Radical Roots: The Civil Rights Movement and Community Action

Black History Month is more than a yearly celebration of the achievements of individual Black Americans, it is an acknowledgement of the critical social, political, and cultural contributions of Black communities and movements to the American story. As Black History Month draws to a close, NASCSP knows the work of fighting poverty and promoting justice will continue. We want to highlight the monumental contributions that Black movements have made to history and to the creation of our programs.

Born Out of Struggle

During the United States’ involvement in World War 2, Black Americans seized unprecedented levels of access and autonomy in both military and civilian life. Following the close of the conflict, the door to greater equality and civic participation was quickly slammed shut. What followed was nearly two decades of persistent advocacy, civil disobedience, and strident campaigning by Black activists fighting for racial justice. By the mid-1960s, increasing internal pressure and international criticism meant change in the United States was imminent. This change, however, was in no way inevitable, and was only made possible by the labor and sacrifice of thousands of Black protestors and allies.

Often remembered as the zenith of this fight for racial justice, the passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964 was one of many landmark victories of the Civil Rights Movement, whose fight encompassed social, political, as well as economic justice. “There is nothing new about poverty,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr during his Nobel Peace Prize address. “What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.” Thanks to the tireless effort of an untold number of activists, Dr. King among them, the effort to eradicate poverty took a major step forward that year with the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964.

A victory for civil rights in its own right and therefore one stemming from the same sacrifices, the EOA was a chance to do for Black families’ pocketbooks what the Voting Rights Act did for ballot boxes. Four in ten Black Americans experienced poverty at the time, more than twice the rate for Whites. The EOA established the Office of Economic Opportunity, which could withhold federal funding to regions violating the Civil Rights Act, further cementing the centrality of racial justice in the fight against poverty.

Under the EOA the newly created Community Action Program, a precursor to modern Community Services Block Grants, directly funded antipoverty initiatives in areas with the greatest need, including Black communities. These communities had been shut out of decades of previous federal investment due to racial discrimination like redlining. In areas where this funding was provided, the amount spent for the welfare of those in need nearly doubled between 1962 and 1968. This translated to a more than 25% decline in US poverty over the next 50 years.

The 1960’s War on Poverty was ultimately unsuccessful at eliminating financial hardship, but its long-term effects do include improved health and reduced racial inequality across the country. Though credit is due to the elected leaders that passed radical legislation promoting racial and economic justice at the time, the majority of acclaim is owed to grassroots activists, many of whom were Black and advocating for the uplift of Black communities. The participatory principles of the War on Poverty empowered neighborhood institutions that continue to provide jobs, housing, and education to this day.