By Randolph D. Brandt
“Poverty pimps,” we called them back then, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when they showed up at local government hearings to speak for better housing, the rights of migrant laborers, the plight of the poor.
There seemed to be something a little shady about them. They were, after all, getting paid to do their community organizing – rather than merely acting from the goodness of their hearts - most often backed up by another generation of government alphabet soup agencies – OEO, HUD, HEW.
Locally, all this money was filtering down from somewhere, distributed through local housing authorities, community development block grants, legal aid money from the state and the feds and the like.
In New Jersey, where I come from, they had such names as the Farm Workers’ Project and the Southwest Citizens Organization for Poverty Elimination, known then in the popular parlance of those acronym-addicted times as SCOPE.
As a young newspaper reporter, I was used to collecting the quotes of locally powerful, the mayor, and councilmen, maybe the congressman when he was back in town.
But how were we to treat these other new ex-officio intruders, community organizers, who claimed a somewhat public purpose and though unelected, hinted at a growing constituency?
After all, they didn’t have any real responsibilities, you know, like a mayor or somebody.
Still, they were good copy, so little by little, we allowed them into the local newspaper, back then the undisputed arbiter of who and what was important.
I think back to a long-ago conversation over coffee with one such “poverty pimp,” then a paralegal for a farm workers rights project targeting conditions in the myriad of migrant labor camps of southern New Jersey.
Back then, Doug Jones helped face down farmers armed with shotguns until they ultimately lost their court case, permitting these new anti-poverty workers access to the camps.
Despite his Anglo name, Doug was an Hispanic who popped up often in community organizing circles in my native Vineland, N. J., and surrounding Cumberland County. Indeed, nearly 40 years later, he’s still fighting the good fight, publishing an alternative newspaper and helping troubled military veterans find their way back into society.
Decade ago, though, I couldn’t quite see the practicality of the social goals he and others espoused, and I frankly told him so that night over coffee. The power structure was too firmly entrenched. They’d never share with come-uppity folks from the neighborhood whose organizing skills were so immature, no matter how many high-falutin acronyms they made up.
That’s when Doug told me that wasn’t entirely the point, at least not right away. Sure, there would be defeats. Nobody expected to win on that particular day, or tomorrow, or next week, or even next year, for that matter, perhaps not even in the next decade or so.
It was the personal experience that mattered most. People shut out from most meaningful roles in politics or power were being given the chance, frequently for the first time, to serve on housing authority boards, community block grant advisory committees, community-based organizations for this and for that – all the while learning the leadership skills to manage the kind of politics and bureaucracies that for so many years had been largely closed off to them.
Ultimately, Doug said, they’d gain the experience to become the actual politicos, the council members, the mayors, the county supervisors, the state senators, the congressmen and, yes, even the presidents that the country would need in the years ahead.
The fount for all this, he said, was the vision of President Lyndon Johnson, whose programs were interwoven with the idea that community-based solutions could best be realized through up-and-coming neighborhood leaders who otherwise were shut out from the normal eddies of politics as usual.
The alphabet soup of community organizations founded and funded through Johnson’s Great Society programs planted that seed.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see the vision as true. Fast-forward to 1985, when a young black college graduate first learned about public policy as a community organizer in Chicago for yet another of those acronym-laced poverty-fighting agencies, the Developing Communities Project, or DCP.
That one-time community organizer, Barack Obama, is now president of the United States.
In the popular mind, Obama has been closely associated with the giants who’ve come before – most often pictured in political cartoons or on T-shirts with the ghostly pantheon of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and, particularly, Abraham Lincoln.
But there’s another giant upon whose shoulders he stands, and perhaps that giant, too, deserves to be remembered in all of this.
I suspect LBJ would have both anticipated and appreciated the prospect of this particular successor to the presidency.
Johnson’s ideal, as expressed by his biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, was an America in which every person shares in the progress and responsibilities of the country, no matter what their background.
It’s an ideal, resonated by and through Barack Obama, which finally has come to pass.
(Randolph D. Brandt is a retired newspaper editor living in Racine, Wis.)