Grassroots Antipoverty Activism and the War on Poverty in Atlanta, 1964–74

AHA Session 19
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Crystal Ballroom A (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
Annelise Orleck, Dartmouth College
Annelise Orleck, Dartmouth College

Session Abstract

Famous as “the city too busy to hate,” a slogan created by Mayor William Hartsfield in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Atlanta has long been viewed as a city that adopted moderate racial politics in order to ensure economic progress and peaceful race relations. This image of the city has been perpetuated as historians of the Civil Rights Movement have cited Atlanta as a place where activists went to seek reprieve from the violence and virulent racism that gripped the rest of the South. Moreover, the presence of the headquarters of national civil rights organizations in the city has focused much of the historical attention on established and well-known civil rights actors. However, the emphasis on a peaceful, moderate struggle in Atlanta has created a veneer of racial progress and moderation that obscures another historical reality – the deep-seated poverty and insidious racism faced daily by the poor and working-class African American residents of Atlanta during this time period.

Seeking to not only highlight the struggles but also to demonstrate the agency exhibited by black residents through local organizing and fights for their rights following the end of Jim Crow in 1964, this panel will address three central questions. First, what types of social and economic regulations replaced Jim Crow in Atlanta? Second, how did poor and working-class African Americans organize against poverty and racial discrimination? And third, in addition to working for inclusion in a host of federal antipoverty programs in the 1960s, what alternatives did these activists envision? Using local groups such as the Vine City Council, the Vine City Improvement League, and the Tenants United for Fairness, our panel seeks to refocus attention from national civil rights organizations to the poor and working class residents who became citizen activists and fought for economic and social justice after the end of the Jim Crow era and were integral in enacting change at the local level.

Engaging with a growing body of scholarship that reevaluates the legacy of the War on Poverty, the papers of this panel look at the ways government and citizen groups fought over the expenditure of federal dollars and how this activism became intertwined with later movements like Black Power, a movement whose origins have largely been situated in Northern cities and California. This focus demonstrates the central importance of the South in these movements, involvement that has largely been viewed as insignificant due, in part, to the current historiographical focus on resurgent Southern white conservatism.

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