Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, America continues the battle, with 48.8 million people stuck below the poverty line as Congress argues about how much to cut food stamps and stops unemployment checks to millions of the long-term unemployed.
Need and poverty continue to be familiar to many.
“We must now fight to make poverty illegal,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in an interview with The Blade last week. “The reason why you have such a radical gap between wealth and poverty [is] we stepped away from the war on poverty and extended the subsidy to the wealthy.”
To fight poverty today, Mr. Jackson said in the telephone interview, President Obama “needs to address income and equality. If you enforce the law of compliance and affirmative action, you’ll have a fairer distribution of resources and contracts. The government itself must enforce its own law of a fair distribution.”
The Rev. Robert Culp, pastor of Toledo’s First Church of God, one of the largest African-American congregations in the city, said that 50 years ago the fight against poverty and racism was a fight against the system.
“The laws of the land permitted, allowed, almost encouraged racism and the kinds of discrimination and prejudice that happened,” he said. “The real progress of these last 50 years has been primarily changing the law.”
Mr. Jackson agreed: “The key to change is the law. After all, slavery was legal. Jim Crow was legal. Denying people the right to vote was legal. We had to fight to change the laws.”
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Mr. Jackson’s work toward economic justice dates from the inception of the war on poverty. An ordained Baptist minister, he is a civil rights elder — one of those closest to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., from 1965 until his assassination in 1968. Dr. King gave a speech in August, 1963, on poverty, and then President Johnson declared war on poverty in his January, 1964, State of the Union address.
The war on poverty “opens in Athens, Ohio, in Appalachia,” with President Johnson speaking there, Mr. Jackson said. That helped to “remove white-based fear. He deracialized the debate,” Mr. Jackson told The Blade, pointing out that President Johnson’s “next speech was affirmative action, to include women and people of color.”
More to do
Pastor Culp said there is more the African-American community can do.
“We as African-Americans have to realize that there are areas of responsibility that are ours. ... Learning lessons from King, from [Nelson] Mandela that we cannot afford the anger of yesterday, we have to have a new resolve,” Pastor Culp said. “In other words, it’s no longer effective to get your anger to protest. Now is the opportunity to prepare ourselves for all of those arenas: education, economic issues, all of those opportunities that were there.”
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Mr. Culp will speak on the topic at 2 p.m. Feb. 22 at the McMaster Center in the Main Library, 325 Michigan St., as part of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library’s Raising Awareness Black History Month celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He is the co-chairman of the Toledo Community Coalition, which, along with The Blade, is sponsoring the “Changing Minds & Changing Lives: Combating Racism” community forums.
“Equal educational opportunity and equal adequate economic opportunity are important,” Mr. Jackson said. Even today, “people feel a sense of desperation, with the scapegoats and people manipulated by fear. Many whites fear if you have affirmative action, your jobs will go from men to women, from white to black.
“Our jobs did not go from male to female, they went from here to yonder. [It’s] because of cheap labor, it comes back to cheap labor abroad. There are products made in those markets and sold back here. The truth is, the largest employer was General Motors. Now it’s Walmart. The shrinking does not come from racial injustice and inequality; it comes from economic forces.”
“I certainly agree that it’s economic,” said Sister Virginia Welsh, director of the Padua Center in Toledo, which, among its activities, works with children in trouble “so they have other options, to keep them in school, keep them educated so they can get a job.”
“There is institutionalized racism,” she said, racism that keeps people of color in poverty. “They can’t get jobs. Education in the center city schools is below par and the kids are not going to get a job, and that keeps them in the cycle of poverty.”
Role of racism
Injustice and inequality are present in racism today, Mr. Jackson said. And, he said “there’s no doubt” that sentiment against President Obama in the country and in the Republican Party is based in racism.
“Some of it is not even subtle, challenging his character, challenging his religion, challenging his birthplace, the attempt to make him marginal, the attempt to deny him legitimacy — ‘You’re not one of us.’ — Of course, it is fueled by race. Look at the states most fervent against him; they were against the civil rights law,” he said.
There is great irony, Mr. Jackson said, in the race-oriented objectors who, he said, “are beneficiaries of the civil rights law. Without the law, you wouldn’t have the New South, high-tech industry [there]. Without the civil rights law, you wouldn’t have the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons. You wouldn't have had the Olympics in Atlanta.”
“The whole South changed because of success in removing barriers of fear,” Mr. Jackson said. “Now people are living out the new law, and their worst fears were never realized.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed the law and society, Mr. Jackson told The Blade, crediting President Johnson for leading the legislative effort.
“One must not dismiss Lyndon Johnson. If Dr. King only had the dream, minus the new law, it would have become like vapor, like the wind. Lyndon Johnson fulfilled the dream with the new law,” he said. “His intervention changed the application of racist law.
“We couldn’t rent a hotel room in the Holiday Inn; we couldn’t enter Howard Johnson through the front door,” Mr. Jackson said. “It took us nine years to get to a civil rights law, driven by Lyndon Johnson. King raised the issue of righteous indignation, and Lyndon Johnson brought forth the legislation to match the indignation.”
The battle ahead
Fifty years after the expression of Dr. King’s dream of an equal America, “the real battle presently to me is moral and spiritual,” Pastor Culp said.
“The majority do not realize that racism is in the very fabric of America, and no matter how hard we scrub it, the stain may not be removed — it’s another generation or two ahead of us,” Pastor Culp said. “We’re beginning to really see the source of our American dilemma. We've been treating the symptoms. The real deal is racism.”
The Toledo spiritual leader said the issues of race and poverty come down to the nature of man. “He’s got to feel equal or superior to his fellow man, and you cannot deal with that on a legal basis. It has to become the will of man that has to be impacted and changed.”