Fighting Against the War on Poverty
Historical scholarship of the War on Poverty has flowered in recent years after decades of historians’ collective neglect. Studies by several scholars have challenged the way historians have thought and written about the War on Poverty, particularly in terms of race, ethnic identity, gender and sexual orientation. A number of those works have explored linkages between the War on Poverty and social movements, including the African American and Mexican American civil rights movements, the Chicano and Black Power movements, and feminism. In addition, some of that scholarship has sought to expand scholars’ thinking about the time frame of the War on Poverty. Borrowing from Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s term, “the long civil rights movement,” a few of these scholars have used the term “the long war on poverty” to describe anti-poverty efforts that continued beyond the 1970s.
Missing from this recent expansion of War on Poverty scholarship are studies about opposition to it. The War on Poverty, though initially quite popular, became one of the most controversial programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The papers in this session, then, seek to expand our understanding of the War on Poverty by exploring the variety of forms of opposition to it. These papers demonstrate that some groups opposed the War on Poverty from the start, while others who had initially supported antipoverty programs shifted to antagonism or resistance by the end of the 1960s. Still others opposed the War on Poverty from within the antipoverty programs themselves. In addition, these papers demonstrate that some of the opposition to the War on Poverty, whether on the local, state or national level, was in part rooted in some form of resistance to the social movements of the period. And, this resistance was significant, for it not only led to a reduction in support from President Lyndon Johnson, in certain instances it also was a key factor in the rise of conservatism during the period.
Each of the three papers in this session explore some aspect of opposition to the War on Poverty. Robert Bauman examines how national religious organizations that had supported the War on Poverty initially, shifted to opposition as the War on Poverty became linked to Black Power. Emma Folwell explores the ways in which the segregationist response to the War on Poverty in Mississippi created a new form of conservative resistance. And, Tom Kiffmeyer demonstrates that not all opposition was conservative or came from outside forces. Indeed, in his example of the Council of the Southern Mountains, some challenges came from the people who had been targeted by the War on Poverty, the poor themselves. As each of these papers demonstrate, the fragile antipoverty coalition that had formed in the mid-1960s had fractured by the end of the decade and some groups at the local, state and national levels used their opposition to the War on Poverty to help frame a new conservatism.