The War on Poverty is complex and, for the most part, has ambiguous roots. However, in his recently released book, Battle for Bed-Stuy: The long War on Poverty in New York City (Harvard University Press), Prof. Michael Woodsworth argues that the War on Poverty has beginnings in the borough that birthed legends and activists such as Spike Lee, Jay Z and Shirley Chisholm —Brooklyn.
In addition to connecting the federal War on Poverty to local Brooklyn activists, Prof. Woodsworth, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, also examines 1960s anti-poverty programs, activists response to youth crime, physical decay and fleeing capital.
“This is a book about two things overlapping. One, there’s a policy story,” Woodsworth says over the phone. “In some sense, there’s a story about interaction with federal policy. And the other story is the story of this place, the tradition of this community, and leading up to and including that policy in the 1960s.”
Activism in Brooklyn has been a thriving force. Brooklyn native Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to U.S. Congress and to make a bid for the presidency in 1972. Additionally, she was a staunch advocate for several social issues that affected minorities. Spike Lee recently supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential candidate. Brooklyn Dodgers slugger, Jackie Robinson used his baseball fame to champion civil rights. And rapper and entrepreneur, Jay Z’s quiet, yet effective commitments to social issues through films, philanthropy and politics have not gone unnoticed. But not much is known about Brooklyn activist Elsie Richardson. Born in Brooklyn in 1922, Richardson was the co-founder of Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council, which is responsible for the first non-profit corporation in the U.S. with the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration.
“Elsie Richardson started her career as an activist for the Stuyvesant Community Center, a youth outreach program related to the Albany Houses in Crown Heights. She eventually became the leader of a group called Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council. It’s kind of a civil rights group, but the city government used it as a way to coordinate city youth programs. But it’s both activism, but also social control, because they were trying to control youth behavior and organize gangs,” Woodsworth says.
Richardson’s organizing acumen and commitment to social justice impressed then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who traveled to Bed-Stuy to gauge the effects of then-president Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
“She did stuff like work on school segregation, housing programs and worked on ‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Pay’ campaigns. Elsie Richardson was also interested in what she called Brick and Mortar Programs. She, together with some other professional urban planners from Pratt Institute, had these ideas. But they didn’t know how to articulate these ideas in a way that would be able to play to the language of the funders and planners. So she worked with these professional planners to develop this program of community development and that was quite sophisticated and far-reaching in its vision. That’s what attracted Robert Kennedy to the community. Kennedy went there and expected one thing, but got something very different than what he expected. What he got was very well organized, very sophisticated.”
In an interview with Brooklyn Historical Society, Richardson read from a newspaper article, in which she quoted Kennedy about his visit to Bed-Stuy.
“As the first step in curing the social and economic ills of Bedford Stuyvesant—Brooklyn’s teeming ghetto—the city must find someone who can coordinate whatever federal and state help that is available. This was the opinion of Senator Robert F. Kennedy after he toured the ghetto last winter, peering into its abandoned buildings and talking to a downtrodden people,” Richardson said.
Richardson and the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council (CBCC) also attracted then-president Lyndon B. Johnson. The Johnson Administration adopted some of the CBCC’s ideas and implemented them into the War on Poverty. Through the Johnson Administration programs like Head Start, Medicaid as well as Medicare bolstered life in marginalized communities. But questions linger; how much did the War on Poverty change?
“It depends on whose perspective you’re looking at it from. If the expectations are to eradicate poverty, then I think the reason why it failed is that it’s an impossible task,” Woodsworth says. “If that had been a possible task then the War on Poverty would have to have conceptualized an inequality in a much more radical light than it did. And it would have had to spend more money on actually trying to regulate segregation, inequality and gender inequality. There’s no evidence that the programs really aimed at a lasting eradication of poverty.”
Some critics of Johnson’s Great Society believed that the War on Poverty was an epic failure and a waste of money. But that’s debatable.
“The programs that were established during the war on poverty… if you look at the official poverty rates, there was a pretty dramatic reduction of poverty over the course of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. By some measures, poverty fell by half by the first decade to fifteen years after the start of the War on Poverty. Foods Stamps, Federal Aid, Medicare, all those programs together constitute what we would call the American social safety net. So again, Medicaid doesn’t eradicate poverty, but they certainly make life more tolerable for those who find themselves in poverty.”
Prof. Woodsworth’s research on the War on Poverty is definitely not the first book to shed light on these issues. Other works that examine the War on Poverty are War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980 (Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian), Legacies of the War on Poverty (Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger) and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, among others. Prof. Woodsworth’s Battle for Bed-Stuy illuminates the life and legacy of an unknown Brooklyn activist contribution the War on Poverty and fight for civil rights.
“I look at the local activists who are like: “Great. The president wants to end poverty. But what are we going to do with these programs in our community? And try to make this more livable? Get some resources where we can, get a community college, get job-training program.’’ I don’t think the local organizers had the wool pulled over their eyes to say: “Oh, this will end poverty in our neighborhood.”
“Part of the book is talking about people who are famous. The mayors and senators—I am interested in their motives and why they decided to stack their chips in this program. Why were the policies on ending poverty back then so different than today? That’s part of it. But more interesting is telling the people’s stories who haven’t been told.”
Battle for Bed-Stuy is available for purchase at Amazon.com.