In March 1965 television audiences got a jarring glimpse of the violence that enforced segregation in the Jim Crow South. Mounted sheriff's deputies and Alabama state troopers, menacing in protective masks, trampled and beat young marchers in a cloud of tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Such brazen racist violence captured on the television news seemed to discredit the recent legislative triumph of the Civil Rights Act and pending voting rights legislation for southern blacks. To reaffirm the nation's commitment to civil rights, Lyndon Johnson responded with a speech that compared the bravery of the marchers, who risked their lives for the right to vote, to the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord. The speech endeared him to civil rights activists across the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. admitted that he shed tears when the president echoed the clarion of the civil rights movement: "We shall overcome." Richard Goodwin, who wrote the speech, recalled, "God, how I loved Lyndon Johnson at that moment."
Later in the speech the president reflected on his brief career as a teacher at the "Mexican" school in the small South Texas town of Cotulla. Johnson's tenure at Cotulla gave him firsthand experience with the effects of racism and poverty on children. First to his speechwriter Goodwin and then to the nation, Johnson recollected his time in Cotulla with a sense of commitment to his former students:
Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the face of a young child . . . It never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students . . . But now I have that chance—and I'll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it.
The president's pledge to heal the wounds of poverty and hatred intimated more than civil rights legislation. He also alluded to his War on Poverty, begun the previous year under the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA). The EOA had the most ambitious agenda of all the legislation introduced in the Great Society. Johnson proposed to accomplish nothing less than an end to poverty in the United States.
Following Johnson's speech, a reporter for the San Antonio News traveled to Cotulla to check on progress since the president's time at the school. Cotulla remained a "picture of poverty" more than three decades after politics lured LBJ to Washington. School Superintendent Roy Landrum, a classmate of Johnson at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, explained that La Salle County still had "children that go to school without breakfast." The county had one of the highest illiteracy rates in Texas. The Express-News article cited a study that placed the average income for families in Cotulla at $1,585, half the national poverty rate, and the average level of schooling at 1.4 years.
Despite such grim conditions, Johnson gave Cotullans hope in 1965. The War on Poverty offered impoverished communities like Cotulla funding to build their own antipoverty programs. When LBJ gave his speech after Selma, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the executive agency created to fight the War on Poverty, had already financed the development of a locally operated Community Action Program (CAP). The Tri-County Community Action Committee headquartered in Cotulla was one of more than a thousand local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) nationwide. The Cotulla effort began with a literacy program for poor citizens of the area. The head of the program was Dan Garcia, one of LBJ's former students. When the Cotulla literacy program began, Johnson called Garcia and the mayors of Cotulla and neighboring Pearsall to congratulate them. Mayor J. W. Collins of Pearsall told the president that people in the community looked forward to the program because "there was great interest among Latin-Americans to learn English and Anglo-Americans to learn Spanish." Such optimism and cooperation in his program, especially between whites and disadvantaged Mexican Americans, certainly pleased LBJ as the racial strife of the decade began to escalate.
By the end of the 1960s, after Johnson left office and a full-scale retreat from the War on Poverty was well under way, the effort had done little to improve the social and economic conditions of Mexican Americans in Cotulla. They remained far below the town's white minority in income, employment, and economic opportunity. The educational discrepancies underscored the continuing legacy of segregation. The "Mexican" school where LBJ worked, Wellhausen School, was dilapidated and had facilities and programs far inferior to those of the school on the Anglo side of town. Wellhausen had no cafeteria and no gym, and the school's restrooms were in a different building from the classrooms. Instruction included little Spanish-language material. Mexican American students started off behind their Anglo counterparts, and few caught up. An estimated 80 percent of Mexican Americans in Cotulla dropped out of school before the age of eighteen.
While the War on Poverty did little to counteract the economic inequalities of Cotulla, the effort coincided with a dramatic political transformation. A political revolution came to South Texas in the sixties, forced on the region's Anglo establishment under the sway of the militant Chicano youth movement. Through the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) and its political outgrowth, La Raza Unida Party, young Chicano activists took the mantle of leadership in the Texas civil rights movement by the end of the 1960s. In 1970 La Raza Unida Party organized the election of Cotulla's first Mexican American mayor, Alfredo Zamora, along with two city councilmen and two members of the school board. La Raza Unida organized similar takeovers elsewhere in the Winter Garden region of South Texas, most notably in Crystal City. The unprecedented electoral success of La Raza Unida shocked Cotulla's Anglo minority, just eight hundred of more than four thousand residents, who had controlled the town and systematically limited Mexican American voting and office holding since the turn of the twentieth century. The new school board members realized the worst fears of the Anglo old guard when they desegregated Cotulla's schools. In 1970 Anglo and Mexican American students went to Wellhausen for first and second grade and to the "white" school on the other side of town for third and fourth.
The Anglo leadership of South Texas traditionally voted Democratic and supported Lyndon Johnson since his days as a congressman. Yet Johnson's War on Poverty contributed to the mobilization of political groups like MAYO that sought to wrest control of local politics from Anglos. Workers from Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), an OEO program, formed organizations in Cotulla's neighborhoods that generated interest in voting and in supporting La Raza candidates. Beyond Cotulla, VISTA provided funding and staff for MAYO to organize in communities across the state. VISTA became enmeshed in controversies over school administration when VISTA volunteers received funding from the Cotulla CAA to begin a bilingual education program. With the help of lawyers from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, VISTA community organizers began a petition drive to abolish the Inter-American Test of Oral English in Cotulla schools, a hurdle that held back many of Cotulla's Mexican American students.
The relationship between Chicano activists and VISTA in Cotulla exemplified a connection that few historians of either the civil rights movement or the Great Society have addressed. The body of scholarship on the civil rights movement gives little indication of either the great hope the War on Poverty initially held out to activists or the sense of resentment that emerged when results failed to measure up to expectations. Neither does the historiography clarify the extent to which OEO programs subsidized civil rights activism. The extensive literature on the Johnson administration also fails to measure how the changing values of the civil rights movement informed the implementation of War on Poverty policy, especially on the state and local levels.
For civil rights activists and segregationists as well as the OEO's antipoverty warriors and their opponents, the connections between the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty were salient. African Americans saw the OEO as a potential ally in the civil rights agenda. Most black Texans surely would have agreed with Martin Luther King Jr. in ranking the inclusion of African Americans in the War on Poverty among his top priorities:
If our demonstrations are to stop, there must be some equality in terms of grappling with the problem of poverty. We have a poverty bill which has been nobly initiated by the President of our nation and the Congress, but in the South so often Negroes are denied the opportunity to be a part of the administration of them, and we feel that if demonstrations are to stop, Negroes must be brought into the very central structure of the whole poverty program.
Further, the reduction in poverty was as important a goal for minority groups as desegregation. The 1963 March on Washington was, after all, a March for Jobs and Freedom. In his seminal Howard University commencement speech in June 1965, Johnson seemed to agree that economic equality should be the next goal of the civil rights struggle:
[T]his is the next and more profound stage of the battle of civil rights. We seek . . . not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result . . . Freedom is not enough . . . You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe you have been completely fair.
Regardless of what Johnson intended, both supporters and opponents of the civil rights movement considered the War on Poverty that "next and more profound stage."
The history of the War on Poverty provides valuable lessons on the nexus between liberalism and the civil rights movement in the later 1960s. Post-World War II liberalism, as epitomized by Johnson and the Great Society, remained faithful to the idea that the purpose of government was to create and defend equality of opportunity. In the mid-twentieth century, the primary obstacles to this goal were racial segregation and chronic poverty—hence Johnson's two major domestic policy efforts entailed civil rights legislation and programs to combat poverty. Politics and principle required the separation of these efforts. Johnson and his antipoverty warriors understood the political consequences of an antipoverty program targeted at minorities. More importantly, a War on Poverty centered around racial inequities would have seemed a retreat from a fundamental goal of postwar liberalism—a society in which race had no bearing on opportunity. Yet, as the growing body of literature on the OEO suggests, race and civil rights issues suffused the War on Poverty.
The purpose of this book is to trace the connections between the War on Poverty and the civil rights movement using Texas as a statewide case study. Texas provides an excellent setting to study the OEO and the movement. The state had the nation's largest poor population when the War on Poverty began. Among the states, Texas was second only to California in the amount of OEO funding received. As a state that is both southern and western, Texas exemplifies the complexities of race politics in the 1960s. Mexican Americans formed the state's largest minority and struggled to overcome a system of segregation as entrenched as that of the Jim Crow South. The state had the concentrated urban poverty on which the OEO focused and the stubborn rural poverty that the OEO sorely neglected. Texas also illustrates the emergence of the Sunbelt as a force on the national political stage.
Any discussion of antipoverty policy in Texas first requires a clear understanding of the depth of the problem in the state. In the mid-twentieth century poverty in Texas was real and pervasive, not simply relative material depravation. Poverty left thousands of Texans malnourished, illiterate, unhealthy, underemployed, and politically powerless. This was especially true among nonwhites. Mexican American and African American Texans remained in an economic stasis similar to the conditions the nation endured during the Great Depression.
An important objective of the book is to demonstrate how significant the War on Poverty was to Texans in the 1960s. We might consider the idea ridiculous or naïve in the early twenty-first century, but in 1964 Texans across the political spectrum took seriously Lyndon Johnson's proposal to end poverty through government action. Critics on the far left saw the budget and concluded from the beginning that it would not be enough, but liberals and civil rights activists around the state had high hopes for the War on Poverty. As the Civil Rights Act tore down the barriers of legalized segregation, the Economic Opportunity Act promised a society free from chronic poverty. On the right, conservatives feared a new tax-consuming bureaucracy emanating from Washington. Like other Great Society initiatives, the OEO seemed an imposition on local and state authority that would threaten the status quo. Worse yet, in a deeply segregated state like Texas it appeared to give financial teeth to integration. To Goldwater Republicans, a new force in state politics, the War on Poverty seemed the brainchild of left-leaning sociologists intent on installing socialism.
As the centerpiece and most controversial feature of the War on Poverty, the Community Action Program occupies most of the attention of this study. More than one hundred Community Action Agencies operated in Texas. These local agencies administered a variety of other OEO programs on the local level, including the Neighborhood Youth Corps (NYC), Legal Services, and Head Start. This book focuses on San Antonio, El Paso, and Houston as the cities with the most extensive and controversial CAAs in the state. The Dallas-Fort Worth region developed CAAs later, after the OEO had ironed out the more politically controversial elements of CAP, and local political leaders steered them in an uncontentious, service-oriented direction. Other cities and towns from the Panhandle-Plains region to the Rio Grande Valley are included. I explore the issue of rural poverty, but the OEO's "almost exclusively urban cast" makes poverty in the cities by necessity the focus of the study.
I have integrated the Job Corps and VISTA into the broader picture of the War on Poverty in Texas as well. The Job Corps, implemented in the Johnson administration, continues to this day, though in a much more limited capacity than originally envisaged. Opponents of the War on Poverty opposed the establishment of Job Corps programs on the local level, primarily because they feared large concentrations of young black males in their communities. Civil rights leaders at first championed the Job Corps as a great opportunity to train young men and women for jobs. As the civil rights movement changed tone in the later sixties, many African American leaders came to criticize the Job Corps as little more than a convenient method to keep a leash on young black men and the centers as akin to prisons. Coming to a similar conclusion from the inverse perspective, conservative opponents viewed the Job Corps as more or less a bribe to appease potential rioters and criminals.
VISTA volunteers came to the state infused with the liberal optimism of the early sixties. Like their counterparts in the international Peace Corps, domestic VISTA volunteers were mostly young white idealists who believed in the transformative power of progressive government. As early as 1967 VISTA in Texas reflected the influence of the New Left and militant civil rights groups. Volunteers organized boycotts, school walkouts, and angry demonstrations. White leaders in East and South Texas labeled the VISTA volunteers "outside agitators" and petitioned the governor to have them removed. Significantly, VISTA subsidized the expansion of MAYO in its early stages. A marked change in VISTA tactics clearly shows how the Nixon administration reoriented the War on Poverty after LBJ left office.
Beyond explaining the contextual significance of the War on Poverty, the story of the OEO in Texas helps elucidate the transformation of state politics (and, in the long run, national politics) that began in the sixties. By the time OEO programs came to Texas in 1965, the Democratic Party in the state was split into conservative and liberal factions. Conservative Democrats, led by Governor John Connally, were the primary opponents of the War on Poverty in Texas. While the governor was solidly in the mainstream of the national party prior to 1964, his opposition to the Civil Rights Act distanced him from LBJ, his political mentor. From 1964 on, Connally and a majority of white Texans began a steady march to the political right. To the surprise of OEO officials in Washington, Connally became a major obstacle in the implementation of OEO programs in Texas. Connally opposed the War on Poverty for much the same reason he opposed the Civil Rights Act. From the governor's point of view, the OEO bypassed state authority, and most of his constituents opposed it as another liberal spending program targeted at minorities.
In opposition to the conservatives, a liberal coalition comprised of minorities, organized labor, and white progressives emerged within the Democratic Party by the early 1960s. The liberal coalition, led by Senator Ralph Yarborough, showed a remarkable degree of solidarity across race lines. Defense of OEO programs became a strong impetus for this solidarity as liberals squared off against establishment politicians like Connally and entrenched political cliques on the local level. The solidarity of the liberal coalition waned as the decade came to a close. Leading figures from minority communities, including staunch allies of LBJ, chastised the OEO for its failures to include minority groups in the administration of the War on Poverty.
On the local level, CAAs came under fire for failing to live up to the OEO's call for the "maximum feasible participation of the poor." Civil rights leaders translated the OEO's guiding principle into participation by Mexican Americans or African Americans. They also thought it feasible for the poor, or at least civil rights organizations as representatives of the poor, to participate in War on Poverty programs by running them and controlling the budgets. It is evident that lower-income Anglos likewise thought of the War on Poverty in racial terms, as few white Texans showed interest in OEO programs, while Mexican American and African American Texans competed for limited federal antipoverty funds in major cities across the state.
Tensions between black and Chicano Texans reflected the ascension of militant values among activists, a trend that coincided with and was heightened by the launch of the War on Poverty. As employees or clients of local CAAs in cities across Texas, many future militant leaders gained a degree of political education from the War on Poverty. As CAP employees, nascent militants witnessed or participated in political confrontations with entrenched, Anglo-dominated local establishments over CAP funding. Further, OEO programs provided access to residents of lower-income communities, a benefit that proved instrumental in political organizing. With budgets and salaried workers, the OEO also subsidized the development of political organizations led by militants. The influence of militant movements became evident in OEO programs early on, as both clients and employees of various agencies began to question the commitment of Anglos to advancing the cause of the Chicano and black freedom struggles.
Chicano and Chicana youth formed the most fully developed militant civil rights groups in Texas. The Chicano movement began with small groups of angry students, centered primarily in San Antonio and spearheaded by MAYO. It rapidly matured into a dynamic political force in Texas politics under La Raza Unida Party, a third party that challenged Democratic control over the Mexican American electorate. While only a minority of Mexican Americans in Texas embraced Chicano radicalism, the values of the movement had a broad influence in barrios throughout the state.
OEO programs became scenes of confrontation between LBJ liberals and the Chicano militants. The primary source of this tension involved OEO officials' insistence on the need to fight a "colorblind" War on Poverty. Although sensitive to the realities of racism and discrimination, liberal leaders and local antipoverty administrators largely embraced the colorblind ideal in regard to the War on Poverty not only because the majority of poor Texans happened to be Anglo but also because they kept faith with the liberal ideal of integration. Chicano militants, however, had a clear and angry understanding of the racially disproportionate nature of poverty in Texas. They knew that young people from the barrios had less hope of pulling themselves out of poverty than poor whites. Besides disregard of such disparities, the colorblind principle of the OEO clashed with the values that defined the Chicano movement: political empowerment, economic self-determination, and cultural nationalism. Because of their commitment to these values, Chicanos counted among their adversaries Anglos as well as Mexican American liberals like San Antonio Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez. The conflict with the older generation of Mexican American leaders indicates that the rift was about racial ideology, not simply about overcoming white supremacy. In executing the War on Poverty, Chicano movement leaders wanted the money the OEO offered but wanted Chicanos to administer the programs in keeping with the values of the Chicano movement.
Black Power fell short of the Chicano movement in Texas in terms of political development, but the values of black nationalism made deep inroads in the state by the close of the sixties. Like their Chicano counterparts, militant African American leaders in Houston who were associated with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) attempted to form their own independent community action organization and applied for funding from the OEO in contention with the city's CAA. The story became more complex in Houston, however, because of the potential for urban violence. While minor in comparison to riots in the North and the West, significant violence flared in Houston as tensions between law enforcement and the black community reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1967. The city's political leadership, with Mayor Louie Welch at the forefront, placed some of the blame for the tension on the OEO for financing militant groups, while local African American leaders blamed the OEO for failing to do enough to fight poverty in the city.
When these various elements are put together, the history of the War on Poverty traces the rise and fall of postwar liberalism in the Lone Star State. The liberals had momentum in Texas politics when the War on Poverty began in 1964. The election of Johnson, liberal Senator Ralph Yarborough's defeat of Congressman George H. W. Bush in the 1964 Senate campaign, and the undeniable successes of the civil rights movement all seemed to point toward a future defined by the values of liberalism, even in Texas. Yet by the end of the decade Chicano militants and black nationalists began to question these values. The militants considered integration, the fundamental value and goal of postwar liberalism, tantamount to assimilation, a rejection of their unique cultures. They could not be convinced of the distinction between the historically racist, conservative Democratic Party of Texas and the pro-civil rights, liberal Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson. Of course, Johnson did not help matters by escalating the war in Vietnam, fueling the resentment of militants as minority soldiers died in disproportionate numbers.
At the same time, the essential conservatism of the white electorate manifested itself in state politics. Republican leaders like Senator John Tower and George H. W. Bush cited the War on Poverty as an example of a program that ignored the concerns of the "silent majority." The new conservative thrust in Texas politics, however, began to distance itself from an overt concern with segregation, the overriding concern of southern politics in the postwar decades. Although the legal barriers fell, Texas became more deeply segregated after the collapse of Jim Crow as mostly white suburbs sprawled into the piney woods, hills, and prairies surrounding the state's cities. With a booming economy and a greater portion of the electorate distanced, both geographically and economically, from the realities of poverty, politicians had little motive for defending liberal efforts like the War on Poverty. The Democratic Party was already losing ground as white moderates started voting Republican. All the Democrats seemed to offer affluent white suburbanites was higher taxes to fund social programs like the OEO apparently to benefit minorities. The GOP began to court the votes of Mexican Americans, citing the War on Poverty as a liberal spending program that neglected their concerns in favor of lawbreaking blacks. By the time Johnson left office in 1969, Democratic leaders, threatened by Republican successes, began to work against the War on Poverty. Meanwhile, the Nixon administration, with a young Donald Rumsfeld at the helm of the OEO, scaled back the effort and reoriented its ideological underpinnings.
Finally, I offer this work to answer a call made more than twenty-five years ago by Allen J. Matusow in The Unraveling of America. In that book, still a touchstone in the historiography of the period, Matusow sharply criticized Johnson and the OEO for the flaws and foibles of community action. Yet Matusow proffered that no "final judgment" could be made on CAP and, by extension, the rest of the War on Poverty "until an army of local historians recovers the program's lost fragments." While not exactly an army, I consider myself a member in good standing of a small cadre of historians committed to telling the tale of the War on Poverty as it was fought in ghettos and barrios, on farms and in mining towns, in migrant camps and on Indian reservations, by men and women across the nation. It is only fitting to tell the story where it all began for LBJ—in Texas.