A grassroots war on poverty: Community action and urban politics in Houston, 1964-1976
Phelps, Wesley G.
Matusow, Allen J.; Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
Grassroots studies of the implementation of the federal antipoverty initiatives of the 1960s and 1970s are showing that the War on Poverty did not operate in a vacuum; rather, it was profoundly shaped by a multifarious group of local actors that included public officials, local elites, grassroots antipoverty activists, program administrators, federal volunteers, civil rights activists, and poor people themselves. In Houston, grassroots activists created a local context in which to implement the War on Poverty that was much more diverse in its intellectual and political influences than the rather narrow confines of New Deal-Great Society liberalism. The moderate liberalism that motivated the architects of the federal War on Poverty certainly helped galvanize local antipoverty activists in Houston, but even more prominent in their antipoverty philosophy were Prophetic Christianity, radical civil rights activism, and the vision of participatory democracy and community organizing espoused by members of the New Left and iconoclastic figures like Saul Alinsky. This local context created a favorable environment for these activists to use the War on Poverty to advance an agenda of social change by empowering the poor and helping then engage in confrontations with the city's elite. By the same token, the diversity of ideas that fueled the implementation of the War on Poverty in Houston---and especially the small victories that grassroots activists were able to achieve in their quest to empower the city's poor---provoked a swift and powerful backlash from local public officials and conservative defenders of the status quo. In Houston, therefore, local political conditions and contests, even more than federal politics, determined how the War on Poverty was fought, and the interaction between the federal antipoverty program and a broad range of local ideas gave the War on Poverty a distinctive flavor in Houston that both created opportunities for grassroots activists to bring about social change and set limits on what those activists could accomplish.