How Local Civil Rights Protests Produced an Increase in War on Poverty Spending

Three social scientists crunched the numbers and found that counties where the Civil Rights Movement was active received almost 50 percent more War on Poverty spending than those counties that didn’t — and the more active the movement, the more funding received. It confirms what the Left has long argued: protests get the goods.

People marching in a National Negro Congress protest against Georgia lynching cases in July 1946. (Flickr)

Black political organizing of the 1960s sought much more than just civil rights. For most community organizers, the struggle against white supremacy was inextricable from the struggle for economic justice. Most of the civil rights protests against segregation had economic goals, including the right to education, decent housing, equal employment opportunities, public services, and social programs. This economic focus became more pronounced after the civil rights legislation of 1964–65, as both local organizers and some national leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr, began to attack poverty and exploitation more aggressively.

The “War on Poverty” that President Johnson launched in 1964 must be understood in this context. The 1964 Economic Opportunity Act established an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) that would dispense federal grants to Community Action Agencies (CAAs), to be constituted by residents, public officials, and representatives of community groups and businesses at the local level.

The act itself resulted from elite fears of disorder and unrest, including both urban “delinquency” and the political agitation of the early 1960s. Richard Boone, who served on the President’s Task Force, acknowledged that the portion of the act that called for “maximum feasible participation” of poor people “could not have been written before the flowering of the Civil Rights Movement. In a substantial degree it was written because of that movement.”

While the impetus for the act came from the administration’s efforts to respond to (and control) the groundswell of black activism, most important for our analysis is the implementation of the act. Specifically, we examine funding for local Community Action Programs (CAPs), the principal institutional vehicle for implementing the plans of each county’s CAA.

As the flagship program, local CAPs received two-thirds of all grants dispensed by the OEO from 1965 to 1968, a cumulative $2.64 billion. Across the South, these programs constituted “a 25 percent increase . . . [in] local government welfare expenditures” over previous funding levels. In many of the poorest counties, CAP grants more than doubled social service budgets when compared to 1962 expenditures. In the Southern states CAAs were organized in about two-thirds of the counties, covering about four-fifths of the population. As a result, CAAs became “almost synonymous with the War on Poverty.”

By scrutinizing funding decisions at the OEO, we can judge among competing explanations for the implementation of progressive policy.

One explanation holds that OEO decisions were apolitical and represented the best intentions of the Johnson administration to further civil rights for black and poor people. For example, a study on OEO funding across all US counties found that poorer counties and those with greater proportions of nonwhite people were funded at higher rates. The study concluded that the antipoverty effort was “a sincere attempt” by President Johnson “to champion change.”

Other observers argue that implementation of the program was fundamentally political. There are two variants of this explanation, electoral and non-electoral. The electoral variant holds that features of the electoral process — including the election of sympathetic politicians, the competitive nature of elections, and voter registration rates — drove policy implementation. Scholars who favor this explanation argue that Johnson and Northern Democrats allocated OEO funding in the South to areas with emerging blocs of black voters.

The second “political” perspective argues that the implementation of progressive policy is shaped less by elections than by noninstitutional pressures, chiefly from social movements.

Some scholars, and many activists themselves, argue that antipoverty funding was a way of placating the poor and thus averting greater disruption to local white business and society. By these accounts, antipoverty programs were an outcome of movement agitation, even if activists themselves had not necessarily demanded those specific programs.

As Kenneth Andrews argues in his study of CAAs in Mississippi, these “programs can be treated as an outcome not because the movement explicitly demanded federal antipoverty programs. Rather, once the War on Poverty was initiated, local movements . . . attempted to secure resources and shape programs.”

What can funding decisions of the War on Poverty tell us about the implementation process? There was a wide variety of responses to the OEO in Southern communities, including complete refusal to participate, misallocation of funding, cautious programs that met modest goals, and in some cases the radical reworking of local services. This range of programs and outcomes reflected both the broad mandate to advance black civil rights and the fact that there were few institutional constraints on the OEO. Most important, it was largely free from the requirement to coordinate with other federal government agencies. This autonomy allowed the OEO to channel (or not channel) federal funds directly to local communities, and to implement (or not implement) its mandate to encourage “maximum feasible participation of the poor” in the programs.

The seemingly haphazard results of this process become more coherent when we factor in the history and activities of the Civil Rights Movement. Our analysis of CAP funding patterns shows that funding was particularly concentrated in areas where the Civil Rights Movement exercised pressure from below, while areas with weak or no social movement activity received little or no funding. In other words, implementation of the War on Poverty depended on social movement pressure.

Stronger Movement, More Funding

To understand the dynamics that shaped implementation, we analyzed the distribution of CAP funds from 1965 to 1968 for the 736 counties in eight key Southern states. For each county we determined whether a local CAA was established and, if so, the amount of funding received per person in poverty. We assessed the influence of black activism by examining the protest and organizing presence in each county, while accounting for key demographic, political, and economic features. (In the interest of readability, we present most of the technical material in the appendices of our book, Levers of Power, from which this excerpt is drawn.)

We begin by noting that a sizeable minority of Southern counties (14 percent, or 102 counties) had prominent civil rights activity in the years before the passage of the Equal Opportunity Act, with many of these still active when implementation began in 1965. On the other hand, the vast majority of the counties (86 percent) had not generated civil rights activism that attracted national media attention.

When CAP funds became available, about two-thirds of the counties without a strong movement (64 percent) established CAAs (see Table 2) and ultimately received an average of $20 in federal funds for each poor person residing in their counties. Notably, over a third (36 percent) of these counties likely did not apply, refusing to accept the federal dollars that could have dramatically increased their local social spending. This reflects the steadfast racism of governments in those locales, which were determined to maintain the Jim Crow system even when the federal government was offering free aid.

But here we also see the first signs of the Civil Rights Movement’s impact on implementation. Among the 102 counties that had an active civil rights presence, the refusal rate dropped to one-fifth (20 percent). Moreover, those same activist counties received almost double the allocation compared to the non-movement counties ($37 per poor person versus $19).

To isolate the impact of movement mobilization, we performed additional statistical analyses that controlled for a broad range of factors. These included demographic features such as a county’s population, poverty rate, and urban and racial makeup; political factors such as local government revenues and debt, public welfare expenditures, and federal government presence; and economic features including the manufacturing and retail base and capital investment in the county.

When all factors are taken into account, counties where the Civil Rights Movement was present were 54 percent more likely to receive CAA funding, and they received 28 percent more funding per poor person than counties without movement presence.

Moreover, counties with great movement strength — which we measured as the number of protests per 1,000 people in the county — were even more likely to be funded, and to be funded at still higher rates.

In practice, this meant that, all else being equal, counties where the Civil Rights Movement was present received $29.80 per poor person compared to $20.40 for those without movement activity, an almost 50 percent increase. Moreover, the more active the movement presence was, the more funding was received, rising to $34.70 for the most active counties, a 70 percent increase in funding over inactive counties (see Figure 2).

This data also helps us understand the mechanisms that allowed the movement to impact the implementation of the poverty program. We evaluated the effect of movements’ choice of protest targets, and found that targeting government and business were both highly effective strategies: the success rate in obtaining CAP funds was approximately 75 percent among counties that targeted either institution, and rose to 80 percent when both were targeted simultaneously.

In contrast, in counties where movement activism was directed only at civic institutions like schools and colleges, or was diffused without clear institutional targets, the success rate was a mere 50 percent. Counties where activists targeted both business and government also received almost twice the funding as counties where activists’ targeting was more diffuse ($39 to $22 per poor person).

In the full statistical analysis, we found that counties with black activism targeting the government were 8.6 times more likely to be funded, while those targeting business institutions were 36 percent more likely to receive funding. This meant that counties with activism directed at business interests saw the OEO allocate 41 percent more funding (rising from $20.90 to $29.50), while targeting the state resulted in almost twice as much funding as other counties ($38.90 compared to $21.10) (see Figure 3).

War on Poverty

What do these findings tell us about the implementation process? As we have noted, some observers insist that funding decisions reflected purely electoral considerations of the federal government. For instance, scholars Martha J. Bailey and Nicolas J. Duquette argue that the “Johnson administration invested in its new Democratic constituency by directing OEO funds to Democrat-trending areas as well as to Democratic strongholds.”

Yet, as our data finds, the explanatory power of electoral considerations appears quite small, explaining less than 1 percent of funding decisions in their study. Electoral factors appear to play, at best, a very minor role.

What can we make of the common assertion that the War on Poverty was driven by the “humanitarian vision” of the Johnson administration to address the plight of poor and black Americans? On the face of it, this claim is not entirely unreasonable. When advised to focus on piecemeal programs instead of major civil rights legislation, Johnson reportedly disagreed, asking “What the hell’s the presidency for?” Accordingly, the OEO was explicitly tasked with supporting racial integration and did on a number of occasions support black activists, sometimes bypassing hostile racist officials to implement programs directly.

This perceived activism was the very charge levied at the administration by the intransigent white supremacists of the time. Strom Thurmond, the longtime senator from South Carolina, publicly complained that “under the innocent sounding title of ‘Community Action Program,’ the poverty czar . . . would have the power to finance the activities of such organizations as the . . . NAACP, SNCC, and CORE.” Other political elites, including a group of Democratic mayors of large cities such as Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco, accused the OEO of inciting class struggle.

Yet whatever Johnson’s intentions may have been, the data undermine the notion that a humanitarian vision shaped the War on Poverty. While the OEO was indeed more likely to fund poorer counties, it was less likely to fund black counties than white counties with comparable levels of poverty.

How do we explain this? The crucial moderating factor was the pressure from the Civil Rights Movement. In additional analyses, we disaggregated our main statistical models by whether or not a county saw black activism in the years preceding OEO funding. We found that, in poor counties where there was no substantial civil rights presence, the funding was highest where the percentage of black residents was lowest.

In these counties, the US government’s racism led it to channel federal money to eligible whites, and to underfund neighborhoods where black people resided. But this traditional pattern did not apply where the Civil Rights Movement was strong. Those counties not only received more per capita dollars than the non-movement counties, but also received more dollars if the percentage of African Americans was higher.

To be sure, the OEO was under pressure not to be seen as overly supportive of black civil rights. It sought to strike a balance between carrying out its mission to support black and poor communities while trying not to provoke white supremacist backlash. This logic does not, however, explain the funding patterns seen here.

The Economic Opportunity Act provided the OEO with a high level of flexibility compared to other federal programs. We see this in four major ways.

First, the OEO was constituted within the executive office of the president and dispensed funds directly to local groups. This allowed the program to circumvent many of the traditional federal agencies, like the Department of Labor, which retained their long-standing hostility to civil rights.

Second, whereas federal programs had previously been composed largely of work training, the act gave the OEO a good deal of flexibility in the programs it could fund. Local CAAs could apply for grants to fund Head Start programs for schoolchildren, employment services, and a variety of other programs.

Third, the act differed from previous initiatives by explicitly calling for the “maximum feasible participation of the poor” in the operation of CAAs. Finally, while tasked with making state-level funding proportionate to the poverty levels among states, the OEO had great discretion over how funds were distributed within states.

Thus, the OEO had an unusual degree of freedom to direct funding to areas that needed it most. Strom Thurmond might well have been right that there had never been “such arbitrary and discretionary grants of power, free of congressionally imposed guidelines.” Yet contrary to the accusations of segregationists — and the claims of Democratic apologists — the OEO did not unilaterally direct funding to areas in most need in order to address the plight of black and poor residents. It was movement disruption that shaped the interests of the administration, and thereby the implementation of the antipoverty program.

Together, these results indicate that black activism strongly influenced the implementation of the antipoverty program. Black mobilization resulted in higher likelihoods of a county being funded and of receiving more funding. This is especially consequential given that the OEO was intended to be relatively free of political pressures.

These results also demonstrate the importance of movement pressure applied not just to state institutions but to business interests as well. We find that movement targeting of business had an independent effect on which counties were funded through CAP grants and on how much funding they received.

“The Organizational Capacity of Local Movements”

These findings raise two main questions: How exactly did movement pressure influence CAAs? And why was disruption of business — not just of government institutions — an effective path to acquiring antipoverty funding?

The histories of specific locales shed light on the dynamics behind the statistics. As Andrews notes for Mississippi, two distinct patterns of movement influence were observable. In one, local activists themselves spearheaded the formation of a CAA and applied for federal funds. Local movement organizations had activists with skills, experience, and a commitment to improving life in their communities.

Given that local white elites were often intensely hostile to the program when it began, the strong correlation between the presence of black movement organizations and CAAs makes sense. The South’s most well-known early program, the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), fits this profile. CDGM ran Head Start programs for children throughout the state starting in 1965, enduring constant racist harassment. Its projects were much more common in counties that had witnessed earlier movement activity, and many of its employees had been movement organizers.

In the second pattern, local white elites tried to preempt the threat of groups like CDGM by establishing their own CAAs. A group called Mississippi Action for Progress (MAP) was formed in 1966 as a direct challenge to CDGM, and began competing with it for antipoverty funding in counties across the state. Segregationists insisted the OEO cut off CDGM’s funding and designate MAP in its place, and OEO director Sargent Shriver kindly obliged.

Commenting on a white-led CAA in Bolivar County, a 1967 US Senate report noted that CDGM’s early success had “apparently alerted the county to the possibilities of community action programs. The School Board showed no interest in funding Head Start programs, but a group of interested white and Negro leaders decided that the county should organize an agency that would meet necessary requirements to secure funding.”

White leaders in Alabama similarly reacted to a black-led initiative in Birmingham by forming “all-white antipoverty committees” around the state. Other preemptive efforts included placing black representatives on CAA boards, along with “moderate” middle-class black leaders who had opposed earlier civil rights agitation — leaders whose “moderation,” noted one journalist, “was manifested by their invariable habit of agreeing with whatever their white counterparts said.”

While data limitations prevent us from distinguishing whether CAAs were formed with active movement support, the results are consistent with both patterns here. Both the initiation of CAAs by movement organizers and white elites’ preemptive formation of CAAs ultimately reflect “the organizational capacity of local movements.”

These two mechanisms also help explain the efficacy of disrupting business. While political officials would be the logical representatives of a locale vis-à-vis the federal government, more surprising is business leaders’ direct involvement in the program. In many cases, white capitalists established CAAs, ran or served on their boards, lobbied Washington for funds, and spent money to sustain local CAAs. Of the three initial board members of the statewide MAP in Mississippi, one was an industrialist and another “a wealthy Delta planter.”

In Bolivar County the “group of interested white and Negro leaders” who initiated the CAA had included “several planters” and the chamber of commerce, which supplied the staff for grant-writing. When an OEO funding delay led to a shortfall in the Head Start payroll, “a group of businessmen, including the Chairman of the Board, went to the bank and borrowed money,” while “merchants and landlords extended credit to the staff.”

In Atlanta, one of the main champions of the program was Ivan Allen, who owned a major furniture company and had been president of the city chamber of commerce before being elected mayor. The local governing board was led by the president of the Woodruff Foundation, which was started by the president of Coca-Cola, and it included various other local businesspeople.

These examples point to a larger trend throughout much of the South, wherein white business owners who were feeling (or fearing) the disruption of their profits took action to placate or preempt black activism.

Movements Must Maintain Disruptive Pressure

In sum, black militancy helped give rise to the federal antipoverty program, and once the program was created, decisively influenced its implementation. Welfare spending increased dramatically with the infusion of CAP funds, and especially so in the poorest counties where funding was low to begin with. Poverty rates declined from 19.5 percent in 1963 (the year before the act), to 12.8 percent in 1968, and 11.1 percent in 1973.

These gains would not last. The business assault on working people that began in earnest in the 1970s has had devastating results. Today, some forty million US residents live in poverty, and eighteen million live in extreme poverty, even as the Trump administration declares the War on Poverty “largely over and a success.” The lesson for today’s movement organizers is written in the history of the Community Action Program: the implementation of progressive policies cannot be left to the will of politicians or the workings of government agencies. Instead, imposing accountability requires that movements maintain disruptive pressure on business, the state, and other institutional opponents of progressive reform.

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Tarun Banerjee is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is coauthor of the new book Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It (Verso, July 2020).

Michael Schwartz is distinguished teaching professor emeritus of sociology at Stony Brook University. He is coauthor of the new book Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It (Verso, July 2020).

Kevin A. Young is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is coauthor of the new book Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It (Verso, July 2020).

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