The War on the War on Poverty in North Carolina

As North Carolina has recently fallen into the hands of the far right, it is worth revisiting where the state’s Republican Party came from.  The force and ferocity of the new conservative push has stunned many in the Tar Heel state, which had a record of electing moderate Democrats in many local elections but Republicans in races for the presidency and Congress.  But when the GOP took full control of state government in 2012, they set out on a single-minded ideological assault on women, minorities, voting rights, higher education, the environment and just about everything else imaginable.

The roots of this revanchist movement can be found, like so many things good and bad about contemporary America, in the 1960s.  To understand the problem, one could do worse than looking to an inspiring yet troubling book by Robert R. Korstad and James L. Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America (UNC Press, 2010).  The authors’ main goal is to tell the story of an early, innovative, and ill-fated effort to combat poverty in North Carolina, but their book opens up into a sweeping panorama of race, class, public policy, and struggle in the American South.

To Right These Wrongs is about an idealistic program that first aimed to uplift the poor, and later sought to empower them.  In this regard, it is a vitally important part of an ongoing historical excavation of the Great Society—was it a failure? What worked and what didn’t? Can government remedy inequality, or do the poor have only themselves to blame for their deprivation? But the book is about much more, for the simple reason that the modern conservative movement staked its political fortunes on popular resentment of policies and activism designed to help people excluded from the benefits of American prosperity by poverty, racism, and political marginalization.  It is also, substantially, about the migration of racial animus as a political force from its old home in the Democratic Party of the Solid South to a regnant, aggressive new GOP.

Republicans had, of course, been moribund in the state for decades when they first began to get political traction in the mid-1960s. An ambitious effort to unite black Republicans and the white working-class had achieved remarkable political success in the 1890s, threatening the ability of Democratic elites to maintain their grip on power through white solidarity and waving the “bloody shirt” of the Civil War.  “Fusionists” believed in the long-elusive goal of rallying the poor across race lines behind a banner of economic populism: better schools, better roads, more opportunities for disadvantaged farmers and workers to succeed.  The white “power structure”—a phrase that pops up throughout Korstad and Leloudis’s book—gathered all its strength to crush the biracial movement, first through terror and intimidation and then through the imposition of a Jim Crow regime that comprehensively removed African Americans from the political arena and public life in general.

The bogeyman of a white-black working-class alliance was effectively banished from the region for the first half of the twentieth century (and maybe forever).  Even as the New Deal brought new government intervention to improve the lives of the poor and working people during the 1930s, white Southerners were shrewd enough to channel federal funds and opportunities in ways that mostly excluded blacks.  Korstad and Leloudis insist on the intentionality of “racial capitalism,” i.e., that local elites sought to maintain low wages for whites and blacks alike and feared any measures that might raise standards of living in a way that made workers less willing to work for the lowest possible income.  The authors find substantial support for this thesis, particularly as Great Society programs created job opportunities in some of the most desperately poor areas of rural North Carolina; for instance, the gentry in one community worried that salaries paid by antipoverty programs “be scaled down to be more in line with local [wages].”

In any case, North Carolina maintained poverty or near-poverty for many of its citizens even as industry grew, as mechanization pushed tenants out of the dire circumstances of sharecropping and some went to work at textile mills, which had been lured South by the availability of super-cheap labor.  Black workers were barred from many jobs in new industries, leaving them trapped without opportunities in the factory or the field.  By the 1950s, though the postwar Sunbelt flourished, North Carolina had some of the lowest manufacturing wages and per capita incomes of any state in the Union.

Enter Terry Sanford.  A lawyer and WWII veteran, the ambitious politician had pulled himself up from lower middle class origins in Depression-era Laurinburg, in the East of the state, to establish an upward trajectory in the state’s Democratic Party after the war.  Sanford had come up under the tutelage of Frank Porter Graham, the liberal hero who had been president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and who was infamously defeated in a 1950 Senate primary by means of racist, red-baiting tactics.  (A young Jesse Helms got his political feet wet in the ugly campaign.)  Sanford was determined to chart a moderate, progressive course, and in his successful 1960 gubernatorial campaign he only narrowly managed to outfox a segregationist opponent through a combination of hard-knuckle political adroitness and sunny, Kennedy-esque optimism.

Sanford introduces presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to the popular Tar Heel pastime of baby-tossing

Sanford had seen poverty in Laurinburg, albeit not directly experiencing it himself, and he placed faith in the power of government to create opportunity because public institutions like UNC-Chapel Hill had provided his means of ascent.  The new governor pushed through an ambitious raft of proposals to improve education early in his term, funded by controversial tax increases, but he soon found his hands tied as his political capital diminished in the early 1960s.

Searching for new ways to improve the quality of life for the poor and working people, he hit on a novel idea: seeking support from philanthropies like the Ford Foundation to fund experimental antipoverty efforts.  Such a strategy was unusual, to say the least, but it allowed Sanford to set up programs without having to go through conservative opposition in the state legislature.  In 1963, more than a year before Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty, Sanford launched the North Carolina Fund, bolstered by money from Ford as well as local philanthropies.  In time it would receive additional support from the newly created Office of Equal Opportunity, but in fact many of the North Carolina Fund’s programs of education, training, community action and so forth predated and anticipated the War on Poverty at the federal level.  Its successes and struggles would capture the larger effort to combat deprivation and inequality in microcosmic miniature, as Korstad and Leloudis demonstrate in this richly detailed and informative story.

Indeed, To Right These Wrongs reveals the myriad tensions and internal contradictions that were embedded in the nation’s antipoverty crusade from day one.  Some readers may be surprised to see that the state’s most august elite of bankers and industrialists threw their weight behind such a novel and idealistic scheme, especially in a Jim Crow South already reeling from conflict over civil rights.  Of course, few of these city fathers could have anticipated that their noblesse oblige would eventually fund militant activism by the black poor of Durham, as the War on Poverty careened through its fascinating experiment with participatory democracy and “maximum feasible participation” in the mid-1960s.  However, the picture one finds in To Right These Wrongs is one of white elites willing to offer somewhat paternalistic help to the less fortunate, and even to accommodate new ideas about racial equality and black participation in leadership and decision-making—up to a very minimal extent, of course, and only on their own terms.  But what we find in 1960s North Carolina is certainly not the massive wall of white establishment resistance to integration that one might expect to find in the bad, old Jim Crow South.

Then again, the fissures in the Fund’s effort were apparent immediately.  In one of the group’s first efforts, it fielded the North Carolina Volunteers across the state, as integrated groups of hopeful young college students set about doing some loosely defined idea of public service.  A recurring theme of Korstad and Leloudis’s book is the torpor and, indeed, territorialism of local service providers and other bureaucracies, who resisted War on Poverty projects unless they directly benefited them.  (It is well-known in the historiography that big-city mayors were jealous of federal programs that allocated funds without going through their own patronage networks.)  Welfare agencies in small towns viewed the volunteers with skepticism at best, and tended to assign them to mundane tasks like driving a bookmobile in the Appalachians or minding children as they played in a park in eastern NC.  For young people who signed up to fight poverty, such assignments did not measure up to their expectations of social change.  Some found ways to apply themselves in innovative and creative ways, but even these efforts were stymied. For example, Volunteers fixed up an abandoned library in the small town of Coats and opened it to both black and white children, who played together without prejudice, but when local (white) parents found out they demanded that it close immediately.  Town authorities were also scandalized by the integrated working teams and living quarters of the Volunteers, who often faced threats of violent reprisal.

As Korstad and Leloudis make clear, both the youthful Volunteers and the older folks who led the Fund were very much wedded to conventional ideas about poverty when the project began—namely, that people were poor largely because of their own deficiencies, if not their moral failings then at least their lack of initiative, education, enterprising values, and so on.  This way of thinking was not the same as the virulent bashing of the “underclass” that one sees in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was still based on a sense that poor people could be brought into the mainstream of American life if they could be cleaned up, rehabilitated, and set on the right course.  Such a mentality made sense to a progressive like Terry Sanford, who did not look at the poor with disdain but also did not know their experience firsthand, and who was eager to find any rationale to justify increasing outlays for education and other government programs of uplift.

However, the Volunteers and other Fund participants gradually came to realize that poor people, especially the black impoverished, faced structural impediments that made it next to impossible to advance—factors that went well beyond their own personal values or lifestyles.  Black urban dwellers faced job discrimination, slumlords, inadequate roads and sanitation, little or no access to credit, and other maladies with no avenue of recourse.  And Fund workers, particularly members of the Operation Breakthrough project in Durham, found that the city’s white power structure was not eager to hear the organized complaints of poor black people.  A concession was made here and there, but the vast majority found their condition little improved (especially amid the Olympian abuses of “urban renewal”).  The story of Joyce Thorpe, who was summarily evicted from public housing in retaliation for her activism, is a particularly memorable example of the entrenched, remorseless resistance that black activists faced in trying to better their condition and get the political system to respond to their concerns.

In the details of the individual skirmishes the North Carolina Fund engaged in, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture: private philanthropy, a progressive Southern governor, and the federal government essentially teamed up to launch a project whose mission rapidly shifted from garden-variety “uplift” and service delivery to grassroots organizing and activism.  If the poor could not be saved by mere rehabilitation, then the answer lay elsewhere, in an assiduous attack on the status quo itself.

Howard Fuller on the porch of a Durham home. Photography by Billy E. Barnes

As suggested earlier, the Status Quo™ probably would not have signed off on all this if it had a shadow of a notion that activists like Howard Fuller, leader of Operation Breakthrough and a controversial figure in his own right, would be using it to upset the applecart of urban governance.  We’re talking about elites who might have been willing to countenance a small, token degree of integration in schools—maybe—facing emboldened black activists who demanded a seat at the table of local decision making and real, material changes in the ways employers, retailers, landlords and politicians actually operated.  And it was all funded by the federal government and the Ford Foundation—the tax-payers and the tax-protected.

Korstad and Leloudis take pains to note that the Fund’s greatest shortcoming was its near-total inability to recruit poor white people for concerted action on their (and poor blacks’) behalf.  That dog simply didn’t hunt.  White voters might have accepted or even embraced policies like Social Security and Medicare that appeared to reward those who “earned” a decent retirement and healthcare, but they were impatient when the undeserving (i.e. black people) insisting on getting a share of the pie.  The authors view this as a legacy of the historic failure of biracial populism in the 1890s, but whatever its original cause, entrenched racism must be credited as the ultimate Achilles’s heel of the North Carolina Fund’s effort to improve the lives of the poor. The organization was a perfect target: as if from central casting, it looked like little more than meddlesome Northern bureaucrats and elitists teaming up with outside agitators and lazy, violent blacks to burn the cities to the ground .  Or at least demand a bigger welfare check, so they can continue their nefarious activities.  (Such dark fears and suspicions, of course, resonated with the lore of Reconstruction, the specter of federal intervention and “Negro Rule.”)  The idea that there were stubborn, structural factors that kept people living in terrible conditions never really took—certainly not among poor whites or their wealthy would-be benefactors.  The perennial refrain of white voters who were appalled by the Fund’s shenanigans, and the War on Poverty in general, was, “I made it; I climbed my way out of Depression era poverty.  Why can’t they?”

Indeed, one of Korstad and Leloudis’s greatest contributions is showing how a right-wing, white populism emerged in reaction to the Great Society.  We all know the familiar tropes about welfare dependency and unintended consequences that became commonplace as the War on Poverty wound down in the 1970s.  But the authors show how this sensibility and the political insurgency it spawned played out on the ground in NC.  Particularly, they follow the rise of Jim Gardner, a Republican politician who parlayed his success founding the Hardee’s fast food chain into a remarkable and unexpected career as a trailblazer for North Carolina’s right wing.  Gardner had the chutzpah to launch his career in eastern NC, even though the mountains of the west had been the GOP’s sole political redoubt through the long years of exile in the Solid South.  He insisted on moving the state GOP’s headquarters from Charlotte, in the foothills, to Raleigh, closer to the old Democratic heartland of the state’s “Black Belt,” i.e. where whites ruled through massive black disenfranchisement.

A Frisco burger with a side of racial anxiety

Most importantly, Gardner looked at politics “with an entrepreneur’s eye,” as Korstad and Leloudis aptly put it.  “He recognized that there was a vast untapped political market of white North Carolinians like himself who felt abandoned by the Democratic Party and did not know where to turn,” they note (293).  Many in the establishment didn’t imagine that a Republican could attempt such an audacious strategy in NC, but Gardner’s reckoning was spot-on.  As one of his mentors, former state party chairman Sim A. DeLapp, noted, “People are permanently angry at the so-called Democratic Party…. They are mad because Johnson has become the President of the negro race and of all the left-wingers” (294). Indeed, DeLapp captured the sentiment of many restive white voters when he told George Romney, a GOP moderate, that “when the present civil rights bill goes so far as to say that all public accommodation places must serve all persons regardless of race, which in the South means that they must serve the smelly, filthy, diseased Negro, along with the clean, intelligent, white man, then I cease to go along with such a bill.”  Black demands for better housing, jobs, and education must have sounded extreme, indeed, to someone who could not stand being exposed to such human filth at the local Hardee’s.

Constituents who wrote into Congressman Gardner made clear their concerns.  They saw riots on TV and feared that angry blacks would come and destroy their homes.  “Are we to trust our maids and take a chance of returning home some evening and finding our homes burned down?” a Raleigh woman asked.  Other voters expressed concern that civil rights agitation was all about the right of black men “to date white girls,” while others blamed the poor if their homes were overrun with rats and garbage: “When my yard needs cleaning, I clean it up!”  The idea that someone would have any reason for living in excrementitious squalor other than their own laziness did not cross these constituents’ minds, and Gardner was neither inclined nor incentivized to tell them otherwise.

On such a basis—an explicit effort to capitalize on white fears of and disdain for black people—did the new Republican movement in North Carolina grow in the late 1960s.  A project to ameliorate the condition of the poor had found that there were political and economic barriers to upward mobility that a simple “hand up” could not change, but more than the structural and institutional limits they encountered, the far more important barrier was political.  An optimistic America might have been willing to help the suffering few do better for themselves in the early 1960s, but when it came to making deeper, more thorough-going reforms, and accommodating a bold and insistent new voice from the poor, the game was over.  Amid assassinations, a senseless war, and urban riots, the paper-thin patience of white America wore completely out.

Hence, a politics of revanchism and resentment that powered the likes of Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich into the upper echelons for decades—always beating the drum about the feckless poor and their parasitic attachment to the public purse. The political, cultural, and economic conflagrations of the 1960s may be long behind us, but their sulfurous odor still lingers in American politics.  No doubt right-wing myths about “Obamaphones” and massive handouts to blacks and “illegals” have their roots in this same mythology of the useless, ungrateful poor—the same people who campaigned for simple dignity and a basic standard of living in the 1960s and who, for one strange, intoxicating moment, had a kind-of, sort-of partner in the white establishment.  It is hard, though not impossible, to imagine that a similar set of forces might converge in the twenty-first century. If we could unlearn our assumptions about the pathology of the poor and learn the right lessons from the experience of the North Carolina Fund and the War on Poverty, perhaps we could have another go at America’s wild ride with participatory democracy.