December 4, 2000
'War on Poverty,'
civil rights drives
By Stacia Brown
For Susan Ashmore, Friday afternoon is the perfect time for putting her historical curiosity to work.
For instance, after finishing a Friday lecture on American history to
her Oxford College students, Ashmore recently accepted a colleagues
offer to explore the Confederate memorial on the square in Covington.
I hadnt seen it yet, and I couldnt pass up an offer
to take a look, she said.
That irrepressible curiosity is just one reason why Ashmore, an assistant professor of history at Oxford, chooses untapped arenas in which to conduct research. Her 1999 dissertation, Carry It On: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, 19641970, tells the story of how rural counties stretching across the state from Tuskegee to the Mississippi state lineotherwise known as the Black Beltorganized to implement the new civil rights legislation through programs offered by then-President Lyndon Johnsons War on Poverty to better the lives of the farming communities.
And her chapter, More Than a Head Start: The War on Pov-erty, Catholic
Charities, and Civil Rights in Mobile, Alabama, 1965-1970, scheduled
for publication in 2001, retrieves a long-overlooked legacy of economic
and racial activism in Mobile during the years following the creation
of federal civil rights legislation.
Most civil rights histories stop with the Voting Rights Act,
Ashmore said. I wanted to look at how these new laws got implemented.
What happens after 1964 and 1965?
To this end, she found herself tracking the ways in which the War on
Poverty affected racial dynamics in the rural and urban South. As part
of his reforms, Johnson created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO),
the first federal agency formed after the Civil Rights Act.
The office had as its mandate not only the reduction of economic distress
but also the enforcement of civil rights legislation. Such a task proved
particularly daunting in the South of the mid-1960s.
In the Black Belt, white farmers who received subsidies from the
Department of Agriculture did not want black sharecroppers to have a part
in these federal programs, Ashmore said. During elections
for the local Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service ballots
were stolen. The situation grew very tense.
As a result, the OEO assisted many sharecropping communities in creating
a 10-county farming cooperative in order to train African American farmers
how to grow crops other than cotton, while at the same time giving them
a voice in local and state elections.
The anti-poverty agency also turned its attention to urban poverty, with
administrators creating programs such as Head Start to address economic
and racial discrimination among children.
Her research led her to former Catholic priest Tom Nunan, an Irishman
who found himself at the forefront of the push for racial and economic
justice in Alabama.
Ashmore began her research by investigating the OEOs papers at
the National Archives. There she discovered pertinent memorandums that
led her across Alabama in search of further information. She also examined
the records of George Wallaces tenure as governor, the papers of
the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Municipal Archives
in Mobile, and minutes of meetings held by the Non-Partisan Voters League.
And thanks to the OEOs efforts to enforce civil rights laws, Ashmore
also had a wealth of information left by the offices inspectors.
They had an inspection division that would send inspectors down
to Alabama to make sure things were being done in the way the local officials
were reporting, she said. These inspectors would file these
incredibly long, detailed reports, and I could take their documentation
and pursue leads from there.
Ashmore is grateful to have found the historical riches of Mobile and
the Black Belt. Quite simply, I chose this topic because I went
to Auburn University. I was right there where all these things had taken
place, Ashmore said.
She admits her curiosity occasionally felt guided by something greater than intellectual intuition. At times I felt like I was not in control of where the research was taking me, she said. Sometimes it seemed as if something larger than myself wanted this story to be told. So I tried to pay attention to that and follow where it led.