Invisible No More: Civil Rights Era Influence on Social Reform
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, you understand, because people refuse to see me… When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, anything and everything except for me.
In this passage from Prologue of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, he explores social issues facing Black Americans of that same era and hones in on the futility of the minority class in this country. They remain largely unseen, uncared for, unworthy of attention from their own community members, let alone the government. The frustration and building desperation to be valued for their humanity leads members of the minority groups, especially Black Americans, to push through the barrier and demand to be seen, heard, and valued by their hometowns, their states, and the country at-large.
The next few pages will explore what it meant when that frustration came to a head and the Civil Rights Era blossomed. The 1960’s and 1970’s were ripe with social reform because the minority class not only found its voice to ask for change but the government took action to listen and answer the call.
Social, economic, and political factors
The first half of the 20th century in the United States could be referred to as stalwart. Its people are historically thought of as hard-working, reliable, and ready to achieve the “American Dream” for which so many had emigrated to this country. Even during eras of struggle, such as The Great Depression, there is still a sense of stick-to-it-tiveness about citizens from that time. Somehow, some way, everything was going to work out. But as the scale tipped past that mid-century mark, the feeling that more significant change was in order started to build, especially in regard to minority cultures. At this point in US history, the most visible oppressed group, in my estimation, was the African-American community.
An embarrassing blight on our nation’s history, African-Americans were largely brought against their will to the United States to be sold as slaves and work in Southern plantations. Even after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation released them from their shackles, there was little support from either public or private organizations to support Black Americans as they transitioned to their lives as free people. Even one hundred years later, vicious consequences befell this population simply because of the color of their skin. As Ellison so painfully and eloquently wrote, African-Americans were invisible to anyone and everyone who might be in a position to empower their social status even if only by recognizing them as human beings who should be afforded the same rights as any citizen. Their needs -- and also their abuses -- were ignored, shooed away, earmarked as an indistinguishable “somebody else’s” problem.
In the first half of the 20th century, the community who largely answered the call of whose problem it was turned out to be the African-American community itself. But as growing resistance from white-run organizations (it may be fair to include local, state, and federal government in that bucket) and growing discrimination against Black Americans only ever seemed to grow more pungent, it was time for the movement to grow. It was time for Civil Rights not to be ignored or pushed off for later. It was an issue to be addressed now.
1961 saw the arrival of John F. Kennedy Jr. in the Oval Office and with him came a sense social change was afoot. His predecessor, Dwight D. Eisnhower, served two presidential terms with a heavy conservative lean. The electorate choosing a new leader in the more liberal party to fill Eisnhower’s shoes exemplified a societal shift in expectations. Civil Rights leaders like Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. drew even greater attention to the need for government to play a bigger role in supporting minority and underprivileged or impoverished groups by organizing both the African-American community as well as allies of that community to stand up against discrimination, violence, and the blind-eye perpetually being turned toward them. Katz (1996) states that as a consequence, “outrage aroused by the rediscovery of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition in the early 1960’s spurred the improvement and extension of social welfare to relieve...suffering” (p. 260), adding that “the civil rights movement transformed the historic link between race, poverty, and opportunity into a national disgrace” (p. 261). Finally, the time for true action had arrived.
Civil Rights policy that re-shaped a nation
After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, his second in command, Lyndon Baines Johnson, took the reins of the country. An often under-appreciated truth about LBJ is his depth of commitment to the Civil Rights movement as well as his desire for social change for the betterment of minority cultures. He used the phrase “War on Poverty” during his inaugural speech in 1964 after his official election as president, though Katz (1996) notes that the “comprehensive assault on poverty… [was] formulated by John F. Kennedy,” adding that these measures “did not end racism and discrimination, eliminate the causes of poverty, transcend the split between social insurance and public assistance, solve the intractable problems of work relief, or erase the stigma of welfare” (p. 262). What they did, instead, was reduce these social factors while also increasing social awareness and participation (Katz, 1996, p. 263). Anti-poverty measures had goals to “promote opportunities, stimulate community action, introduce new services, and expand transfer payments” (Katz, 1996, p. 266), such as welfare. Additionally under his watch, the 1964 Civil Rights Act “codified protection of racial minorities by requiring the desegregation of public spaces and prohibiting discriminatory hiring practices” (Segal, 2016, p. 42). Unfortunately for LBJ and the War on Poverty, its success or social traction was irrevocably muted by another war: the one overseas in Vietnam (Katz, 1996, p. 266). If anything, the Vietnam War flared social tensions even higher as soldiers -- and citizens -- of all backgrounds went from feeling a patriotic call to action to an escalating refusal to accept the United States’ involvement in a conflict that felt outside of the good of the nation. Black Americans, especially, felt victimized by the reality that they were bodies deemed sufficient to die overseas for their country but not significant enough to be cared for by their government while living on home soil.
That said, the domestic efforts towards social change were still trying to persevere. On the frontlines at home, the 1966 National Welfare Right Organization (NWRO) became the “most visible grass-roots anti-poverty campaign” and brought together a coalition of a wide variety of community members, ranging from social scientists, lawyers, intellectuals, and more, to stand as the “first national protest of poor women in America” and play a major role in “reshaping the Food Stamps Program, in expanding… health programs… and in securing other policies that added to the basic resources of poor families” (Katz, 1996, p. 262). Meanwhile, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), established in 1964 under the guidelines put in place by the Economic Opportunity Act (Segal, 2016, p. 42), worked with a model that a “successful anti-poverty plan must be a program in which projects are carried out not for the community but by the community” (Katz, 1996, p. 267) with the hopes that disenfranchised populations could be participants in their social restitution. Spending on social security was prioritized as well during this era, making the eldery the “biggest winners” (Katz, 1996, p. 276) as their retirement years were better protected by this increased governmental commitment. The Community Action program “worked towards the elimination of poverty” while the Food Stamps Program “addressed the growing need to alleviate hunger” and Headstart “provided services to poor preschool children and their families” (Segal, 2016, p. 43). All of these services -- and more -- are a direct result of the social reform demanded by the public during the Civil Rights Era. As Katz (1996) so eloquently summarizes,
The great expansion of government social spending between the early 1960’s and the mid-1970’s had a major impact in five areas. First, it vastly increased the proportion of the most disadvantaged Americans assisted by the government… Second, it mobilized the power of the federal government behind the civil rights movement and...helped reduce discrimination and increase accessibility of jobs to minorities. Third, OEO’s emphasis on community action nourished and intensified the growing citizens’ movement...that launched a new generation of leaders… Fourth, it altered the relations between citizens and state by making the federal government the most important source of income for a large fraction of the population… Fifth, all of the above point...in...one direction: the federal government has the resources and the administrative capacity with which to stimulate and sustain progressive social change (pp. 280-281).
Civil Rights Today
Struggles still persist for minority cultures here in 2019. The hope drawn from the Civil Rights Era is the proven impact of grass-roots movements to bolster oppressed factions of our country. Improvement in social relations between both dominant/non-dominant communities and the government that should intend to serve them both equally is evidenced from this time period and is a beacon to light the way as every citizen works towards his or her version of The American Dream. For many, that may be to declare themselves, finally, invisible no more.
Ellison, Ralph (2019). Prologue. Invisible Man. Kindle version. Amazon Digital Services, LLC.
Katz, M. B. (1996). The War on Poverty and the Expansion of Social Welfare.
In the Shadow of the Poorhouse (pp. 259-282). New York: Basics Books.
Segal, E. A. (2016). Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America. Social Welfare and Social Programs: A Values Perspective (4th ed.) (pp. 27-58). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning.
Written in pursuit of my MSSA (2019)
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