The Importance of The Great Society, 50 Years Later

April 10, 2015

Cartoon about American politics and the economy during the Great Recession, May 9, 2010. (Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (low resolution, relevance to subject matter).

Cartoon about American politics and the economy during the Great Recession, May 9, 2010. (Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (low resolution, relevance to subject matter).

This weekend marks a half-century since President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the first series of bills into law that signified his Great Society/War on Poverty work. We won’t hear much about this, though. Not with 2015 being a benchmark year for commemorating and celebrating so much else. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Appomattox at 150, along with President Lincoln’s assassination, Juneteenth, and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, ending legal slavery (except for prisoners, of course). The trench warfare of World War I, and the Battle of Gallipoli (if one’s a real war trivia buff). Even the 30th anniversary of Back To The Future and the UN Conference on Women, which gathered in Nairobi, Kenya in the fall of 1985, will likely get more air time, cyber time, and ink than the first of LBJ’s Great Society programs.

But the Great Society was supposed to be a grand experiment and experience. It was supposed to wipe out poverty, end all legal forms of discrimination and segregation, and make the opportunity to achieve the modern American Dream of a middle-class life or better a reality for almost everyone. And it would’ve worked, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids, um, LBJ’s pesky decisions to go escalate the Vietnam War. The war cost $269 billion in 1970 dollars, or, $1.7 trillion in 2015 money.

What $1 trillion looks like,  January 2012. ( via Elsolet Joubert).

What $1 trillion looks like, January 2012. ( via Elsolet Joubert).

Yet it’s not exactly true that it would’ve worked, or that it didn’t work. You see, despite the best efforts of an elitist, right-wing and ineffectual federal government corrupted by plutocrats and its military-industrial complex, the Great Society programs are still with us. For starters, there’s the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, the first one LBJ signed into law on April 11, fifty years ago on this date.

Without these laws, the modern era of educating millions of children whom states, colleges and universities and local school districts had shut out of K-12 and higher education wouldn’t have occurred at all. With federal government dollars and regulations, not to mention a foundation in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ESEA and HEA in its initial years provided real hope for “an equal opportunity for all.”

This wasn’t and isn’t just about Jim Crow and racial discrimination and segregation, whether de jure in the South or de facto via residential segregation and redlining in cities outsider the South. This became about opening doors for whole classes of children and adults that had been steel-reinforced-concrete walls before.

Harvard Economics Professor Roland Fryer at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, July 16, 2007. (

Harvard Economics Professor Roland Fryer at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, July 16, 2007. (

Technocrats and other public education crises gurus of the likes of Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and Roland Fryer would have us think that the $600 billion that states and the federal government via ESEA spend on public education each year is all wasteful spending. They say that we have about the same number of students in schools today (about 50 million) as we did in 1970.

Of course, they don’t tell the whole story, leaving out a lot of truth for us. For in my lifetime, students with disabilities (cognitive, physical, emotional) have gone from shutout to included in public schools as part of the Americans with Disabilities Acts of 1989 and 1992, and of course, ESEA. Students with language proficiency issues became part of the public education fabric under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision in 1974, with funds provided out of ESEA. Charter schools, magnet programs, school counseling, and so many other things that have made public education more inclusive and also more expensive wouldn’t have been possible without ESEA. Meaning, technocrats, that public education was severely underfunded and exclusionary prior to 1965.

The HEA hasn’t had the same effect, primarily because we as a society tend to think of higher education as a luxury and not a right, and have fought hard to make many colleges and universities the exclusive domain of “the worthy.” Still, without HEA and the Pell Grants (named after former Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI, 1961-97), the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, the Direct Student Loan Program, and the Supplemental Loan Program, a whole generation of low-income and middle-income families wouldn’t have been able to send their kids to college. They were often the first in their families, as Blacks, as women, as Black and Latino women, as working-class Whites with only a steel mill or automobile plant in their future. At least back then.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, Master's Gymnasium, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, November 8, 1965. ( In public domain.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, Master’s Gymnasium, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, November 8, 1965. ( In public domain.

There’s also the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Head Start program, and Congress passing Medicaid and Medicare, providing health coverage for the elderly and deeply poor for the first time. And all in 1965.

What does all of this mean in 2015? That despite the mountains of books written on LBJ and the failures of the War on Poverty and the Great Society, that these programs worked and work in ameliorating poverty and expanding opportunities for all, even across racial lines. Would they have been more effective with more investment, especially in those initial years, when Vietnam became more of a priority? No doubt.

That’s just it, though. Most Americans — who despite the fears of Ted Cruz and Rudy Giuliani, remain White — didn’t care about poverty and racism and the structures that supported it then, and they mostly don’t care now. They want Congress to work, just not on issues that would permanently unbalance the social hierarchy that they’ve assumed as their birthright for two centuries.

Hence the constant one-two punch of a relationship they see with poverty and those with black and brown skin. Hence the constant carping about taxes and needless spending on food stamps and welfare, even though the true face of government assistance in the US has always been a haggard White one. Hence the constant media tropes about hard work and so-called self-made men worth billions making their money without holding a college degree, who somehow can tell the rest of us how to live. The Great Society, for all of LBJ’s foibles and its weaknesses, remains a great legacy of what America could be, and at times, has been, but overall, refuses to be.

What I Didn’t Know Growing Up – It Still Hurts

February 27, 2014

George Bernard Shaw and ignorance, June 2013. (

George Bernard Shaw and ignorance, June 2013. (

“My people perish for a lack of knowledge,” it seems, is something that anyone can find in almost any religion’s texts anywhere. Heck, depending on perspective, even atheists in general can agree with this statement (of course, the issue would be what constitutes “knowledge”). I read this verse (it’s in Hosea and Isaiah, and versions of it as well as in Jewish texts and the Qur’an) for the first time when I was fifteen in ’85, less than a year after I converted to Christianity. Boy, I had no idea how little I knew about myself, my family and my history when I first read that verse twenty-nine years ago.

In light of the end of Black History Month, I wouldn’t be me without noting how little any of us know about our families, our lineages and our ancestors. But it’s not just true of the millions of us descended from West and Central Africans kidnapped, bound, abused, raped and nearly worked to death to provide Europeans (and Arabs) wealth and comfort. Most of us don’t even know what we think we know about much more recent history and events than surviving the Middle Passage or overcoming Jim Crow.

A rabbi, a priest and an imam, 2013-2014. (PizzaSpaghetti via

A rabbi, a priest and an imam, 2013-2014. (PizzaSpaghetti via

For me and my family, I knew so little about us that my Mom could’ve told me that Satan had thrown us out of Hell for being too brown to burn and I would’ve accepted it as an appropriate answer. All I really knew of my mother’s side of my family was that they were from Arkansas, that my Uncle Sam (I chuckled sometimes thinking of the irony) was my Mom’s closest sibling, and that they grew up as dirt poor as anyone could get without living in a thatched root hut on less than $1 a day.

I asked for more during those rare moments when my focus wasn’t on high school, getting into college and getting as far away from 616 and Mount Vernon, New York as possible. I ended up finding out about how my Mom’s mother once beat her with the back of a wooden brush for not being ready on time for church, that there were years where her father made only $200 total from cotton farming, and that she was the oldest of twelve kids. She had done some form of work either taking care of her siblings, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes by hand, and hoeing and picking cotton, since she was five or six. Oh yeah, and she played basketball in high school.

On my father’s side, I knew a bit more, if only because Darren and me went with my father to visit the Collins farm in Harrison, Georgia in August ’75. I was five and a half then, but I do remember the fresh smoked ham and bacon, the smell of my grandfather’s Maxwell House coffee, me being too scared to ride a horse, so they put me on a sow (my brother did ride the horse, though). But what people did, how a Black family owned their own land going back to the turn of the twentieth century, I wouldn’t have known to even ask about at not quite six years old.

What I didn’t know until after high school, college, even after earning a Ph.D. in knowing (that’s what a history degree ultimately is) was so much worse than I imagined. To find out at twenty-three that my Mom was a star basketball player in high school. She played center, and led her team to Arkansas’ segregated state quarterfinals in ’65. My Uncle Sam played four sports in high school (basketball, football, baseball and track and field) and was offered college scholarships, but didn’t have the grades to move forward. I learned a year later that my Uncle Paul followed in their footsteps, and played three years at the University of Houston, left early and played for the Houston Rockets in ’82-’83 (not a good year for them, or for me, for that matter) before blowing out a knee and moving into entertainment work.

My father’s family — at least the women of the family — boasted at least three college degrees. Two of my aunts became school teachers. My uncles started businesses in Atlanta and in parts of rural Georgia, working their way well beyond the farm to the work they wanted to do.

Unidentified tenant farmer, his home, automobile, and family, Lee Wilson & Company, rural Arkansas, 1940s. (

Unidentified tenant farmer, his home, automobile, and family, Lee Wilson & Company, rural Arkansas, 1940s. (

I learned all of this by the time I turned thirty-two, just a year and a half before my own son was born. How many different decisions I would’ve made about my life if I had known that one half of my family was full of athletes, and the other half was full of business owners, not to mention three aunts with a college education? I would’ve known to try out for any sport in high school — particularly basketball — and to not be afraid to fail. I would’ve known that I was only the first person in my immediate family to take a go at college beyond a certificate in dietary science (my Mom earned that in the summer of ’75), and not the first one on either side as I once thought.

Most of all, I would’ve known that though I was lonely and played the role of a loner my last years growing up, that I wasn’t alone. There were a whole bunch of people in my lineage, some of whom were alive and well, from whom I could’ve drawn strength, found kinship, felt pride and confidence in, where I wouldn’t have seen myself as an abandoned and abused underdog anymore.

If I’d known all this growing up, I wouldn’t have felt and sometimes feel robbed now, by poverty and parenting, abuse and alcoholism. This is why having knowledge to draw from is so important.

Dairy Queens, Dick Oestreicher and Race

February 1, 2011

Dairy Queen Sign, Near Frankstown Road, Penn Hills (outside of Pittsburgh, PA), June 14, 2005. Shawn Wall. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright law because there is no attempt to distribute or alter, and this photo is only being used for illustrative purposes.

Black History Month is upon us once again. But instead of the same tired discussion of Carter G. Woodson, MLK or the meaning (or lack thereof) of this month, I’m telling a story that will (hopefully) dredge up issues for many of you.

It was the last Tuesday in October ’92. I was a student in Dick Oestreicher’s US General Field 2 graduate seminar in the history department at the University of Pittsburgh. The topic for our discussion this day

Otis Redding Album Cover, January 31, 2011. Unknown. This photo qualified as fair use under US copyright laws because of its low quality.

was, “Why has black economic mobility, political assimilation, and cultural identity differed from other ethnic groups.” On the surface, it sounded like a good academic discussion to have. But after having to write a fifteen-page analysis on the topic, where I was restricted to William Julius Wilson’s Declining Significance of Race (1978), Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America (1971), and Kenneth Kusmer’s analysis of race in the context of Black migration to Cleveland (1976), I wasn’t so sure. I made the mistake of being provocative, naming my paper “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” — after the Otis Redding version, and not the Michael Bolton one.

It was a long two-and-a-half hour class. Especially since I was the lone African American in the room talking about race and standing up to the classroom consensus that class was more important than race in the case of the thirty-million-plus people who looked like or had been classified the same as me. I was on the hot seat, arguing that both Sowell and Wilson’s bias was politically conservative in nature, which influenced their analysis of the question of Black progress and lack of such. I also decided that — like so many issues in history — the question of race versus class was an and-both and not an either-or one. That race and class were so intertwined in American culture and history that to separate them would do severe damage to our ability as historians to understand the nature of racism and poverty in American society.

One of my classmates, an over-50 White male, decided at this point to cut off my final point. “You should be grateful, to be able to go to an esteemed institution like the University of Pittsburgh, to be able to sit in that chair and get to earn a Ph.D. If it were thirty years ago, we couldn’t stand in the same Dairy Queen line, right here in Pittsburgh,” the older man said as slowly and as deliberately as someone giving an Oscar acceptance speech. I was amazed, angry, ready to put the man in his place academically. I wanted to verbally take a Dairy Queen triple-scooper and smash it in his stubby nose.

Then my mentally absent professor Dick Oestreicher immediately interrupted, literally positioning himself in the middle of the room to keep me from giving my response. Oestreicher ended class right then and there, dismissing us without even summarizing our discussion or criticizing our allegedly weak academic

Dick Oestreicher, circa 2009

analysis, which he had done in all of the previous weeks.

I was incensed, actually more pissed with Oestreicher than with the bigoted older man. I made sure to stop by Oestreicher’s office the next afternoon after my other grad seminar to find out why he interfered. “You’re going to have to deal with this anyway,” he said while shrugging his shoulders. The following week, I received an A- on my paper, with “Sowell’s well read” as the only comment on my critique of the authors and the undeniably conservative, pro-class and anti-race analysis that the authors provided.

Of my five and a half years in graduate school — and in my two years of grad school at Pitt — it was one of my most unbelievable moments. I wanted to pick Oestreicher up by his mangy hair and show him how some people deal with moments of racism and the people who allow it to continue on their watch. I wanted to tell him that he should stay out of the classroom if he’s too scared to actually teach students.

In the end, I was more patient at twenty-two than I’d probably be about something like this now. I remained academically defiant the rest of the semester, opposed every argument he made whenever he made it. Meanwhile, the bigoted old man had withdrawn from the course in the last month of the semester.

I learned, more than anything else, that many so-called liberal professors were only academic liberals, not actual liberals. Oestreicher in my mind was worse than my hard-ass principal Richard Capozzola at Mount Vernon High School. At least with Capozzola, you knew that he didn’t like anyone who looked like me — meaning young, Black, male, unpopular and poor. With Oestreicher and so many in academia, their liberalism and expressions in support of racial equality were mere scholarly arguments. In reality, people like him would never expect someone like me to have a chance in hell or heaven to become one of their academic peers.

But you know what was the funniest thing of all? I’d never been to a Dairy Queen before.


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