On Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy rewarded conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene, banished from all committees two years ago for spewing racism and antisemitism, with seats on the powerful House Oversight and Homeland Security Committees.
On Wednesday, at the historic State Capitol in Annapolis, Wes Moore was sworn in as Maryland’s 63rd governor and the state’s first African American chief executive.
The juxtaposition of those two events – Greene’s committee assignments and Moore inauguration – are emblematic of America’s continuous if uneven pursuit of the ideals set forth in Declaration of Independence.
The tumultuous years of the Trump era have often obscured the progress that American has made toward those ideals in the past six decades. But that progress is very real, and for me, very poignant.
My first job was working for a great Marylander, Sargent Shriver, in President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Shriver sent me to many counties in the Deep South where in the mid-1960s, Wes Moore could not even have registered to vote, let alone be elected governor of his state. Having witnessed that progress, no matter how grim the news on any particular day, I remain eternally optimistic about our country’s ability to move forward.
On the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s call to eradicate poverty, I wrote a piece for Politico Magazine about how my experiences in the War on Poverty shaped my political philosophy and laid the foundation for my continuous optimism. I thought about those experiences on Wednesday as I sat in Lawyers Mall and listened to Wes Moore’s inspirational Inaugural Address. Here is that piece:
Conservatives have never liked the War on Poverty, which began 50 years ago this week when President Lyndon Johnson declared, in his 1964 State of the Union Address, an “unconditional war on poverty in America” and urged Congress and all Americans to join with him in that effort.
“It will not be a short or easy struggle. No single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won,” Johnson said. “The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
The right’s most articulate critic, the late economist Milton Friedman, later argued that Johnson’s failure was inevitable, on the grounds that “welfare” programs simply don’t work. “The government sets out to eliminate poverty, it has a war on poverty, so-called ‘poverty’ increases. It has a welfare program, and the welfare program leads to an expansion of problems,” he said. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan put the conservative case somewhat more glibly in a tossed-off remark while crossing the White House lawn: “In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
Both men were wrong. The War on Poverty played a significant role in reducing poverty in the United States. In 1964, the poverty rate was 19 percent. Ten years later it was 11.2 percent. Today, with poverty and inequality once again dominating our national debate, I thought it would be useful to look back at the little appreciated political impact of LBJ’s war.
During the past half century, the War on Poverty has been controversial and often maligned. But the lessons that came from it played a vital role in the shaping of the New Democrat political philosophy that helped Bill Clinton win the White House in 1992 and rescue progressive politics and the national Democratic Party from its near-death experience in the 1980s—a decade in which Democrats suffered three straight landslide losses in presidential elections. I know that from personal experience both in the War on Poverty and in helping to shape the New Democrat philosophy as head of the Democratic Leadership Council.
The New Democrat philosophy is built on a basic understanding that John F. Kennedy had taught and LBJ reiterated: Opportunity and responsibility must go together. Government’s responsibility is to provide opportunity for everyone to rise as far as his or her talent would allow. The people’s responsibility is to take advantage of that opportunity.
I learned that philosophy firsthand during my very first job out of college, working in the War on Poverty in the Deep South for Sargent Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law, whom President Johnson had tapped to head the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)—then the lead anti-poverty agency. Shriver didn’t trust bureaucrats to assess the success or failure of his programs. Instead, he hired a bunch of young lawyers and journalists to report back to him from the front lines.
I was lucky enough to be one of them and even luckier to be assigned to the Southeast region, which included Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, hotbeds of civil rights activity in the 1960s. My job was to find out what was really going on in OEO programs in the Deep South and send missives back to headquarters that read more like in-depth articles in the New York Times Magazine or New Yorker than stodgy government reports.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom today, the War on Poverty was not a big welfare program. Just the opposite: It was an empowerment program. We hated welfare. In the Deep South, welfare was the tool of a controlling and detested white power structure. The OEO, the agency that ran this war, worked to empower poor people, to give them a say in their own futures—and that was a “no-no” in the Deep South in the mid-1960s. The white power structure might agree to give them welfare, as long as it was controlled by the powers-that-be. But give power to poor people? Never.
At OEO I learned an important lesson: Everyone, no matter how poor or disenfranchised, wanted a piece of the American dream. Everyone wanted his or her children to have a better life than his or her own. And I learned that if you wanted to help the poor, the most effective strategy with the broadest reach was to empower them, to give them a chance to get ahead by helping themselves.
I also learned that government must play an important role. Government can be an agent of powerful and positive change when it offers citizens opportunity, but citizens need to do their part and take full advantage of that opportunity. Simply put, if people can help themselves, government should empower them to do so, not keep them on the dole forever.
With the Voting Rights Act, the right to vote came to millions of blacks previously disenfranchised in the segregated South. With the War on Poverty, economic power came to previously dirt-poor communities. In some of the poorest counties in America in the 1960s, I witnessed the enormity of the changes brought about when people were empowered—both economically and politically— and they took advantage of the opportunities they were given.
I saw it in Sunflower County, Mississippi, where empowered poor blacks fought their way into the local antipoverty program. When I first visited the county in 1967, it was two-thirds black but totally controlled by a white power structure, largely segregated, a focal point for civil rights activity, and one of the poorest counties in America. The birthplace of the supremacist White Citizens’ Council, it was also the home of segregationist Sen. James O. Eastland, the wily chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where civil rights legislation had died for decades, and Fannie Lou Hamer, the golden-tongued civil rights icon best known for her speech on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.
Shriver sent me to Sunflower County to investigate a dispute between two Head Start programs, one run with federal funding by the white powers of the county, the Eastland forces, the other run on a volunteer basis by civil rights activists and local black citizens, followers of Hamer. Ostensibly fighting over control of the funded Head Start program, in reality the two groups were fighting for an important prize in the political balance of power in the county. As long as Eastland forces administered antipoverty program funds, the civil rights activists, a major threat to the established political leadership of the county, remained in check.
I recommended to Shriver that OEO try to bring Hamer’s group into the county program with the responsibility of running a number of Head Start centers. Eventually, the two sides reached an uneasy agreement. As a result, all poor children in the county were able to benefit from the higher quality of the federally funded Head Start. But even more importantly, the agreement changed the power arrangements in the county. Now, previously disenfranchised blacks were empowered with a piece of the antipoverty program pie, and that became a platform to drive further social and economic change.
I visited Lowndes County, Alabama, a dirt-poor region with a history of violence during the civil rights movement. In the summer of 1967, Shriver sent me to investigate a charge by Gov. Lurleen Wallace (segregationist Gov. George Wallace’s first wife, who was elected as his surrogate when he could not succeed himself) that John Hulett, leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, was taking money from the antipoverty program. That charge was false, but Hulett as the leader of the black community did work closely with the antipoverty program. He also led efforts to win the vote for the county’s black majority, which was Wallace’s real concern. I watched as Hulett’s efforts and the war on poverty empowered the local black residents. They took advantage of their newfound opportunity and power. Three years later, Hulett was elected sheriff of Lowndes County. Once in office, even his old adversary George Wallace courted him, and years after that, he delivered the county’s black votes to a reformed George Wallace in his last run for governor.
I went to Wilcox County, Alabama, where 80 percent of the residents were black, but not one black was registered to vote in 1965 when Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came into the county. There, in the summer of 1967, I was introduced to my wife, Ginger, by the Rev. Tom Threadgill, one of Dr. King’s lieutenants. Between her sophomore and junior years in college, she was running a youth center in Wilcox County run by SCLC and funded by the war on poverty. The FBI kept a watchful eye over this young white woman living with a black family. And so did members of the local black community. One of the local residents who watched out for her was an old black sharecropper named Jesse Brooks. Ginger and I were married in 1968, and a few months later, Brooks visited us at our home in suburban Washington. Blacks had taken advantage of their newly won right to vote and had just elected him tax collector of Wilcox County. How things can change.
And in Holmes Country, Mississippi, where Shriver sent me in 1968 to look at a work-study program, I found poor black kids gaining “valuable work experience” by building segregation academies for the white power structure—constructing schools that only white children could attend. A quarter century later, when Mike Espy, Mississippi’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, and I were launching the Mississippi DLC chapter in Jackson, I told that story to illustrate how much the state had changed. After I finished speaking, an older black woman introduced herself. “I’m Jessie Banks, the mayor of Tschula, Mississippi, in Holmes County, and that white family that ran the Chevy dealership and built those segregation academies has been run out of the county.”
In those four counties and so many other places I visited during my nearly three years chronicling the War on Poverty, I learned how economic and political empowerment could change lives when people took advantage of their new opportunities. I never forgot those lessons. The belief in opportunity and responsibility became the cornerstone of my political philosophy—and the cornerstone of the New Democrat philosophy. Put into action in the 1990s by President Clinton, the New Democrat philosophy was instrumental in resuscitating progressive politics in the United States. And that is the lasting political legacy of Johnson’s War on Poverty. It was not about welfare. It was about empowerment—and it worked.
Al From is the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and author of “The New Democrats and the Return to Power.” He joins his Republican commentator and friend, Craig Fuller, on the Spy’s From and Fuller video podcast every week.
Letters to Editor
Kristen Greenaway says
Excellent article, Al. Thank you!
Sandra Snowden says
Great article! But should the US BE APPLAUDED FOR WHAT SHOULD BE? And where are we today with the cutted voter rights ‘so-called: act? What white people have replaced the Kennedy’s and Clinton’s on this front? Sorry I don’t share your optimism. Love your writings and commentating though!