Black Buying Power: Welfare Rights, Consumerism, and Northern Protest

  • Felicia Kornbluh


The welfare rights movement and the people who joined it are paradigmatic of those who have often been left out of civil rights history.1 Studying the South and North, scholars have begun to challenge the familiar narrative of civil rights by elaborating on the class bases of activist politics, the gender dynamics within leading movement groups, and their ideological and strategic complexity.2 We have begun to reconceptualize the term “civil rights” to include economic redistribution and macroeconomic planning, among other issues that have often been written out of the boundaries of movement history.3 By widening our lens to include a greater range of political activity, we have illuminated the artificial distinctions that have shaped much writing on post-1945 social movements. These include distinctions between civil rights and economic rights, between the South and North, and between a supposedly innocent early stage of movement work (in the 1950s and early 1960s) and a disruptive and ultimately tragic later stage.4


National Welfare Black Woman Credit Card Poor People Welfare Recipient 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Welfare rights has not been left out of the literature on modern black women’s history or the history of poverty policy. For the former, see Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy A Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994 (New York: W W Norton, 1999), esp. 223–242;Google Scholar
  2. Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1985);Google Scholar
  3. Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Bantam Press, 1984), 312–13, 326. For the latter,Google Scholar
  4. see Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon, 1989), 106–108,Google Scholar
  5. and James Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900–1980 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 153, 180, 195.Google Scholar
  6. 2.
    More recent scholarship that both expands the range of political activity covered and sheds new light on the black civil rights movement in the South includes: Jennifer Frost, An Interracial Movement of the Poor: Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s (New York: New York University Press, 2001);Google Scholar
  7. Gail Williams O’Brien, The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War Two South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (UNC), 2000);Google Scholar
  8. Pete Daniels, Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2000);Google Scholar
  9. Timothy Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1999);Google Scholar
  10. Nancy Naples, Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering, Community Work, and the War on Poverty (New York: Routledge, 1998);Google Scholar
  11. Nell Irvin Painter, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: The Life and Times of a Black Radical (New York: W. W Norton, 1994);Google Scholar
  12. James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro (New York: Vintage Press, 1994);Google Scholar
  13. Robin Kelley, “Congested Terrain: Resistance on Public Transportation,” and “Birmingham’s Untouchables” in his Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: Free Press, 1994), 55–100;Google Scholar
  14. John Egerton, Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1994);Google Scholar
  15. Charles Payne, Yve Got the Light of Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993);Google Scholar
  16. James R. Ralph, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993);Google Scholar
  17. Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1990);Google Scholar
  18. and Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, with David Garrow, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  19. 3.
    For correctives, see Charles Hamilton and Dona Cooper Hamilton, The Dual Agenda: Race and Social Welfare Policies of Civil Rights Organizations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987),Google Scholar
  20. and Thomas F. Jackson, “Beyond Civil Rights: African-American Political Thought and Urban Poverty, 1960–1973” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1995).Google Scholar
  21. 4.
    Such contrasts have appeared in a range of journalistic, first-person, and scholarly accounts. See, for examples, Vincent Cannato, The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York (New York: Basic Books, 2001), esp. 189–227;Google Scholar
  22. Thomas Edsall, with Mary Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992);Google Scholar
  23. Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America (New York: Knopf, 1991);Google Scholar
  24. Jim Sleeper, The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990);Google Scholar
  25. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987);Google Scholar
  26. Allen Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1984).Google Scholar
  27. Such a contrast is suggested by the chronological and thematic boundaries of Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988)Google Scholar
  28. and is implicit in the sense of tragedy that informs August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  29. 5.
    Felicia Kornbluh, “A Right to Welfare? Poor Women, Professionals, and Poverty Programs, 1935–1975” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 2000), 1–34.Google Scholar
  30. 9.
    On these boycotts, see St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945), 293–296; Sleeper, Closest of Strangers, 48–50.Google Scholar
  31. 11.
    For a historical overview of gender and consumption, see Victoria de Grazia, with Ellen Furlough, eds., The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  32. For theoretical treatments of consumption as work that women perform, see Laura Balbo, “Crazy Quilts: Rethinking the Welfare State Debate from a Woman’s Point of View,” in Women and the State, Anne Showstock Sassoon, ed. (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), 45–71,Google Scholar
  33. and Batya Weinbaum and Amy Bridges, “The Other Side of the Paycheck: Monopoly Capital and the Structure of Consumption,” in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Zillah Eisenstein, ed. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), 190–205.Google Scholar
  34. 12.
    See, for examples, Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 68–70; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 22–23. On the problematic and political claim of African American women to “ladyhood” at the turn of the twentieth century,Google Scholar
  35. see Kevin Gaines, “Rethinking Race and Class in African-American Struggles for Equality, 1885–1941,” American Historical Review 201:2 (April 1997): 378–387;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1996);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Stephanie Shaw, What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers During the Jim Crow Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 49, 178;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 13.
    Flora Davis, Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 147–148.Google Scholar
  39. 14.
    David Caplovitz, The Poor Pay More: Consumer Practices of Low-Income Families (New York: The Free Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  40. Other important studies include Federal Trade Commission, “Economic Report on Instalment Credit and Retail Sales Practices of District of Columbia Retailers,” excerpted in Consumerism: Search for the Consumer Interest, David Aaker and George Day, eds. (New York: The Free Press, 1971), 374–381,Google Scholar
  41. and Eric Schnapper, “Consumer Legislation and the Poor,” Yale Law Journal 76 (1967): 745–792.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 16.
    Ibid., 37, 41. Of course, high levels of consumption were not unique to Puerto Rican and African American migrants to U.S. cities. For one telling comparison, see Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880–1950 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), 142–148.Google Scholar
  43. 19.
    Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage Press, 1992—originally published in 1967), 18. For further discussion of Black Power and the colonial analogy, see Katz, The Undeserving Poor, 55–57. For theories of colonialism from the political left of the late 1960s,Google Scholar
  44. see Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  45. 22.
    Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership (New York: Quill/Morrow, 1984—originally published in 1967), 94–95.Google Scholar
  46. 25.
    Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 38.Google Scholar
  47. 26.
    Ibid., 116. His increasing emphasis on consumer practices was part of a larger economic turn in King’s thinking. Like NWRO members, King in 1967 argued that it was imperative either to create full employment or to ensure all citizens adequate income. “We have left the realm of constitutional rights,” he wrote, “and we are entering the area of human rights” (ibid., 130). For evidence from other civil rights leaders, see Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 103, 172, 255, 269; Meier and Rudwick, CORE, 187, 234, 262.Google Scholar
  48. 28.
    On postwar gender relations and consumption, see Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 162–182.Google Scholar
  49. 29.
    Nick Kotz and Mary Lynn Kotz, biographers of NWRO Executive Director George Wiley, grant Jones, an African American welfare recipient, exclusive credit for the credit card campaign. Jones had organized previous campaigns to meet the needs of low-income consumers of color. These included successful challenges of the Philadelphia health department’s practice of ignoring the quality of food sold in grocery stores in all-black neighborhoods, and of the telephone company’s routine practice of charging higher deposit fees for telephone service to low-income people than they charged to the wealthy. Kotz and Kotz, A Passion for Equality: George A. Wiley and the Movement (New York: W W Norton, 1977), 235–236. Tim Sampson remembered the VISTA volunteers being involved in the origins of the campaign (Sampson telephone interview, February 12, 1996).Google Scholar
  50. Also see discussion of the Philadelphia credit campaign in Larry R. Jackson and William A. Johnson, Protest by the Poor: The Welfare Rights Movement in New York City (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and the Rand Corporation, 1974), 41. Roxanne Jones was later elected to the Pennsylvania State House, where she served until her death in 1996.Google Scholar
  51. 37.
    On Brooklyn, see Jacqueline Pope, Biting the Hand That Feeds Them: Organizing Women on Welfare at the Grass Roots Level (New York: Praeger Press, 1989), 105–110. On New York City as a whole, see Isidore Barmash, “3 Big Stores Agree on Extending Credit to Relief Recipients,” New York Times, July 23,1969, 1; Jackson and Johnson, Protest by the Poor, 41.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    For a record of lawyers’ efforts to encode income discrimination in constitutional doctrine, see Laurence H. Tribe, American Constitutional Law (Mineola, N.Y.: The Foundation Press, 1978), 1098–1136;Google Scholar
  53. Aryeh Neier, Only Judgment: The Limits of Litigation in Social Change (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982), 127–140;Google Scholar
  54. and Martha Davis, Brutal Need: Lawyers and the Welfare Rights Movement, 1960–1973 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). For efforts to theorize income discrimination, and the concomitant public obligation to provide subsistence,Google Scholar
  55. see Frank Michelman, “The Supreme Court 1968 Term—Forward: On Protecting the Poor Through the Fourteenth Amendment,” Harvard Law Review 83:7 (1969): 7–59;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. A. Delafield Smith, The Right to Life (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1955).Google Scholar
  57. 60.
    Coupons for consumer goods would have facilitated the kind of benefit-based organizing that Tim Sampson learned from Fred Ross of the United Farm Workers. For a critique of this kind of organizing, see Lawrence Neil Bailis, Bread or Justice: Grassroots Organizing in the Welfare Rights Movement (Boston, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1974).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, with Matthew Countryman 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Felicia Kornbluh

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations