LBJ, Martin Luther King, Johnnie Tillmon and the War on Poverty

LBJ, Martin Luther King, Johnnie Tillmon and the War on Poverty

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Martin Luther King and President Johnson

TRENTON, NJ, January 30, 2014 – As San Marcos, TX prepares to dedicate a statue of LBJ and Martin Luther King sitting together at the intersection of the two streets named after them, and as the nation commemorated both men this month, it is a good time to point out what the latter thought of the former.

In the PBS documentary “Citizen King,” King’s longtime secretary Xernona Clayton describes a gag played on King for his surprise birthday party in 1968. King’s staff decided, “Let’s [not] give him a suit. Let’s give him some laughter,” Clayton explains. She walked over to King, with a mischievous smile:

“We know how fond you are of our president—Lyndon Johnson,” she begins, to which King, Ralph Abernathy, Andy Young, and everybody in the room erupt in uproarious laugher, “So we got this little cup for you…and it’s says ‘we are cooperating with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Drop coins and bills in the cup.” Everybody doubled over again, laughing uncontrollably, including King.

That is what Martin Luther King thought of the War on Poverty.

LBJ was long dismissive of King in private as “that goddamn n-word preacher.” And the fact that Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, under JFK and LBJ, wiretapped King and the Fannie Lou Hammer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party reflected widespread fears in both their administrations that King and Hammer’s efforts on behalf of poor people were injecting “Communist” influences into the country and Democratic Party.

When King embarked on his Poor People’s Campaign, “the Johnson administration reacted as though the campaigners were an invading horde from a strange land intent on the violent disruption of the government…,” historian Gerald McKnight explains.

King recognized that programs like welfare have never been great levelers of the economic playing field. Jason DeParle explained in his journalistic masterpiece, The American Dream, that “Covering only about 2-percent of American children, welfare in 1940 was more or less what Congress intended: a small, predominately white program.”

LBJ, like FDR, specifically designed these programs to keep and codify systems of segregation and racial and gender discrimination in jobs, housing, wages, and healthcare which are replete throughout both New Deal and Great Society programs.

Federal agriculture policy, under the auspices of the War on Poverty remains a shining example of this, as detailed by DeParle and Chris Myers Asch’s The Senator and the Sharecropper, which reveal how federal agriculture policy existed to prop up Jim Crow under the auspices of “poverty-fighting.”

As the populist strand on the Left took the form of agriculture policy racism in the South, its Northern corollary was labor union racism. Labor strikes were pioneered—not as some rise of the proletariat against the 1%—but white workers in Northeast and Midwest factory towns striking to exclude black, Latino, and Asian laborers.  A. Phillip Randolph started the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters precisely because most labor unions excluded outright African-Americans from joining.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka acknowledged in 2008 that organized labor has not shaken its ugly underbelly. “…Racism for poor whites,” explains Dinesh D’Souza, “[serves the function of establishing a social floor beneath with they [poor whites] cannot fall. However degraded their lives may become, at least they will never be black.”

As bad as the War on Poverty’s intended consequences have been, its unintended consequences have been more enduring.

By 1972, an unknown Johnnie Tillmon declared at a feminist rally, “I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare.” She continued, “In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being. If you’re all those things, you don’t count at all, except as a statistic.”

The wisdom of de Tocqueville on voluntary associations and the 19th Century social reformers who pioneered public schools, expanding the franchise, prison reform, and improvement societies, have come back to paint in stark relief the problem of the War on Poverty. A mechanistic sterility attends to any large bureaucracy taking on a social problem like poverty. A raft of evidence shows outcomes suffer consequently.

People counting only “as a statistic,” leads to callous indifference. “Welfare is like a super-sexist marriage,” was Johnnie Tillmon turn-of-phrase, explaining:

“You trade in a man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he treats you bad. He can divorce you, of course, cut you off anytime he wants. But in that case, he keeps the kids, not you…On A.F.D.C., you’re not supposed to have any sex at all. You give up control of your own body. It’s a condition of aid. You may even have to agree to get your tubes tied so you can never have more children just to avoid being cut off welfare.”  

The most elemental of all voluntary associations—family—was undermined instead of nurtured.

The speech was called “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” to draw the attention of another constituency of the Left—organized feminism—to the fact it, like organized labor, had largely ignored the people of color in its midst. A feminist movement organized largely around getting middle class women into the workforce was unappealing to many women of color, who—having been working outside the home for generations—had a more expansive women’s agenda that included supporting marriage and family.

On this 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, it is worthwhile to be mindful of these critiques from King and Johnnie Tillmon.

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