The War on Poverty: A young Baptist’s experience

As probably the first white person to work for blacks in Dallas County, Texas, my thinking was transformed in profound ways.

By Bill Leonard

In the year that Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, I worked for the War on Poverty in Dallas County, Texas. It was 1968, the summer after I graduated from Texas Wesleyan and took my army physical as demanded by the Selective Service Administration; the summer that I got engaged to be married — momentous moments to say the least.

Actually, I worked for two summers, 1968 and 1969, in the Community Action Program of Dallas’ War on Poverty. I can’t remember how I got the job, but I sought it when the Baptist church where I was youth minister was unable to pay me full time. The first summer, I ran a recreation program in Balch Springs, a predominately Anglo community. In 1969 I was a summer “coordinator” of three programs, one in the predominately white town of Wilmer and the other two at Carver Heights and Lancaster with African-American communities. Today I’m still convinced that working in the War on Poverty changed my life.

The War on Poverty was a massive government program set in motion 50 years ago as one of many legislative initiatives in President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda, including the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), as well as Medicaid, Head Start and student loan programs. Recently, four of the five living U.S. presidents participated in the half-century anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Critics then and now critics charge that the anti-poverty “war” fostered a dependence on the government “dole,” an initiative-crushing affliction created by the American “welfare state.” Others acknowledge its limitations amid efforts to respond to life-destroying poverty in the world’s richest nation.

In her master’s thesis at the University of North Texas titled “Dallas, Poverty and Race: Community Action Programs in the War on Poverty” (2008), Harriet DeAnn Rose wrote that, “Although the War on Poverty had minimal economic success, the poverty programs did reach people.” She cited Dallas community leader Willis Johnson’s insistence that the poverty program was not a “handout,” but a “hand up,” and concluded that it “helped the poor to realize that they were no longer an invisible entity within the nation but could make a difference in the politics of the city and the lives of their families, a legacy that lives on today.”

In a recent article in The Rural Blog, Tim Mandell reflected on the impact of the War on Poverty 50 years from its founding, noting that it aided in dropping the poverty rate from 24 percent in 1960 to 14.3 percent in 2012. Mandell concluded that “government programs were more effective in reducing poverty than previously thought.”

In Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, Appalachian scholar (and good friend) Ronald Eller wrote extensively about the War on Poverty as centered in Appalachia. While critiquing the liberal social strategies that often stereotyped impoverished people, Eller wrote that, “For Appalachia, the War on Poverty was as much an attitude, a moral crusade, as a set of programs” that created “a core group of young poverty warriors” whose “commitment to social justice and reform” evolved beyond the War on Poverty itself.

I can’t claim that those two summer experiences made me a very formidable “young poverty warrior,” but it transformed my thinking and acting in the world in profound ways. Indeed, the pastor of the church where I was youth minister fretted that the War on Poverty was “making a liberal” out of me on issues of race, economics and social engagement that would distance me from Southern Baptists. I guess he was right. In 1968/69 it did seem radical. For one thing, all my supervisors, my bosses, were African Americans, meaning that I was probably among the first white people ever to work for black people in Dallas County, Texas.

As a “coordinator” of three programs in 1969 I worked with three women who ran those respective programs, another amazing learning experience. The first time I showed up at the Lancaster, Texas, community center, the Pentecostal African-American director said, “Son, we’d hoped they’d hire our young people as coordinator, but since they hired you we’ll just have to learn to work together.”

From that moment on she nurtured me into that African-American setting, the most intense racial engagement I had encountered up to that time. Together we organized recreational programs, field trips (including a day at Six Flags when it was over 110 degrees! I haven’t cooled down yet.) and work projects, using much of the budget to construct a basketball court that lasted for years.

On my last day she gave me a wedding present and said, “Son, turned out you did us good.” I’ve never received a more gracious, albeit undeserved, benediction.

So however the statisticians and politicians may evaluate the War on Poverty, I can say that I observed, indeed experienced, its economic and racial benefits during two brief summers in a volatile Texas county where race and economic divisions still abound. I saw people work together in places where segregation of class and culture had long kept them apart. I watched some young people have some experiences and opportunities they had never had before.

The lessons mentored into me by a Pentecostal African-American woman haunt me a half century later: For church and nation, in the war on poverty there can be no truce.

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