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Student notes on "Poor People's Movements"

[Maybe it's self-indulgent of me to keep posting old notes from my student years, but just in case anyone out there gives a shit, I guess I'll continue to do so.]

Reading the parts of Poor People’s Movements that, for some reason, I haven’t read yet. “Why did the Democratic party embrace the civil rights agenda in the late 1950s and 1960s, after so many decades of opposing it?” you ask. Good question. “Was it out of altruism or some sort of moral epiphany?” Stupid question. No. It was because of electoral conflicts and weakening party allegiances that resulted from the disruptive tactics of the civil rights movement. Southern whites were increasingly switching to the Republican party in the 1950s, in part because business and the rising white middle class were not very friendly to the party of the New Deal, and also because Democrats’ large black constituency prevented the party from making bold statements against civil rights. But in the election of 1956 many blacks also defected from the Democratic party because of its tepid support for civil rights. So something had to be done. “Perhaps the party could afford southern defections, or black defections, but it could not afford both.” Hoping to entice more blacks away from the Democrats, congressional Republicans submitted a civil rights bill in 1957 (breaking ranks with southern Democrats), which northern Democrats and Lyndon Johnson, Senate Majority Leader, supported. (Johnson had been adamant, or at least had pretended to be adamant, against civil rights his whole career, but now he switched that stance. His path to the presidency lay in support from cities, unions, blacks, immigrants, and independents, not southern whites.) Thus was enacted the first civil rights bill since 1875, though it was largely symbolic. A second one, sponsored by the racist Eisenhower, was enacted in 1960, as Republicans continued to hope for black defections from Democrats.

Kennedy was quite passive on the civil rights issue as he tried to steer a path between liberal activists and racists. There were some token advances, but little spontaneous enforcement of the law or encouragement to activists. The Freedom Rides forced the government to order the desegregation of all terminal facilities for both interstate and intrastate passengers, but the Kennedys encouraged activists to focus on voter registration rather than the highly polarizing issue of desegregation—in part because they realized that blacks in the South “represented a huge untapped pool of potential Democratic voters.” But voter registration, too, elicited massive white violence and didn’t have much success, so the administration effectively abandoned the activists it had said it would support. Still they pressed on, often with disruptive tactics, and eventually with mass marches that provoked widely publicized white violence. As the civil rights movement contributed to the rising tide of anger in northern ghettoes, and as northern whites increasingly supported the granting of political rights to southern blacks, “the balance of electoral considerations shifted decisively” in favor of protecting civil rights in the South. Local political leaders in the South, for their part, started to favor more moderate policies in order to attract northern business, which was repelled by racial turmoil and social instability. And so, etc. You know where the story is headed. Violence, marches, the deterioration of social order influenced Congress to pass the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965.

Somewhat less plausible is the authors’ explanation of why the black movement ceased to be effective: it grew too “organized,” so to speak. Activists and others were channeled into traditional electoral politics and other mainstream institutions. “Many other institutions [besides governmental ones] also began to admit blacks: business and industry responded to mass unrest by hiring blacks; institutions of higher education, themselves rocked by the struggles of the period, revised their admissions policies to admit more minority group members, some of whom had been in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle. Having gained entry to these institutions, blacks frequently formed ‘caucuses’ or developed other intra-institutional subgroups in order to exert ‘black power.’ In short, the society overtook the movement, depleting its strength by incorporating its cadres and by organizing blacks for bureaucratic and electoral politics.” That seems too pat. The co-optation and institutional diffusion of leaders and masses may have been part of the problem, but other factors were clearly at play too. Monocausal explanations of this sort of thing are insufficient.

But the book’s main thesis is probably right: mass-based organizations of the poor to pressure political leaders tend to be less effective than mass mobilization for disruptive protests with the goal of creating a political or social “crisis.” It was disruption that achieved the victories of the civil rights movement, the CIO, and the Depression's unemployed protests. Ella Baker criticized SCLC’s philosophy of mobilizing thousands of people for big actions because it didn’t cultivate local leadership or leave behind local organizations, but, well, it worked! It caused major disruptions in the South that necessitated federal action. If confronting power is better than working with (or lobbying) power, then surely widespread and large-scale confrontations are better than localized and small confrontations, such as Baker’s philosophy might produce. –On the other hand, if you can create many nuclei of local activism, and if these nuclei all focus on disruptive actions that interfere with The Machine’s functioning, then they, too, might be very effective.

Anyway, the chapter on the welfare rights movement of the 1960s is quite interesting, particularly in its description of the local welfare rights organizations that sprouted all over the country in the late 1960s. In many respects they were strikingly similar to the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s. For instance in their tactics: sit-ins, demonstrations, collective confrontations with welfare officials (which were notably successful). What an admirably turbulent decade the Sixties was! Thank god we’re on the cusp of another such period.


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