquarters. Nathan Garrett, the Fund’s director of finance, complained to others in the office that McDonald had “gone off at the ‘deep end’” and was “acting like a ‘damned fool,’” but he also agreed that supporting direct action by the poor was the right thing to do. After all, he asked, how could “the poverty program” justify “turn[ing] its back on several thousand people in a community?” On July 18, Esser approved funds for the proposed conference. Choanoke activists announced their plans in black churches on the following Sunday, and during the next week and a half they mobilized precinct-level recruiting committees to spread the word door-to-door. [ 89 ] Report on Choanoke Area Development Association meeting, July 15, 1966; “Notes Taken at a Meeting in Roanoke Rapids Hospital in a Room Occupied by Fred Cooper,” July 19, 1966; and A Report on the People’s Conference on Poverty, series 4.11, folder 4862, NCFR.
On July 30, 1966, a standing-room-only crowd of roughly one thousand people gathered at the National Guard Armory in the Northampton County 212 community of Woodland. Sharecroppers, domestic workers, schoolteachers, preachers, and students assembled to think and plan together for “their own future and destiny.” The organizers opened the event with the singing of the “battle Hymn of the Republic.” That was a bold gesture in the heart of the Carolina Black Belt; it reached back in time and made connections to the Civil War, emancipation, and promises of freedom as yet unfulfilled. Abolitionist Julia Ward Howe had written the words to the anthem in 1861, and it quickly became the marching song of Union troops. Its fifth verse, in particular, spoke to ideals of sacrifice and redemption that linked the conflict of the 1860s to the struggles that followed a century later:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us live [originally, “let us die”] to make men free,
While God is marching on.
The Reverend A. I. Dunlap, a leader of the Halifax Voters Movement, echoed similar themes as he led the assembly in prayer. He invoked the suffering of a subjugated people and implored God to give them strength that they might overcome obstacles and redeem the nation. It was a “magnificent” prayer, wrote one observer. “The memory of it still moves me.” [ 90 ] People’s Program on Poverty proposal, series 4.11, folder 4924; Rev. C. Melvin Creecy to Harold Bailin, August 4, 1966, series 4.11, folder 4947; and Tom Hartmann, Report on the Conference on Poverty, July 30, 1966, Woodland, N.C., series 4.11, folder 4862, NCFR.
Fred Cooper’s performance was less inspiring. In fact, Fund staff who attended the Woodland rally described his speech as “the most inept” they had ever heard. “I felt sorry for Fred Cooper,” one of them said, “and for the white race in general.” Cooper “just didn’t know how to communicate with the people he was dealing with.” He had decided to attend the conference in hopes of demonstrating that CADA—after two years of delay and conflict with local communities and the oeo—was finally prepared to deliver on its promise to uplift the poor. With great fanfare, he announced that he had “just heard that afternoon that oeo would come through” with half a million dollars to fund CADA’s controversial multiservice centers. Immediately, Golden Frinks, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s field director for eastern North Carolina, began to challenge Cooper: “Why didn’t any poor people help you write this proposal?” “How can you pretend to know what the poor people want unless you ask them?” Cooper, realizing that “he was in bad shape with the audience,” tried to deflect the questions. A Fund staffer reported what followed: “‘I think I just gave you some good news about the multi-purpose centers being funded,’ [Fred reminded the crowd.] ‘I think we should make some noise over this fact, so I’ll tell you what I’m going to 213 do, I’m going to take my handkerchief and throw it up into the air and when it goes up into the air, I want everybody here to holler. And when it comes down and I catch it, I want you to stop.’ Well, Fred took his handkerchief and threw it up into the air and everybody screamed, and he caught it and everybody stopped, and then he took and threw it up into the air again, and everybody screamed and hollered, and when he caught it they stopped.” Pleased with his performance and “smiling to himself,” Cooper then sat down. [ 91 ] “People’s Conference on Poverty, July 30, 1966,” and Tom Hartmann, Report on the Conference on Poverty, July 30, 1966, Woodland, N.C., series 4.11, folder 4862, NCFR.The People’s Conference on Poverty, convened in July 1966, marked a turning point in the North Carolina Fund’s strategy for battling poverty. Courtesy of the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina Fund Records.
Howard Fuller, the Fund’s chief community organizer, rushed to the podium, and he scolded both Cooper and the audience. “I’m sitting here in a meeting in the year 1966,” he exclaimed, “and see a white man take a handkerchief and throw it up in the air and tell us to yell when it comes down . . . and what I don’t understand about it is the fact that you yelled when he threw it up. . . . I think it’s time . . . that we had a little soul talk.” Were black folk still so captive to white paternalism, Fuller wondered, that they believed that “as long as you keep saying ‘yes suh,’ ‘no suh,’ . . . everything’s going to be alright”? “You got white people running you, white people determining if you’re going to breathe or not,” he reminded the crowd. Wasn’t that the case with CADA? The community action program promised better access to public welfare services, but what black people needed more than another caseworker was a job that paid “enough money to survive.” cada offered job 214 training, but vocational programs would do little to alleviate poverty unless there was also an end to discrimination and whites stopped relegating blacks to “dead-end” employment. Likewise, community improvement programs would make little difference in black living conditions until the Choanoke region had enforceable housing codes and open housing markets, “so that the white man knows no matter where [he] move[s], a brother can move next door.” [ 92 ] Untitled transcript of Howard Fuller’s speech at the People’s Conference on Poverty, July 30, 1966, series 4.11, folder 4932, NCFR.
Fuller explained to his audience that in order to make social welfare policy responsive to the poor, they needed to encourage militant leadership and to believe in their own capacity to effect change. In a thinly veiled reference to John Taylor, who was also sitting on the stage, Fuller complained that a false sense of pride and accomplishment often took hold of black leaders when powerful whites appointed them to agency boards. “I just get amazed,” Fuller mocked, “at how unmilitant Negroes get when . . . elected to one of those boards. We’re so glad to be sitting with the white folks.” In a region that was majority black, there was no reason for such accommodation; black people should be running the boards and setting the agendas. But, Fuller warned, that day would come only when the black poor repudiated the inferiority and inadequacies ascribed to them by Jim Crow and theories of a culture of poverty. He pointed to himself and others assembled on the stage—none of them, he said, could solve the problems of the poor. Only the poor could accomplish that task, by organizing, finding the courage to speak, and taking up the responsibilities of citizenship. Fuller urged his listeners to begin then and there. The time had come for asking tough questions and demanding honest answers. “I want to hear some nitty-gritty questions,” Fuller insisted, “and don’t tell me nothing about I can’t talk so well—I don’t care how it sounds. Ain’t nobody gon’ care how your English sounds. I don’t care, as long as you get that point across. And you are as capable as anybody up here or anywhere around here to talk about it, and you oughta talk about it, because can’t nobody talk about it better than you.” [ 93 ] Ibid.
Fuller’s “soul talk” pricked deep-seated white anxiety over control of the public agenda in a region of black majorities. News staff from witn, northeastern North Carolina’s only local television station, ran a three-part series on the Woodland meeting. The mood of the gathering had been “friendly, positive and constructive,” the station reported, until Fuller delivered his “ten minute tirade of heaped up, packed down and running over hatred for the white race. . . . When he finished he was given a standing ovation by the crowd and . . . any spirit of mutual cooperation was . . . gone with the wind of his remarks.” Essie Mattison, a California resident who attended the rally while 215 visiting relatives in Northampton County, heard things differently. She wrote to Jim McDonald and Nathan Garrett to share her outrage at the television news coverage. “I heard nothing at all wrong,” she explained. In fact, Fuller’s remarks were just what whites needed to hear. “The reason they were upset,” Mattison wrote, “was because every word he said was true. They do not want anyone to come here and tell these contented colored people anything that would arouse them and start them thinking deeply of their plight and doing something about it.” Years later, Fuller recalled that Jim Crow had such a grip on the white imagination that his critics could hear his call for black citizenship only as a “racist outpouring”: “‘Oh, my god,’ [they thought], ‘he’s got an Afro and he’s talking about power, black people having power,’ which meant that we’re supposed to hate white people.” [ 94 ] Transcript of a report by Mr. W. D. Debnam on WITN-TV, Wednesday, August 3, 1966, series 4.11, folder 4932, and Essie Mattison to Jim McDonald and Nathan Garrett, ca. August 8, 1966, series 4.11, folder 4881, NCFR; and Fuller interview.
in the months surrounding the Woodland rally, poor people’s protests in the Choanoke and Durham converged. Taking their cue from uoci, Choanoke activists chartered a new organization that they called the People’s Program on Poverty (ppop), and by autumn 1966, both uoci and ppop had requested grants from the North Carolina Fund that would enable them to operate as freestanding enterprises financially and administratively independent of Operation Breakthrough and CADA. That move effectively cornered the Fund and demanded that it declare itself politically. Over the next six months, Fund staff produced a flood of internal reports in which they took stock of the agency’s “shifting priorities” and effectiveness in advancing its campaign against poverty. They concluded that CAPs such as Operation Breakthrough and CADA could not represent the community at large and at the same time serve as “insistent [advocates] for the poor.” Those functions were, in some fundamental measure, at odds. Howard Fuller identified the predicament with plainspoken clarity: “If this is a war on poverty,” he asked, “how can you have people who are helping cause the problem be on the board to plan the strategy?” [ 95 ] Untitled report on Fund support for uoci and ppop, series 4.8, folder 4561, NCFR, and Fuller interview.
This problem was not unique to North Carolina or the South; it was a challenge faced by combatants in the War on Poverty across the nation. From the beginning, big-city mayors had made clear that they expected to control the purse strings of new antipoverty programs. They welcomed the federal government’s largesse so long as they were able to direct it through established agencies and networks of political patronage. At congressional hearings on the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964, New York mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. had argued “that the sovereign government of each locality in which . . . community action is proposed should have the power of approval over the 216 makeup of the planning group, the structure of the planning group, and over the plan.” Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley echoed that sentiment, insisting that the proposed assault on poverty would succeed only if “administered by . . . elected officials.” The mayor of Syracuse added pointedly, “If we [cannot] have direct control of the program, we [do] not want it.” [ 96 ] Piven and Cloward, Regulating the Poor, 271.
As the War on Poverty took shape, that insistence on top-down control ran afoul of the insurgencies that maximum feasible participation had ignited in poor neighborhoods. The poor—particularly the black poor—seized upon the War on Poverty as a means of redistributing economic and political power. They sought to extend the struggle of the civil rights movement by claiming a “voice in the political community,” pursuing “security in their material existence,” and exercising “control over their destiny.” In 1966, oeo director Sargent Shriver ardently defended that conception of the War on Poverty’s purpose. “The Office of Economic Opportunity funds, delegates, administers, or coordinates a vast array of programs,” he said. “Every one of those programs can be perverted into a form of dole—paternalistic, unilateral, and degrading.” It was imperative, therefore, that “the poverty program . . . stake its existence on the same ideal upon which [the American nation had] gambled from the outset: Democracy.” To big-city mayors, such notions seemed threatening and outlandish. In San Francisco, John F. Shelley complained that the local antipoverty program was headed “in a direction we don’t want. . . . It has the potential for setting up a great political organization.” Mayor Daley of Chicago scoffed at the idea of maximum feasible participation, suggesting that it was akin to “telling the fellow who cleans up to be the city editor of a newspaper.” [ 97 ] Ibid., 272; Gilbert, Clients or Constituents, 2, 11; and Patterson, America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century, 142. See also Kramer, Participation of the Poor, 14.
Staff at the North Carolina Fund kept close watch on these battles elsewhere in the nation. Several, including John Strange from Duke University’s Department of Political Science and Morris Cohen from the University of North Carolina’s School of Social Work, were, in fact, heavily engaged in national policy debates about the appropriate role of the poor in community action. From those exchanges and their own firsthand observations, Fund staff drew one critically important lesson: winning the War on Poverty required that the poor be fully outfitted for battle. Above all else, that meant providing the poor with the resources to support their own, independent institutions, within which they would develop leadership skills; merge experiential knowledge with broader understandings of policy, politics, and economics; and build their capacity to engage public life as citizens and constituents rather than as clients. Morris Cohen conceded to his colleagues the difficulties inherent in that course of action. It denied state and national policymakers the 217 comfort of channeling assistance through “‘the same old crowd,’ the politicians, the professionals, and the familiar community leadership structure.” It also demanded that welfare workers “be prepared to relinquish—or at least to share—their role of ‘running things’ . . . [and] entertain the possibility that the poor can make a contribution to society’s plans in their own way.” [ 98 ] Morris Cohen, “Why Should the Poor Be Involved in the War on Poverty?,” 2, 9–11, series 4.2, folder 3559, NCFR.
As politically charged as that course of action might be, Cohen concluded that there was no viable alternative. He warned that too many “middle-class laymen and professionals [wanted] the ‘name without the game’ or the ‘flower without the fruit’ in the War on Poverty. They [wanted] the appearance of a benevolent assault on poverty as a social problem, without in any way disturbing any of the underlying relationships that contribute to it.” That was a dangerous inclination. It risked widening the rift between the two Americas, one affluent and the other chained in the “prison of poverty.” Cohen insisted that commanders in the War on Poverty faced a critical decision. Having mobilized a vast army of the poor, would they institutionalize its “full participation” in civic life, or leave it to struggle on its own without a plan or direction? One path pointed to the possibility that the poor might contribute as a disciplined, “constructive force” in social change. Down the other lay the making of what a later generation of social scientists would describe as a permanent underclass, in Cohen words, “cynical, skeptical, and pessimistic,” lacking any instrument other than violence for pressing its grievances. [ 99 ] Ibid., 4, 9, 11–12, 13.
The question that arose most immediately from that line of reasoning was how best to move from protest to the building of institutions that could effect long-lasting change. One option was for the Fund to acknowledge that it “had been backing the wrong horses,” to sever its relationship with the current CAPs, and to turn the table on whites by shifting “all support” to new community action programs run exclusively by the poor. That strategy, despite its appeal to some at the Fund, was politically impractical, primarily because it risked alienating white moderates and surrendering control of the existing CAPs’ considerable resources and influence to their more conservative board members. An alternative was for the Fund to maintain its ties to established programs and at the same time to invest in “counter CAPs” that would mold poor people’s activism into a significant political force. That approach, a Fund staff report explained, acknowledged another important tactical consideration: “organized Negro groups” had become “a force which must be dealt with by politicians and other opinion leaders.” In fact, “the rate of progress in North Carolina depend[ed] . . . upon the speed with which [such] groups” were treated as “public realities.” [ 100 ] Tom Hartmann, Report on the Conference on Poverty, July 30, 1966, Woodland, N.C., series 4.11, folder 4862, NCFR.
From that perspective, Fund staff concluded that conflict of the sort that 218 had erupted in Durham and the Choanoke was more an asset than a liability. If properly managed, it could be used to cut through the rhetoric of “cooperation” that conceded the authority of powerful whites to “make the decisions” and obscured the inequalities and injustices from which poverty arose. In proposing such a strategy, Fund staff drew directly on the analysis of social change that Martin Luther King Jr. had articulated in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” “I must confess,” King had written, “that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” [ 101 ] Notes used in meeting with CADA board, March 18, 1967, series 4.11, folder 4829, and field reports, series 4.11, folders 4939-40, NCFR; and King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” <http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/resources/article/kings_letter_from_ birmingham_jail>.
Fund director George Esser agreed with such arguments, but he was wary of asking his board of directors to give uoci and ppop direct financial support. He knew that they would be squeamish about endorsing “independent organizations of the poor.” He also worried about violating a Fund policy that required channeling all grants through existing CAPs. In uoci’s case, Operation Breakthrough eventually removed the barrier by approving the organization’s proposal. That move reflected the influence of uoci representatives such as Ann Atwater on Breakthrough’s board and the realities of black political power in Durham. The situation in the Choanoke, however, was different. There, CADA director Fred Cooper firmly opposed separate funding for ppop. He insisted that his program could succeed in the battle against poverty only by “keep[ing] things peaceful” and not “anger[ing] the power structure, because after all, they [were] the ones who [made] the decisions.” [ 102 ] Untitled report on Fund support for uoci and ppop, series 4.8, folder 4561; report on community support meeting, July 18, 1966, series 4.11, folder 4862; and Sarah Herbin report, July 26, 1966, series 4.11, folder 4829, NCFR.
The internal debate over the future of uoci and ppop reached a crisis point in the spring of 1967. On March 21, four of Esser’s “top black staff members”—including James McDonald and Nathan Garrett—threatened to resign if the Fund’s board of directors refused grants to the two organizations. “I decided that the Fund, without this additional step, had outlived its usefulness,” Garrett explained. “Once you had poor people banded together and ready to do something they ought to be funded.” On the evening of March 22, in a dramatic “break with precedent,” Esser invited representatives of ppop and uoci to make their case directly to the board. The next morning, McDonald and Garrett followed up with a report titled “Staff Analysis of the 219 Community Corporation Concept,” in which they summarized the conclusions drawn from months of self-study. The report argued that the establishment of counter-CAPs such as uoci and ppop was the logical next step in a “spiral of participation” that the Fund had set in motion with its first call for community action proposals. “As in other areas of the anti-poverty effort,” the staff analysis reminded board members, “the Fund [had] been a pioneer in advocating the necessity for poor people to develop the capacity and the leadership to help themselves.” It had affirmed that objective in its 1963 manual for prospective community action agencies, and again in its “1965 statement of goals.” A year later, the Fund went even further by “encouraging the independence of organized neighborhood groups.” In the staff’s view, uoci and ppop were exemplary products of that process. They had marshaled the poor as a political force, and then, by working the system and marching in the streets, they had focused public attention on issues that poor people identified as critically important. Now, the time had come to provide uoci and ppop with the resources required to transform themselves from “crisis-oriented” organizations into permanently established agencies capable of “deal[ing] with . . . problems on a long-term basis [and] in greater depth.” In an effort to clinch the argument, staff suggested to the board that by taking that step, the Fund would remain on the cutting edge. “Poor people’s corporations have been tried primarily in large metropolitan areas,” they noted. “There have been no poor people’s corporations similar to Durham’s uoci in small Southern urban settings, and there have been no local poor people’s corporations in large isolated rural tenant farming areas similar to ppop.” Board members were persuaded. With “several abstentions but only one or two opposing votes,” they approved direct support for ppop and uoci. [ 103 ] Bertie Howard and Steve Redburn, “uoci: Black Political Power in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4563, and “Staff Analysis of the Community Corporation Concept,” series 4.11, folder 4931, NCFR.
George Esser had gone to the Choanoke a few days earlier to prepare CADA leaders for the shift in policy. While he acknowledged their reluctance to go along, he also urged them to understand that the poor needed organizations of their own: “You will, and have, said many things in rebuttal—‘Our program is just getting started and hasn’t had a chance.’ ‘We want to solve our problems cooperatively, and we are taking steps to do this.’ . . . ‘[ppop’s] proposal will lead to conflict and trouble, instead of cooperation.’ ‘[It] will kill CADA.’ ‘We can’t go this fast up here.’” Esser did not question “the sincerity of any of these statements,” but he did ask CADA leaders to consider an alternative view. “Let me tell you what I see in [ppop],” he said. “I see people with a dream who have not lost hope despite many frustrations. I see concerned people who want to be constructive in seeking solutions to the problems of both poverty and race. I see people with ideas and independence, people . . . 220 who may have something to say to the State, the South, the entire country in terms of how to give people—frustrated people—both motivation and opportunity.” The poor, Esser added, now embraced a “new concept of possibilities, new expectations.” CADA leaders would do well to recognize that fact. In doing so, they might also gain fresh perspective on themselves. Esser urged them to remember the words of Scottish poet Robert Burns: “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, / To see ourselves as others see us.” [ 104 ] Notes used in meeting with CADA board, March 18, 1967, series 4.11, folder 4829, NCFR.
For ppop organizers, the Fund’s endorsement opened a window onto possibilities once only dimly imagined. ppop promised to shift the balance of power in the Choanoke. It offered the poor a forum in which they could “operate without fear of retaliation from the ‘white power structure’” and could define their own priorities for the War on Poverty. Alice Ballance, one of ppop’s founders, wept when the grant announcement was made. “[It] was the happiest day of my life,” she said in a letter to Fund headquarters. “I am writing this personally but I am sure all the poor people of the [Choanoke] area feel like I do. I have a feeling of honor and dignity that I’ve never had before and I am sure many people will be made to feel richer and dignified because of your . . . concern.” [ 105 ] “Choanoke Area Development Association, Inc.,” series 4.11, folder 4823, and Alice Ballance to the North Carolina Fund, April 4, 1967, series 4.11, folder 4948, NCFR.
On May 1, 1967, ppop opened an office in Rich Square, a predominantly black town in Northampton County. Following the model set by uoci, its first priority was “to organize the people of the Choanoke Area.” ppop worked through existing church and voters movement networks to establish more than fifty neighborhood councils in towns and rural communities throughout the region. Isolation and the tenacious sovereignty of Jim Crow at times made that work difficult. Eleanor Chavis, one of ppop’s founding directors, remembered that in Northampton County “there were places [where] the blacks were way up in the woods, or on the plantation. And they were actually afraid to talk with us, so we had to talk with them in the fields, if we saw a group in a field chopping. You couldn’t [reach] large groups like that, but you could talk to at least some people.” By the spring of 1968, such efforts to engage even the most marginalized inhabitants of the Choanoke had brought ppop nearly three thousand members. [ 106 ] “People’s Program on Poverty,” series 4.11, folder 4924; People’s Program on Poverty, Progress Report on Activities in the Choanoke Area, May 1, 1967, series 4.11, folder 4937; and Alice Murray, An Interim Report of People’s Program on Poverty, October 9, 1967, series 4.11, folder 4941, NCFR; and LeMay, “battlefield in the Backyard,” 40.
ppop focused much of its effort on gaining access to existing public services and resources, which white elites had historically controlled for their own benefit. The story of roads in the Northampton community of Cumbo symbolized a pattern of exclusion that persisted throughout the Choanoke. There, the county “fixed and paved” a primary road up to the last house occupied by whites and then abruptly stopped the work. In the Choanoke’s towns, black residents not only did without paved streets but also lacked access to 221 basic sanitation services. Even in Roanoke Rapids—the area’s largest municipality—most black residents relied on outdoor privies and some had no sanitary provision of any sort. ppop’s neighborhood councils appeared regularly at town meetings and berated officials for the neglect that their communities suffered. One activist noted, “We have been able to get the people to speak out for their rights like never before. They don’t mind telling the white man like it is. . . . And thanks to the North Carolina Fund we don’t have to stick our heads out to be cracked for helping poor people help themselves.” [ 107 ] People’s Program on Poverty, Progress Report on Activities in the Choanoke Area, May 1, 1967, series 4.11, folder 4937, and People’s Program on Poverty, Progress Report for Halifax County, 1 May 1967 thru 18 August 1967, in Area of Recreation and Sanitation, series 4.11, folder 4936, NCFR.
As in Durham, nothing in the Choanoke spoke more directly to the deprivations of poverty than the lack of safe and habitable housing. Sharecropping families often lived in broken-down cabins that had seen little modification since they were originally constructed as slave quarters. Banks systematically denied black families access to credit; city and county governments refused to enforce—or often even to enact—housing codes; and while the federal government had offered various forms of housing assistance since the New Deal, local administrators rarely helped blacks learn about or benefit from those programs. The Reverend James Felton, a ppop founder, made these problems his special concern. He developed an expert knowledge of federal housing policy, traveled to Washington to visit with officials, and organized workshops to “interpret and explain [government] programs to needy persons.” As a result of his efforts, more than one hundred families applied directly to the Farmers Home Administration for low-interest mortgages and home-improvement loans. Fourteen rural communities also secured grants from the agency to build community water systems that replaced the shallow, often polluted wells on which residents had long relied. A sharecropper who wrote to Felton in the spring of 1967 was typical of the people who sought ppop’s aid. “I will be glad for you to consider me [for housing assistance],” he said. “I have been a farmer and laborer for 75 years and haven’t lived in nothing but old leaking houses all my life. I will be so glad to live in a good house what time I have [left] to live.” Felton replied with the good news that the poor had allies in Washington. “Th anks for your letter . . . saying that you would like to have a decent house to live in,” he wrote. “I am happy to inform you that the United States Government wants to see people like you and many, many others in a decent house. My trip to Washington, D.C. Wednesday of last week convinced me that you will be able to get a house.” [ 108 ] Letters and clippings related to James Felton’s leadership, series 4.11, folder 4959; 375 and Felton to Reginald Durante, January 12, 1968, and ppop fact sheet for Choanoke area, May 1, 1968, series 4.11, folder 4952, NCFR.
ppop also sought to create economic opportunity for the hundreds of Choanoke families turned off the land by the mechanization of agriculture. One obvious option was to create industrial jobs that paid a living wage. The Choanoke’s rich landowners historically had used their political clout to keep 222 industry out of the region, thus maintaining a captive pool of cheap labor. Like their counterparts elsewhere in the South, they also lobbied their congressional representatives to continue the exclusion of household and agricultural workers from federal minimum wage laws. As a result, there was little manufacturing in the Choanoke; the few factories that operated in the region paid meager wages, even by the standards of North Carolina, a state whose industrial workers claimed some of the lowest average earnings in the nation; and factory employment, with few exceptions, was restricted to whites only.
Acting individually, black residents—even those who owned a small farm or business—were powerless to alter those circumstances. But the ongoing civil rights and antipoverty struggles in the Choanoke suggested new ways of thinking about the economic clout that they might exercise collectively. In the spring of 1966, the Bertie Voters Movement became embroiled in a fierce battle with the county board of education, which, rather than accept federal desegregation requirements, turned back funds that would have financed a second summer of Head Start programming. That refusal cost the black community not only opportunities for its children but also employment for women otherwise limited to domestic labor. In response, the Voters Movement immediately announced an economic boycott of white businesses in Windsor, the county seat, and organized a delegation to visit oeo officials in Washington. Out of that protest emerged the idea of establishing a black, community-owned business. A group of Voters Movement veterans and ppop founders soon incorporated a company they called Bertie Industries, which the North Carolina Fund assisted with grants for employee and management training. The founders capitalized the firm by selling $21,000 worth of stock at $25 a share; two-thirds of purchasers had earnings below the poverty line, and more than half of the company’s employees had at some point in their lives been on welfare. Bertie Industries was a “cut and sew operation.” It cashed in on its proximity to large military bases in eastern North Carolina by securing contracts to manufacture uniforms for the growing number of soldiers being mobilized for war in Vietnam. Bertie Industries’ workforce eventually numbered 120, making it the sixth largest employer in the county. The company struggled during its early years, largely as a result of its under-capitalization and its managers’ limited business experience, but by the mid-1970s, it was reporting annual profits in excess of $100,000 and the value of its stock had quadrupled. [ 109 ] Carolyn Doggett, field report, June 21–22, 1966, series 4.11, folder 4939, and J. T. Barnet of CADA to George Esser, May 13, 1968, series 4.11, folder 4896, NCFR; and Miller, “Workers’ Owned,” 13–14.
Turning to the land from which its members’ slave ancestors had extracted great wealth for the benefit of Choanoke planters, ppop also conjured a vision of independence that dated back to emancipation and that since the 223 time of the early republic had defined the way that Americans conceived of liberty and citizenship. At the end of the Civil War, former slaves urged Union lawmakers to confiscate and redistribute some portion of Confederate lands. They argued that they had a moral right to the soil on which they had labored and that landownership was essential to giving their freedom substance in day-to-day life. “Give us our land,” they insisted, “and we can take care of ourselves, but without land the old masters can hire us or starve us as they please.” A century later, those words still rang true. As activists battling the Choanoke’s “poverty-segregation complex” declared, “Power comes from the land, control of the land, use of the land.” [ 110 ] Foner, Reconstruction, 104; untitled document, series 4.11, folder 4825, NCFR; and Biles, “Rise and Fall of Soul City,” 58.
The ppop neighborhood council in the Bertie hamlet of Woodard put those ideas into practice. A small group of local and absentee white landlords had a lock on the community’s agricultural resources. They owned 90 percent of the land and an equal portion of farm machinery and storage facilities. Those white families also controlled access to credit and to the services of state and federal farm agencies. With four acres of land donated by local civil rights organizer Tim Bazemore, Woodard’s black residents sought to crack open that system by establishing a community farming cooperative that they incorporated under the name Woodard Enterprises. [ 111 ] The Woodard Home-Grown Food Project: A Proposal, n.d., series 4.11, folder 4960, NCFR, and Hartman, “Seeds of Sustenance.”
Bazemore had first distinguished himself in the struggle to integrate the Bertie County schools. In 1964, he and other parents successfully pressured the board of education to approve the transfer of sixty-three black students, one of whom was Bazemore’s son, to a formerly all-white elementary school. Powerful whites retaliated. A local lumber company stopped buying pulp wood from Bazemore, and the bank in Windsor called in a loan on his land. At that point, North Carolina Fund officials, familiar with Bazemore’s civil rights efforts, stepped in to save him from economic ruin. The Fund employed him as a recruiter for an adult vocational education program that prepared displaced farmworkers for industrial employment elsewhere in the state. Bazemore recalled the freedom and self-confidence that the job gave him. On one occasion, he happened upon a Klan cross-burning and felt emboldened enough to confront the gathering. “I came along by myself and walked right out there in the middle of all those white folks,” he said. “They knew who I was, but I didn’t know who they were because they had hoods on. I know they had to have thought that I had some protection, because that was unheard of.” [ 112 ] Hartman, “Seeds of Sustenance.”
Support from the North Carolina Fund offered Bazemore’s neighbors and Woodard Enterprises a similar measure of autonomy. With assistance from the Fund’s community support staff and Student Nonviolent Coordinating 224 Committee veterans Ginny and Buddy Tieger, Woodard’s fifty-one black families applied through ppop for a $22,000 grant. They used those funds to furnish their cooperative with seeds, tools, fertilizer, livestock, and feed. Their short-term goal was to a help local families grow and preserve more of their own food, so that they could devote a greater portion of their cash income to other essential needs: clothing, health care, and children’s school supplies. “The great importance of this step is evident,” the Woodard petitioners explained, “as soon as one enters the community and sees children without shoes and households—surrounded by fields—who subsist on a substandard, largely store-purchased diet.” The cooperative, like the Brick School and the New Deal resettlement project at Tillery, was also a teaching institution. As one member of the Woodard cooperative remembered, she and her neighbors had learned from sharecropping few of the skills required for success as independent producers. Since childhood, local residents had been “brought up to just dig peanuts, [chop] cotton—work for somebody else, not for themselves.” Woodard Enterprises aimed to set its members on a different path by providing practical experience in farm planning, budgeting, and saving. Through such self-directed effort, the families who established the cooperative sought to accumulate sufficient skills and resources to operate their own farms and thus to “[win] a foothold in the cash economy” and lift themselves out of poverty. [ 113 ] The Woodard Home-Grown Food Project: A Proposal, n.d., series 4.11, folder 4960, NCFR, and Hartman, “Seeds of Sustenance.”
In all of these ways, the People’s Program on Poverty continued a quest for democracy that, for generations, had been punctuated by “ragged bursts” of struggle, setback, and rebirth. ppop argued that the strength of its projects lay in the “utilization of cooperative work and thinking by members of the community. Each component was worked out in community discussions . . . [and] coordinated by [boards] chosen by and from the families involved.” Such communal decision-making taught basic lessons in democracy and cultivated leadership skills that were essential to participation in civic life and to advancing the larger antipoverty agenda. ppop acknowledged that its projects would “not wipe out the problems of poverty” in the Choanoke, but they did have the capacity to produce “practical, observable effects” in participants’ day-to-day lives: indoor plumbing installed for families who had once relied on shallow wells and outdoor privies, a pantry stocked with canned produce that made people less dependent on credit at the country store, a tenant shack replaced by a modest home financed with a federal loan, or a steady job for men and women made redundant by agricultural mechanization. Just as important as these material improvements, ppop’s ventures affirmed to the poor that they were not simply a “dispossessed people who [had] no say in 225 what happen[ed] to them.” They had ideas, they had abilities, and they were entitled to the same chances in life that more well-to-do Americans viewed as a birthright: the opportunity to pursue their interests in the public arena, to realize their individual potential, and to determine their own fate. [ 114 ] Geiger, “Unsteady March,” 1, and The Woodard Home-Grown Food Project: A Proposal, n.d., series 4.11, folder 4960, NCFR.
in durham, that same desire for self-determination thrust members of uoci deeper into local politics and an escalating confrontation over public housing. By the early summer of 1967, work on Durham’s new east–west expressway was continuing apace, the city’s redevelopment commission was purchasing and demolishing more low-income housing in Hayti to make way for the project, and an increasing number of the black poor were left with nowhere to turn. Segregation remained as rigid as ever in Durham’s housing market, and the public housing authority had made only limited additions to its rental stock. More than eighteen hundred families had their names on the agency’s waiting list. White power brokers responded with callous disregard. One official dismissed the poor families of Hayti as drunkards and prostitutes, and a local real estate developer answered critics of the redevelopment commission with assurances that the displaced poor “would house themselves as they always [had] in the past . . . without any strain on the rest of the community.” [ 115 ] Greene, Our Separate Ways, 128–29.
The situation reached a flash point in mid-July with news of two projects under consideration by the Durham Housing Authority. The first involved an option to purchase the Damar Court Apartments, a relatively new complex located across the street from Duke University’s married student housing, and transform it into the first public housing development outside the city’s segregated black neighborhoods. On July 14, Duke officials—concerned that the university’s property was about to become “less useful . . . less marketable, and less valuable”—made a counteroffer on Damar Court. At about the same time, the housing authority filed a formal request for the city to annex and rezone an industrial area on Bacon Street, near the eastern edge of Hayti, where it planned to build a high-rise public housing complex. uoci and others in the black community perceived these twin events as expressions of deep-seated racism. Duke University had made clear its unwillingness to accept poor neighbors—particularly if they were black—and, along with the housing authority, appeared determined to pack the black poor ever more tightly into a “Negro ghetto” in the segregated southeastern corner of town. [ 116 ] John H. Strange, “The Politics of Protest: The Case of Durham,” series 6.10, folder 7422, and Bertie Howard and Steve Redburn, “uoci: Black Political Power in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4563, NCFR.
On July 17, more than 150 black citizens, most of them members of uoci, appeared before the city council to demand that the housing authority drop its plans for Bacon Street and actively promote residential desegregation by 226 following through on the Damar Court project. They also used the occasion to rehearse a long list of ongoing grievances against slumlords and to insist once more that the city enforce its housing code. Late in the evening, Howard Fuller rose to make a plea for understanding and constructive action. “I didn’t come to beg, and I didn’t come . . . with my hat in my hand,” he told city leaders, “because we’ve come up here too many times with hat in hand. . . . We’re tired of you white folks turning down everything that will benefit Negroes. . . . You all better wake up, you all better lean back on those chairs and listen to what these folks are talking about. And you all better start doing something to benefit these black people. ‘Cause they’re tired, and they’re frustrated, and people who get tired and frustrated do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.” Fuller made his demands as the nation was rocked by six days of urban unrest in Newark, New Jersey, which Life magazine characterized as a “predictable insurrection” fueled by police brutality, unemployment, poverty, and the inequities of urban renewal. The violence left twenty-six people dead and more than a thousand injured. With that news ringing in their ears, Durham’s city leaders heard Fuller’s call as a threat to unleash a black mob to loot and burn. The next morning, an oversized headline on the front page of the Durham Herald screamed, “‘another newark’ threatened here.” [ 117 ] John H. Strange, “The Politics of Protest: The Case of Durham,” series 6.10, folder 7422, NCFR; “Newark, the Predictable Insurrection: Shooting War in the Streets,” Life, July 8, 1967; Mumford, Newark, chap. 6; and Durham Herald, July 18, 1967.
Two days after its showdown with the city council, uoci convened a meeting at St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Hayti. The main speaker took the stage to recite a list of complaints compiled by the organization’s neighborhood councils, but when the church’s sound system failed, she called on Ann Atwater, who had a deeper, more powerful voice. North Carolina Fund finance director Nathan Garrett recalled that in “reading the grievances, Mrs. Atwater amplified on them considerably and before long there were shouts of anger and defiance from the group.” At that point, Atwater exclaimed, “You’ve heard enough. You want to march. Let’s go.” The crowd, nearly two hundred strong, then marched from St. Joseph’s to city hall. On the way back, several youths began to throw rocks, breaking windows and slightly injuring one policeman. [ 118 ] “Narrative of the Events of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, July 19, 20 and 21,” series 1.2.2, folder 318, NCFR.
The rock-throwing hardly constituted a riot—the worst the Durham Sun could say was to call it a “ruckus”—but Mayor Wensell Grabarek responded as if the city were under siege. Without consulting the city council or informing Durham’s mainstream black leaders, he asked Governor Dan Moore to call out the National Guard and the state Highway Patrol to join local police and sheriff’s deputies in securing downtown streets. Incensed by what they felt was an unnecessary display of force, uoci leaders called for a march of defiance on the evening of July 20. “We must show that we are unafraid,” they 227 explained, “and that the city must do more than show how fast the police forces of the state and the National Guard can be mobilized.”Howard Fuller walked a barricade to enforce discipline among uoci protesters and to keep them apart from the National Guardsmen called out by Mayor Grabarek and Governor Moore. Photograph by Jim Thornton, courtesy of the Durham Herald-Sun.
Once again, hundreds gathered at St. Joseph’s. This night, the talk was not so much of demands and grievances, but of the discipline that would be required to prevent whites from starting a full-scale riot. As the demonstrators gathered, Howard Fuller and Ben Ruffin “pointed out that there was a good deal of danger because the Klan was gathering downtown. Everyone was told to empty his/her pockets of rocks and any other objects which they might be tempted to throw and told not to pick up a rock or anything during the course of the march.” The group then gathered outside in a carefully planned formation. Adults were placed among the children to ensure their protection and “several people were asked to out-station themselves so that they could keep the marchers in single file and could deal with persons who either got nervous or rowdy. Care was also taken to place certain individuals at points in the line where it appeared that potential troublemakers were grouped.” As the demonstrators approached city hall, they encountered a phalanx of guardsmen and police officers and, standing nearby, a crowd of jeering whites and armed Klansmen. The group paused to sing freedom songs and to hear brief remarks by Ben Ruffin. At that point, a white man pitched a bottle and struck one of the protesters in the head. A small group of young black men surged from the line “as though to go after the whites,” but they were “restrained 228 two or three times by Howard Fuller” and his lieutenants. Concerned by the “apparent ferociousness of the whites lining the streets,” the demonstrators decided to march back to St. Joseph’s as a group rather than, as originally planned, disbanding and returning home individually. Along the way they continued to be heckled and taunted by whites who trailed close behind. The evening ended without further incident, but only because of the leadership of Howard Fuller and the discipline of the uoci marchers, who refused to compromise either their commitment to nonviolence or their determination to seek redress of their grievances. [ 119 ] “Council Moves to Cut Issues,” Durham Sun, July 20, 1967; and Dewitt Sullivan to George Esser, July 24, 1967, and “Narrative of the Events of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, July 19, 20 and 21,” series 1.2.2, folder 318, NCFR.Young middle-class white men found amusement in heckling poor blacks who marched for better housing and respect as equal citizens. Photograph by Harold Moore, courtesy of the Durham Herald-Sun.
The Durham City Council responded to the July protests by appointing an ad hoc committee “to coordinate meetings between uoci and the various governmental, civic, and agency officials with whom they wished to lodge complaints.” Over the next several months, negotiations produced a number of concessions. Duke University agreed to withdraw its offer to purchase Damar Court and—still for largely self-interested reasons—offered to sell its married student apartments for conversion to public housing. The city council refused the rezoning request for the proposed housing project on Bacon Street, and the Durham Merchants Association agreed in general terms to 229 employ more blacks in jobs once reserved for whites. The behavior of the chairman of the association’s equal opportunity committee suggested, however, just how much work remained to be done. After being reprimanded for using the word nigger in a public meeting, he agreed to make changes in his own business. “I’ll hire one,” he said. “I need a salesman.” [ 120 ] Bertie Howard and Steve Redburn, “uoci: Black Political Power in Durham,” series 4.8, folder 4563, and John H. Strange, “The Politics of Protest: The Case of Durham,” series 6.10, folder 7422, NCFR.In a statement to the Durham City Council and the press, Rubye Gattis argued that dignity and economic opportunity were essential elements of social order. Photograph by Billy E. Barnes, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Billy Ebert Barnes Collection.
In the fall of 1967, it was still not clear how those concessions should be read. Did they represent a turning point, the beginning of a new era in which “the voices of the poor” would be acknowledged in the halls of power? Or had Durham’s white leadership merely surrendered what was necessary—and no more—to maintain order and protect the city’s reputation? In testimony before the city council earlier that summer, uoci president Rubye Gattis had urged white officials to think carefully about what was at stake. “Our organization is designed to be a voice for peaceful protest,” Gattis assured the council. “We do not believe that Newark [is] the answer.” But, she added, peace should not be construed as simply the absence of conflict and physical violence. “A peaceful community,” Gattis explained, “is one that works to give everybody a chance to live in dignity and health and prosperity.” [ 121 ] Transcript of Rubye Gattis’s testimony, series 4.8, folder 4483, NCFR, and Greene, Our Separate Ways, 135.230