Conducted by the
Southern Oral History Program.
Interviewer: Andy Horowitz (Andrew Deutsch)
2002. This is Horowitz, here with McSurley doing our second interview. Thanks again for doing this.
Just to give a little background. The point of the story we're picking up, now, you talked last time about how this judge, your boss in the juvenile counseling program, encouraged you that to quit your civil rights activities or quit your job.
At the same time you got an offer from the Poverty War to start working with them.
Can you just tell me, you said the job you got was Program Director? Was that the first? What was the job you got when you started working, getting paid by them?
When I first went to work, I worked for a guy named Ralph Showalter, who was a UAW organizer. Jack Conway, who was one of the leaders of the UAW was Sargent Shriver's assistant over at OEO. LBJ had made this deal to try to neutralize and co-op the Kennedy faction in the Democratic party by giving them The Poverty War basically. Sargent Shriver was the director who was a Kennedy brother-in-law. The UAW, which was the organized union base of the Kennedy wing of the Democratic party was also given a whole lot of good jobs and patronage in the Poverty War, both in Washington and around the country. Ralph Showalter, who'd come from Detroit, was hired at UPO to help the United Planning Organization, which was in charge of Poverty War in the Washington metropolitan area. He was kind of a Deputy Director there.
He hired me to help him. He didn't know his way around Washington very well. I knew my way around the suburbs some, at that point. The problem that the United Planning Organization had, it was kind of in a goldfish bowl, because it was right there in Washington. Everybody's looking at this new Poverty War to see whether it was true that the government would fund a revolution against itself. There were some of us who thought that was not probable, but we thought we'd give it a chance for a few years. Mrs. Showalter came out and interviewed me in Gum Springs. He'd heard about the stuff that we were doing in this Black community that I think I talked about last week. We had a newspaper coming out. We formed a community action group and had a board and got nonprofit status.
He says to me, "Al, are you willing to try to do this all over the suburbs? Do the same thing you're doing in Gum Springs?" I said, "Oh, I'd love to." Then he told me he'd pay me. I think I was getting $5,000 a year as a probation officer. He said they'd pay me $8,000. I think almost twice as much money for doing what I was doing for free. I couldn't believe it. I thought it... Of course, as you've just said in the intro, I'd just been encouraged to look for another job by my boss. That came just in time. My marriage was breaking up about that same time in '64 with Carol. This was actually before LBJ got elected in November of '64. I went to work for UPO, I think in the spring. JFK was killed in November of 63, And one of the first things LBJ did was to co-op this Kennedy movement, partly.
I think his heart was in the right place to push this Poverty War idea. It actually was passed. Economic Opportunity Act was passed before the elections in '64. Bobby Kennedy had helped draft the bill and had been working with the Ford Foundation and other people for about two years, from '61 to '63 on developing this design of this Poverty Program. The Ford Foundation had funded United Planning Organization and gotten it started. The whole theory being, there were two or three areas in country. One was in New Haven.
Yeah. Paul Ylvisaker was the key person behind the design of the Poverty Program. There was an excellent program in New Haven that had begun in '61 and '62. I can't think of the name of it. Then Mobilization for Youth in New York city, partly in Harlem and partly in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and then UPO in Washington. The Ford foundation had funded all this with the theory being that there was going to be all this federal money that was coming down soon. Very, very interesting program. Before I forget it, I've been thinking about writing a newspaper column called Deja vu All Over Again, because when Nixon won in '69, which is going to be the book end of today's interview, guess who Nixon made as the Poverty War Director, in other words, took Sargent Shriver's place?
Who was it?
It was a young man named Donald Rumsfeld. It was his job, basically, to shut down the War on Poverty. Like Clarence Thomas was put in charge of the EOC to shut down the efforts by the federal go government to do away with discrimination in the workplace.
You had these programs that were designed to do something, and when the Republicans took office, instead of just being upfront and saying, "We don't believe in these programs and we're going to just shut them down." Instead, they would leave them running and put people in charge of them to teach the agencies that had never done anything to eliminate poverty, how to get around some of the new laws that have been passed to try to do something about poverty or how to get around the anti-discrimination laws. That's been the Republican strategy ever since 1969. At any rate, I took this job with UPO and my first efforts where I would drive around, just go to meetings. I knew a lot of the civil rights activists in the two Maryland counties, Prince George's and Montgomery County, and then the Northern Virginia counties, Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William.
I knew everybody who was doing any direct action stuff. I would call them up and say, "Hey. I got this new job and I'm going to help us get some money to organize." I would encourage people. A lot of people had read about or heard about through the NAACP or other traditional civil rights groups, because that's how the Democratic party worked. I would go to these meetings and, I had this one little speech I'd make called "Three Little Words." I think it was "24 Little Letters" that simply mean maximum feasible participation, because that was the law, The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 said, and this was Bobby Kennedy's greatest contribution to statutory writing and construction, that the programs had to be designed with a maximum feasible participation by the people to be served.
The theory being that most welfare and social service programs that existed for poor people were designed by middle class professional white people who had no idea what it was like to be broke, and that the very act of being involved in the design, and setting up, and then administering programs itself, in itself was a liberating and uplifting psychological experience, which I agree with. Although, the Paolo Ferrarian ideas, which Paolo was writing at that time Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was interesting, Fanon comes out in '64 with The Wretched of the Earth. Paolo comes out, I think in '65 with Pedagogy of the Oppressed and both of them who I consider my philosophical and psychological gurus, would have never accepted what we'll call the Kennedy Liberal Democrat theory that the maximum in maximum feasible participation consisted of one third.
In other words, if you set up a Community Action Agency, that's what we called them, and I did that in all seven of those counties, you had one third of poor people, and one third of professional social service bureaucrats on it, and one third politicians on it. That was the formula that was suggested by the anti-poverty people called OEO, The Office of Economic Opportunity. If people did that one third, one third, one third, that would meet the maximum in maximum feasible participation. I've always laughed about that. There's no way I can say how much experience I've had with that concept. I've written a lot of stuff. The Three Legged Stool idea, which I didn't invent the name, but it certainly did fit for that thing.
If you take one leg off a three legged stool, the rich people can still sit on it. You can still sit on a three legged stool and traditionally what they would do would, after a while you get these kind of professional, poor people that would get on these boards. They were very good people, generally, but they would tend to say, "Well, they're the spokesperson for all the poor people in DC or Alexandria or wherever. Immediately, when you work with it and you began to see how all these little tricks played out, you saw that the only real hope was to build an indigenous, we call it indignant poor people's groups, that were a hundred percent poor and that would elect their own leadership and there wasn't a kind of a softening demilitarizing of function in it.
And those groups themselves, you tried get money to them to do what they wanted to do. The one philosophical thing or lesson that I can recall from those early days, '64, '65, just working with people off the street, young people and older people, mainly African American, was this guy telling me, when I said, "What do you think the definition of poverty is?", he says, "Well, you're broke." I'll never forget that having no money is really the definition of poverty. A lot of the psychological ideas that Silberman, Crisis in Black & White, there were all these books that were coming out about that time. Michael Harrington did this book that they claim was a big thing that started Poverty War, The Poor in America, or something like that.
My friend down the mountains did a book called Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry Caudill. That was supposed to be the book that started the Poverty War in Appalachia. There was a tendency on the part of a lot of these liberal academic kind of analyses of poverty, about a kind of a psychological thing, that it was a psychological state. Although, I got a master's in psychology, I've been studying it and thinking about it quite a bit, and at the same time, starting to become much more radical in my political views during that the mid sixties and the psychological effects of living in poverty, but about 80% of them can be taken care of with money.
There was this whole thing about self-esteem. There was a thing about Head Start. I helped design all the Head Start programs in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and Prince George's, the ninth largest school system in the country. I helped design the Head Start program there. I can remember, I read enough of this stuff. I knew how to talk the lingo and I'd go in and say, "Well, we need to put mirrors up, so these little kids can see themselves." It's like this fairytale, looking in the lake and seeing yourself, or get Polaroid cameras, let the kids take pictures and all this is self-pictures and self-image. If you'll recall, the 1954 Brown vs Board decision came off of some psychological studies that had been done of black kids with their self-pictures, that they saw themselves as less worthwhile or something, than white kids and stuff like that.
That was supposed to be a big thing that got Justice Warren and three or four people, just swung them over. That was a big deal during that whole period. I'm afraid just lost. That's why I'm talking about, but there's this kind of psychological aspect of how we're damaging African Americans in particular, and poor kids in general. Their self-esteem is low. Their self-pictures were ambiguous and they had self-hatred. So Head Start was designed. Part of the whole thrust of Head Start, which was actually thought up by a Sargent Shriver's personal physician who lived in Fairfax County, where I was working. A really interesting guy. If he was still alive, I don't know. He would tell you the same thing I told him. It was the kind of thing that Liberals could understand and you could get the, "Oh. Those poor little kids. Let's help them have a better self-picture."
I thought Head Start was a wonderful program. It still is, but the good thing was physicals. They'd give the kids physicals. They make sure they could see all right. They give eye tests and ear tests and stuff like that and certainly, stimulation. I'm great believer in, if you want kids to be literate, you have to read to them and get them to love books and turn the damn TV off and stuff like that. All of those ideas were very sound educational ideas, but there was a major gap in the planning and implementation of those early childhood programs that still exist, of not putting the parents to work. If the parents could make a decent living and didn't have to work three jobs and could go to PTA meetings and take interest in their kids and stuff, it would make a big difference in how the kids did.
Just to sum up what I was just saying, that first couple of years, I was in seventh heaven driving around, going to these meetings, telling people I'll help you write these proposals. All you got to do is get organized, do this, do this, and we can get some money, and you can actually carry out some programs in your community, some job development programs, which what I still believe. The most important thing to fight poverty is good jobs. Neighborhood Youth Corps. Starting community newspapers. I started about eight community newspapers in the Washington area and Head Start and just leaning on Recreation Department, Welfare Departments, Health Departments, and the schools to become more sensitive in the way they treated poor people. Most programs, and it still is the case, are designed by middle class, white people. Most school programs are.
Well, I think I said last time, my black kids who all played football, didn't get home from school until nine o'clock at night, because there weren't any buses for them. That's still the case. It's the case today here in Orange County, North Carolina, where we're sitting. The schools will set up after school programs, assuming that parents will come and pick their kids up when they get done with them, eliminating a lot of kids whose parents either are working or don't have cars, and if they take part, then they have to walk home or something. Little insensitive things like that still exist today, and they can't understand why the parents don't love the schools and the kids don't love them. Anyway, that's kind of the first couple of years. The other thing I did during that, we did a Big Brother registration drive for LBJ, registered in Northern Virginia.
I helped organize that. I worked with Vernon Jordan who came up and we had a meeting with him and he had some money. I think he gave us like $10,000 to hire people and go out and do door to door and register people to vote. We probably put, well, I know in Gum Springs, the one area where we put 350 people on the rolls out of a thousand people that lived in this one hill community. That was the first time I had ever done anything like that. It was obvious, when you do electoral work, particularly voter registration, and you flex that muscle at the polls, the next year, we would start getting letters from politicians and stuff. What could we do for Gum Spring? We'd never had that before.
And we'd been raising hell. We'd been demonstrating. We shut down traffic on route one, one Saturday for three hours and doing all kinds of other things and nobody paid any attention. We'd been impressed, but nothing would happen and suddenly... That was a lesson that I never forgot. It's not an either or thing of direct action and electoral working, got to do both of them. In fact, we began when Ralph Showalter, who had hired me, semi-got a promotion to do something else within UPO. Then I took at least part of his job, which was the Director of the suburban programs from '65 to '66, and all these programs that we'd help get funded. I didn't direct them, because they were directed by the local groups, but I was the coordinator and tried to advocate for them wherever I could and stuff like that, and keep them going and keep some other things happening.
I was about 28 then. Great experience in terms of, we had about $10 million worth of programs going on that we were supposed to keep track of and everything. I learned a lot from that from a bureaucratic point of view. It took me a little bit out of just regular organizing, but I was able to hire ex-SNCC people who would come back to Washington. This is when I really started meeting Rap Brown and Stokely. Both of them are Howard guys. Charles McDo went to work for me directly, who was the first chair of SNCC. Charles Jones who had worked in Alabama and my secretary Charlene used to go with Charlie Sherrod. I began to get a little sense of this whole other world.
Marion Barry had come to Washington and had set up a SNCC office there in Washington, I think about 65. We ran out of my office, at least partly, the first boycott. He set up a boycott of the buses and we used a lot of the suburban workers to help that. He had a Free DC movement. We began a boycott of the downtown department stores to hire more black people and stuff. There were 12 co-op stores, grocery stores, in the suburbs and none downtown, and Marion and some other SNCC people, and I was one of the five people that ran for the board of this green belt cooperative. Our program was that we would shut down a couple of the suburban stores and build some right down the middle of the ghetto with cheaper things and people could own the stores and get consumer discounts and we would hire just black people and we'd have black things.
That was a fairly interesting little struggle that we did.
Did you win?
No, but we had a considerable effect. It was a real thing. It wasn't just a threat to do it. We ran. The problem was all of us who agreed to do it were just busy as hell doing other things. We loved the idea, but the Washington Star did an ax job on, this guy named LD Pratt that was a white guy that they said was kind of this Rasputin figure behind Marion Barry that had come up with all these schemes. It was semi-red-baiting that this guy was somehow corrupt and it was a mess. Sometimes somebody should do a history of that.
I want to back up a little bit. You told me last time, a little bit about access to the group that you were doing. You want to tell me a little bit about?
Yeah. Well, it might have already come across, but I always had this... I still do have this great fear of, I know that I can play this kind of liberal reformist game and I'm a good word merchant, I can write, I can talk and everything. So it's fairly easy for me to move into positions where I can... Well, George Bernard Shaw says "Those that can do and those that can't teach." I always think of that as fairly easy to move into a teaching role. It's like teaching law school as opposed to being out here and fighting for people. It's two different jobs. It didn't take too long, once I got into this poverty war bureaucracy to realize that there was a trick involved. I tried to give you some of the theoretical reasons.
The three legged stool and all these other things. We had this small army of people that were on the Poverty payroll. We had like 40 or 50 people that reported to me or whatever you want to call it from a bureaucratic point of view. There's always this tendency, particularly among poor people, which we tried to hire. There's mainly poor people that we hired. I think out of the 50 people, about 40 of them were poor black people that didn't have jobs before they went to work for us. We were trying to train them to be good organizers basically. But there's a tendency to become a bureaucrat, read the Washington post in the morning, and smoke a cigarette, and drink coffee, and every once in a while, talk on the phone and everything, and somehow that's going to do something about poverty.
So what was ACCESS?
Well, there are some friends of mine that I can't remember. I was involved in... I did help name it. I remember. I was at some of the early meetings, but all of us were concerned about the... Speaker 3: Can I interrupt a sec?
Yeah. Speaker 3: Sorry.
You got these early meetings.
Yeah. The problem was the, we call it the noose. There was the white suburban noose around the black inner city. Washington was about 70% to 80%. Black suburbs were about 85%. Well, if you took them all, they're probably 85%. Prince George's in Maryland was, well, now it's almost 50/50. Maybe predominantly black, but then it was probably 30% black and 70% white. It's the biggest of the suburban counties and actually has more people living in than DC does.
But the housing, particularly, on the Virginia side, the Potomac River was like the Mason Dixon line. You cross the [inaudible 00:30:00] here going into the south and literally, that was true if you go in the Civil War days and everything. It was a bigger psychological gap for black people to move over into Virginia than it would be to move up into Prince George's or Montgomery County. We had either on our staff or working very closely with every civil rights person in all of the suburbs. We helped initiate this group which we named ACCESS. Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in Suburbs. The aim of it was to tackle these big apartment developments that were all white, that literally would not rent to black people. There was no fair housing laws at that point.
We had a steering committee, which I was one of the leaders, and we had a newsletter that we put out. One of my good friends that worked with me for many years named Bill Hobbs and I, and Roy Maer. I'm trying to think of it. This guy named George and Heady. Can't think of their... Harris, George Harris and Heady Harris, and people that were Quakers and just really wonderful, wonderful people that kept pushing this and then core people. But it was a broader issue than just desegregating movies and stuff like that and voter registration. That's the thing, this was a fair housing movement has always attracted, I think, what do you call it? Communities of faith or spiritual people. People that just think there's something wrong with the fact that the segregated neighborhoods and everything.
You mentioned last time, a little bit about the sit-in at the Pentagon.
Yeah. Buckingham, which was a famous, beautiful little garden apartment in Arlington. In fact, I had lived in Buckingham one time when I just got out of Carolina. That was one of our targets. It had maybe 5,000 apartments or something, all white. There were two or three apartments in Maryland. We would have a picket line every Saturday. We had 300 or 400 people on a picket line. We had clan people come down. In my first, experience getting spit on and throwing shit at us and stuff like that. It was fairly heavy and we weren't making too much headway. Our demand was to meet with the owner and have them sign something and that their newspaper ads had to say equal access or whatever in the newspaper ad.That was the demand that we made of everybody. I don't think we had any... A couple of small apartments gave up when we wrote them a letter and told them we were going to picket. But we had a real rough time with some of the big ones. We did it for like a year.
Then James Meredith got shot in Mississippi. And the call went out to all civil rights leaders to drop everything and come to Mississippi and join Dr. King and Floyd McKissick and everybody in what's called March Against Fear. And this will be in '66. Charles Jones, who was this ex-SNCC guy who worked with us in our programs, was the chairperson of ACCESS. He calls us all together. It was a very important day. I owe a lot Charlie for this good leadership that he showed.
He said, "We should not go to Mississippi. That's a waste of our energy. We should rededicate ourselves to doing something here." So we agreed to do a March around the beltway, going counter, against the traffic as a march against fear. Every night we would stop at a church around the beltway and hold a big rally, which was similar to what Martin and people were doing in Mississippi. We'd have speakers talking about how racist suburbs were and all of this noose concept. We were really trying to popularize the noose.
Then about three quarters the way around, and when you do something like that, and we all did it. It's kind of a spiritual experience when you do something like that. Charlie comes up with this idea that we'll write a letter to McNamara who was the Secretary of Defense just as we were approaching Virginia. See, we started in Maryland, which is a little friendlier and then we were getting around to Virginia. We wanted to meet with him at the end of our March around the beltway.
Charlie announced that he and a delegation from ACCESS were going to go to Vietnam and talked with the troops. This was right about the same time. I don't think Dr. King had come out against the war yet, but SNCC people had. Julian Bond had been kicked out of his seat on the Georgia legislature and everything, because he came out against the war. Several good SNCC people had been arrested for draft resistance in '65 and '66. But anyway, Charlie said he was going to go to Vietnam. And to quote Muhammad Ali, who's now very popular, "This ain't my war. No Viet Cong ever segregated against me or ever discriminated against me" or something like that.
So Charlie did this kind of press conference. We wrote this letter to McNamara. I wasn't at the meeting, but Charlie and a couple of other ACCESS leaders went in and had a meeting. I don't think it was McNamara, but with some pretty high up guy and got them to make an announcement that all housing that was segregated was off limits to army personnel to all military personnel in the Washington area. That was in late '66 and everything opened up shortly after that, so that was good victory. It would've happened later, but I think we got that thing happen. A lot of people don't know the Fair Housing Act didn't pass until 1968 and it's still not enforced. Housing segregation is worse now it was in the sixties.
Were you pretty optimistic at this point? That's a big victory.
Yeah. Well there was... Speaker 3: I guess I should back up and say, did you have a concrete goal in mind? And did you think you were moving towards it?
I think that I was not thinking strategically. Then, my life was so intense. My love life, I had these three or four different women. I'd left Carole in '64 and went with three women during that period, '65, '66. I was basically living out of my apartment in Alexandria and then I finally moved in with this one woman. It was like living like a revolutionary basically. I couldn't say that I was a revolutionary at that point. I was just an organizer who was just working his ass off and trying to provide by example. This problem. I was saying that just because you were being paid by the Poverty War, doesn't mean you're fighting poverty. You have to get out there and go against the man and go against the system. That's what we were paying people to do. Basically, trying to push this oxymoron of a war on poverty funded by the government to its limit. We knew it wouldn't last that long. And the SNCC people would come up from Alabama or Mississippi. They thought it was the funniest thing they ever saw.
Like Margaret, who had just come back from Mississippi. I met Margaret during that same period during '66. I think there were two things that happened politically that had great influence on me during that period, to answer your question. One was called the Green Amendment. Edith Green, who was this liberal from Oregon, got this amendment passed on the refunding of the Economic Opportunity Act that said that the governors of each state, and I think also the county leadership, political leadership could have veto on any program that happened within their jurisdiction. This was in reaction to partly, at least to UPO and some of the stuff that we were doing in Virginia and Maryland. We couldn't even get a program in Montgomery County, which is where Sargent Shriver lived, which is the most bougie of the suburban county around Washington, because of the reputation. UPO was seen as a black agency basically, and was seen as a DC agency, although we tried to project it as a metropolitan agency.
Anyway, that compromise that Adam Clayton Powell and LBJ... LBJ, I think, by then had pulled away from any real commitment to the war on poverty by late '66. I think that Edith Green who was more liberal than LBJ basically puts this in. The only way that they could get it passed was as a soft, they threw to some conservative, halfway, decent people, but conservative people, saying, "We can't have these radicals coming in and stirring up the riff-raff without us having any control over it all." That's what they hated. That was happening nationally. If you've ever lived in DC where everybody reads the Washington Post first thing in the morning, and if you're at all politically attuned, you kind of can feel these shifts taking place.
That was happening and at the same time, the SNCC people who we were very close with Mark, was in SNCC. I was living with her by this time. I knew all these other SNCC people. They were basically saying white people should go work with white people, poor white people. And also, there was this, I want to be very careful how I put it, but the Black Liberation movement should be designed. The strategy and the implementation of the strategy should be by black people, on the grounds that there were not, which I agree with at the struggle for Black liberation. The strategic problem of the struggle for Black liberation in the United States, at least, is always one of trying to find reliable allies. Black people have never been able to find strategically reliable allies. They've always had tactically. Sometimes they've been able to have tactical allies that were good for a couple years on specific issues, but there's no other grouping that has any kind of political muscle in the United States that has exactly the same strategic needs as do to the Black masses.
That's a difficult conundrum as people of color, like more Hispanic people move here. There are almost as many Hispanics now as Black people. That's going to present an interesting political problem, because certainly some of those strategic needs are exactly the same, but some of them are totally different. It's a very difficult thing to develop reliable allies, just parenthetically. But my view is just consider myself Black and then I just do what I think. A Black person, I just don't worry about the allies. I just go on like that. I know we need to try to get allies, but I don't ever trust them in a strategic sense. I think of it like a Black person does on that issue.
But at any rate, those kinds of political analyses were taking place among, certainly, SNCC people who are Margaret's and my closest political comrade at that point. We agreed with that. Both of us did. That was in '66. That grew out of The March against fear. The same thing I was just talking about, the continuation of the Meredith March. That's when Stokley and Willie Ricks would stand behind Dr. King on TV every night and yell "Black power. Black power. Black power" and popularize that slogan within about two weeks. Of course, caused Martin and some of the other leadership, some difficulties there, about how to handle that. That's part of my book that I'm writing about. I think at that shift that was taking place, which had the FBI and government forces in general, aggravated and exacerbated the contradictions that existed coming off of that.
I do know that every night after the Dr. King and Floyd McKissick and Stokley and other NAACP leadership, other people who'd come to Mississippi to finish the March, would always repair back to Memphis and go to Jim Lawson's church in Memphis and stay up late at night. I've talked to Floyd McKissick about it. He was there and he'd say they'd sit there and argue this shit out, about these different lines that existed. If you assume that there was an FBI informant in that room, imagine the intelligence that you take away from that room. Everybody else is in the room arguing from their heart. Stokely and Willie and the SNCC people who wanted to move North, move into cities, were starting this Black Panther Party in Lowndes County and getting letters from Huey Newton and people out in the coast and saying, "Let's...
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