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December 4, 2000

'War on Poverty,' civil rights drives
Ashmore's research

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 colleague’s offer to explore the Confederate memorial on the square in Covington. “I hadn’t seen it yet, and I couldn’t 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, 1964–1970, tells the story of how rural counties stretching across the state from Tuskegee to the Mississippi state line—otherwise known as the “Black Belt”—organized to implement the new civil rights legislation through programs offered by then-President Lyndon Johnson’s “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.
Administrators and federal program coordinators weren’t the only ones pushing Southern counties to follow through with civil rights laws. Ashmore’s chapter also examines the crucial role played by the Catholic church in implementing change. “Not enough has been said about the effect of Vatican II in terms of the South,” Ashmore said.

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 OEO’s 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 Wallace’s 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 OEO’s efforts to enforce civil rights laws, Ashmore also had a wealth of information left by the office’s 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.”


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