Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail

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Have the poor fared best by participating in convention. II elec toral polities or by engaging in mass defiance ami disruption? The authors of the classic Regulating 1 h\" £oor assess the successes and failures of these l wo strategies as they examine, in this provocative study, foUl protest movements of lower·class groups in 20th century America: mobilization of the unemployed duro ing the Great Depression that gave rise to the IM:lrkers' Alliance of America

• The

industrial strikes that resulted in the formation of the CIO

• The

• The

Southern Civil Rights Movement

• The

movement of welfare recipients led by the National Welfare Rights Organization.

"... enormously instructive." -E.J. Hobsbawm, New York Review of Books


"This beautifully written book is the most exciting and important political study in years."

-So M. Miller,

Department of Sociology, Boston Universily. "Of the first importance; it is bound to have a wide and various influence; and it is disturbing." -Jack Beatty, The Nation


11 1 11111 1111 ISBN





Gratdul acknowl�dgment is m ade to th e following for permi�lion to reprint pre v iou51y pnblished material: The Antioch Press: Excerpts from "Kennedy ill Hi,tory: An Early Appraisal" by Willi�m G, Carleton. Copyright ® 1964 by the Antioch Pre,s. FiBt publj�hed in The Anlioch RMJi�w, vol. 24, no. 3. Reprinted by per mission of the edito". Debcorte Press: Excerpted verse from Toil and Trouble b')' Thoma. R. Broo ks. Copy ri gh t © 1964 b')' Thomas R. Brooks. Reprinted hy permission of Delacorte Press. Forwn�: Quotation from Fortun�, Fall 1931. Gr 1979] S22,4'4'0973 78·54652 ISBN 0·394·72697-9 Manufactured in th� United StRtes of America



We would like to thank Bert DeLeeuw, Murray Edelman, Mark Naison, Bill Pastreich, and Howard Zinn for reading and commenting on this manuscript at various stages in


preparation. And our particular thanks to S. M. Miller, who both encouraged us to write this book and introduced us to George Wiley.




Chapter I

The Structuring of Protest

Chapter 2

The Unemployed Workers' Movement


The Industrial Workers' Movement

Chapter 4

The Civil Rights Movement

Chapter 5

The Welfare Rights Movement





1 41




Introduction to the Paperback Edition In the reviews thal appeared during the interval between the publica­ tion of the hardcuver and the paperback editions of Poor People's Movements. a number oj crilics took. issue with .some of the 'Otlelu­ sions we uached. In thi.s brief intToduction to the paperback edition, we take the opportunity of continuing the debate.! Perhaps the singular contribution of the intellectual tradition of tbe left, as it has developed since the nineteenth century. has been to bring working-class people fully into history, not simply as victims but as actors. The left bas understOod that working-class people are a his­ torical force and could become a greater historical force. And the left

has understood that the distinctive form in which that force express� itself is the mass movement. ]0 theory, the left has also understood that working-class movements are not forged merely by willing or thinking or arguing them into existence. Proletarian movements, Marx said, are fonned by a dialecti­ cal process reflecting the institutional logic of capitalist ar rangements. The proletariat is a creature, not of communist intellectuals, hut of capital and the conditions of capitalist production, a point emphasized in the Communist Manifesto: In proportion as the bourgeoisie. i.e., capital. is develo�d. in the

same proportion is the proletariat. the modem working class, de­ veloped ... [and) ... not only increases in number; its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. Of all the classes that stand face to . . .

1 The following reviews are referred to in the text: Jack lkatty, The Nation, October 8, 1977; J. Banan lkrnmin, The Chronitle of HigheT Education, MaHh 27. 1978; Carol Brightman. Seven Days, Janmu:y 1978; Michael. Harrington. The New York Times Boo.l: Rel/iew, December II. 1977; E. J. Hobsbawm. The Neill York Revielll 01 Books, March 2S. . 1978; and Paul Swr. Working Papers, MarchIApril 1978.



(ace with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a real1y revo­ lutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special amI essemial product.



proletariat. Or they have mobilized around the wrong organizational and political strategies. The movements oE the people disapJXlint the doctrine, and so the movements are dismissed. In writing this book, we tried to set aside doctrines in order to

Of course, historical developments frustrated Marx's prediction: ex­

examine some of the ways in which the specific features of American

paneling capitalist production did not create a revolutionary pro·

social structure have shaped working·class movements. We were con­ cerned to identify the institutional conditions which sometimes make

letariat. Still, the basic mode of dialectical analysis underlying the failed

mass movements possible, the institutional conditions which deter­

prediction-the idea that the struggles of ordinary people are both

mine the forms taken by mass movements, and the institutional

formed. hy and directed against institutional arrangements-is correct.

conditions which determine the responses of elites. We were led to

The prediction failed because Marx did not anticipate the sped6c in­

these concerns by what we tbought were the inadequacies of existing

stitutional pauerns which evolved under modem capitalism, nor did

wayso£ thinking about movements. Obviously, protest movements are

he antidpate the particular forms of struggle which would be gen­

discredited in the dominant pluralistic tradition on the ground that

erated in reaction to them. These institutional arrangements inhibited

there is ample opportunity [or the working class to pursue its interests

the emergence of a unified and revolutionary working class: the spread

through democratic institutional channels. More to our point, many

of imperialism helped to produce the surpluses that would raise work­

on the left also discredit these movements because they fail to conform

ing-class material standards in the mother countries; the balkanization

to doctrinal prescriptions regarding constituencies, strategies, and

of modern industry helped to fractionalize the working class; new

demands. But this sort of complaint typically ignores the historically

institutions such as public education helped to ensure capitalistic

specific circumstances in which social movements emerge and in which

ideological hegemony. In turn, these institutional arrangements

constituencies, strategies, and demands are formed.

shaped the character of working-class resistance. Contemporary work­ ing-c1ass struggles are fragmented where the left wishes for unity, and working-class demands are reformist where the left prescribes a radica1 agenda. But the intellectual left has failed to confront these developmenu

We are prompted to make these opening comments because so much of the early respon� to this book has been dominated by a reiteration of doctrinal injunctions. In effect, a number of critics undertook to review the movements we study, rather than our analyses, and they are displeased. The movements fell short of the doctrine (and so, there­

fully, at least in its posture toward movements in industrial societies.2

fore, do we, for we are frankly sympathetic with struggles that were,

It has failed to understand that the main features of contemporary

in one respect or another, disappointing to th� critics) . Some critics

popular struggles are both a reflection of an institutionally determined

were dissatisfied, for example, with the various expressions of the

logic and a challenge to that logic. It has clung instead to the specific

post-World War II black movement: with the civil rights struggle in

nineteenth-century content of the dialectic, and by doing so, has

the South, or the riots in the North, or the surging demand for public

forfeited dialectical analysis. Insofar as contemporary movements in

welfare benefits that produced a welfare explosion in the 1960s. The

industrial societies do not take the forms predicted by an analysis of

black movement is blamed for worsening divisions in the working

nineteenth-century capitalism, the left has not tried to understand

class, for producing a popular back.lash, and for failing to win Jarger

these movemenu, but rather has tended simply to disapprove of them.

gains, such as full employment (or even a new social order) .

The wrong people have mobilized, for they are not truly the industrial

But popular insurgency does not proceed by someone else's rules or hopes; it has iu own logic and direction. It flows from historically

2 By COntrast, Idt·wing analyses of peasant movements are oriented precisely toward

underuanding the influence of specific societal arrangements on those movement&, with a mU5ure of insight that perh:on-nurtur«! the «paclIy for collective action.

Poor People's Movements


The Civil Rights Movement

have their sense of worth affinned. At the same time and in many

could act with considerable immunity from white sanctions and his

of the same ghettos "Negroes showed a new disposition to fight and

union afforded financial resources and organizing talent. Acting as

derend themselves" against the white mobs that terrorized blacks

couriers and organizers in the northeastern and midwestern cities

in several dozen American cities as the war ended (Woodward,


where they stopped over, his trainmen instigated rallies and marches

I14). Cast in the role of scabs. blacks repeatedly fought white workers

to pressure Roosevelt into issuing an executive order establishing a

for the right to work. During the depression they confronted the police in eviction actions and joined in the struggles of the unem­ ployed against the relief system. In the great uprisings that led to the

access to wartime defense employment. The black press, too, was of

Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to insure blacks critical importance, for it almost uniformly supported Randolph and

Congress of Industrial Organizations, they united with white workers

continually featured the movement's activities. With this mobiliza­

in strikes against those mass production industries where they had

tion under way, greater solidarity across class lines was forged:

gotten an occupational foothold. They combined during World War lJ to challenge Roosevelt's wartime government with a mass "March on Washington Movement" to protest discrimination in war industry and segregation in the armed forces. In the southern military camps and surrounding communities they engaged in anned combat against whites who attacked them. In other words, once they were free to do so, blacks acted "beyond the limits of institutionalized politics" to protest their condition (Michael Lewis,


[Middle-class black leaders] were unable to withstand the militant mood of Ihe fruSlrated group they sought to lead. However reluc­ tandy. the organizing of masses of Negroes (by Randolph] to engage in a national direct·action demonstration came to be widely agreed upon as a necessary action. It was viewed as a last resort, a dramatic gesture to force the white majority to take notice of the dire distress of its Negro brothers (Garfinkel, 42).

Concentration and separation also generated a black economic

In these ways economic modernization, coupled with separation and

base, despite the poverty of most of the black urban wage workers

concentration, both freed blacks from feudal constraints and enabled

who contributed to that base. One significant result was the gradual emergence of a black occupational sector which was relatively in.

them to construct the occupational and institutional foundation from which to mount resistance to white oppression.

vulnerable to white power. a sector consisting of clergymen, small entrepreneurs, professionals, and labor leaders. In an earlier period,

of the urban social order were not only loosened from racial con­

Urbanization had another important effect: blacks at the bottom

and particularly in southern rural society, very few-if any-blacks

trols, they were loosened from social controls more generally.

were located in these occupations, and those few were usually de.

Social disorganization usually accompanies rapid agricultural mod­

pendent on whites. The emergence of an independent leadership sector was accompanied by institutional expansion and diversifica­

ernization and the result of southern modernization was no different.

tion, and by greater institutional independence of the white com­

In the rural South people may have lived close to the margin of subsistence, but they were nevertheless enmeshed in an economic

munity. This development, too, was made possible by the economic base which resulted from concentration and segregation. Churches

The fundamental cause was unemployment and underemployment.

system; they were also deeply enmeshed in a semifeudal system of

acquired mass memberships. fraternal and other communal associa.

social relations. BUI with modernization, unemployment spread,

tions proliferated, small businesses could be sustained, segregated

driving people into the cities where unemployment and under·

union locals were fanned, and a black press could be nourished.

employment became a more or less chronic condition for many.14

These institutions provided the vehicles to forge solidarity, to define common goals, and to mobilize collective action. In the evolving history of black protest these developing occupa. tional and institutional resources were of crucial importance. The March on Washington Movement instigated by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, is an outstand. ing example. Head of a segregated international union, Randolph

14 When black, were Iot:ated in agriculture, their unemployment rate. were lower than white ntcs. With mign.tion, this relationship was reversed. ··By the late 1940s the black unemployment rate WM about 60 percent higher than the white rillc and !ince 1954. it has heen double the white rate, which itself has risen " (Killingsworth, 50). MOTcover theu: i• •ubuantlal lea� to think that a good deal of bbcl< unemplOYl)1ent is "hidden" -undetected bcnuse of biases in official reporting procedures. Some aUlhoritie$ believe that black. generally luffered a rate of unemployment three times that of whites In the

Poor People's Movements


]n tum, persistent unemployment shredded the social fabric. The impact could be sensed in the gradually rising proportion of families headed by females, for men without work were unable to form and sustain families. As for the men themselves, unemployment deprived them of the meaning of work and removed them iTom the discipline of work. In this way agricultural modernization created a depressed and deregulated class and thus a potentially volatile class from whose ranks civil disorder could erupt. One form that dis· order took was rioting: a major riot broke out in Harlem as early as 1935 and again during World War II. As the numbers of blacks in the cities grew, their protests began to produce concessions from political leaders. Each concession, how­ ever rhetorical, conferred legitimacy on the goals of the struggle and gave reason for hope that the goals could be reached, with the result that protest was stimulated all the more. The concessions were yielded by northern political leaders. especially in the Democratic Party and in the federal judiciary. The Great Depression probably marked the beginnings of this new posture by political leaders. Al­ though Roosevelt did all that he could to avoid the civil rights issue directly for fear of antagonizing the South, he gave blacks "a sense of nadonal recognition. He did so more in terms of their interests in economic and social injustice than of their title to equal rights. Yet he threw open the gates of hope" (Schlesinger. 935). But the number of blacks in the North was mounting and protest was intensifying. By World War II racial concessions had to be made. Despite his uneasiness over how an FEPC would affect defense industries in the South, and the possibility of alienating the southern congressional delegation, Roosevelt was ronfronted by the prospect of a march on Washington that would cause considerable national and international embarrassment to a country identified with the struggle for "freedom abroad." With the scheduled march only days away, he conceded and signed an executive order establishing an FEPC on June 25, 1941. In the presidential campaign of 1948 the issue of granting blacks basic rights emerged directly and forcefully, thrusting the issue of race to the very center of national politics. With both Truman and

')lean following the Korean War (Killingllworth. 62; ROM. 22 and 26). With "'hite rates rcgub.rly reaching percent during that receuionary period. it could well have b«n the U$e that true black unemployment rates were running as high as 20 percent. In the cemnl city ght'ltos the r.UCI were evw higher. Additional data on black unemployment will be presented in chaptCT




The Civil Rights Movement

Wallace aligned against segregation and discrimination and with southern leaders aligned to defend the caste system, the rhetoric of race became more inflamed than during any period since the Civil War. Other segments of the national political leadership stratum also responded in this period. This was nowhere better exemplified than in the opinions of the U. S. Supreme CourL After 1940 the Court upheld the rights of blacks to eat in unsegregated dining cars on interstate carriers, to register and vote in southern white primaries, and to enroll in publicly supported institutions of higher educa­ tion. This assault on racism through the courts had been many years in the making by the NAACP, and in a growing climate of black protest the courts granted concessions. By the early 19505: The legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had developed a nearly oompleted brief against the principle of separate but equal, plus a staff of lawyers with the skill and acumen to plead their case. In the Sipuel, Sweatt and McLaurin cases during the first five years after the end of the war, they had persuaded the Supreme Court to narrow the definition of equality, so that there remained only the bare principle that segregation was ooDstitutional only if there were real equality. Now the NAACP was ready to attack that principle (Killian. 39). The culmination of this judicial repudiation of southern racism came in 1954 with the striking down of the "separate but equal" doctrine in public education. It was a sweeping victory, one that was destined to unleash the forces of reaction throughout the South, giving rise to campaigns of massive resistance against federal power by the political leaders of the southern states. But it had equally large consequences in the black community; the highest court in the land had been compeIled to yield the struggle against racism a new and large measure of legitimacy.a

15 The National AwxIatloa for the Advancement of Colored People and the


Urban League were developed. before World War I by black Intell«tuals ami profes­ ,iOllais. libera1 whites. and corporate leaden. Their emergellCe represented a form of institutional and leadership development In the biack community. although "neither organization has ever had anything approaching a mallS connituency among the :r>:egroes themselvel. In spite of their ligni6cant contribution$ to the Negro's welfare . . . neither organization ha� ever fired the loyalties of the Jank and 61e. Court lest.!, behind·the·Kents negotiatiom. and �ucatlonal effort.! are not the kinds of activities which evoke passionate commitments from th� who l ive their li� out!olde of the m iddle-clas come'ltt. F()I' the Negro ma$$el, mac org:on.w.tions have represented a

Poor People·s Movements


The concessions forced from northern leaders by northern black.