For a while during the mid-Sixties, the Headstart program seemed to many the most promising of the “anti-poverty” operations carried on by federal and local authorities. Designed for very young children, it involved parents by requiring them to help out in nursery school; it made use of experts in child development and primary education; it had a catchy and politically neutral name, and in no way threatened the existing public schools. The children in the Headstart program were not only too young for the public schools but also too young to have ideas of their own. The defiance found among Job Corps youth couldn’t be expected from three and four-year-olds. The parents of Headstart children could also be counted on to teach colors and forms, to feed the children and play with them, and not spend their time organizing politically. Moreover Headstart was ideal in another way. It was a preparation for adjusting to public school. One idea behind it was that if young children were caught early enough they would learn to obey the teacher, observe the rules, and speak standard middle-class English; they would then fit more comfortably into the public schools.
Not all Headstart programs, however, were geared to preparing poor children to pretend that they were members of the middle class or black children to pretend that they were white. Some programs were more humane and concerned with the everyday lives of the children who participated in them. They also took seriously the rhetoric of the Office of Economic Opportunity which called for “community involvement” and they attempted to have programs run by the poor instead of merely hiring the poor for low-level jobs. One of these programs was run by the Child Development Group of Mississippi.
The state of Mississippi had two Headstart programs. One, the official program, was approved by the State Department of Public Education. It employed teachers from the regular school system and tried to prepare poor young black children for the Mississippi public schools. It taught them to sit quietly, raise their hands when they wanted anything, and obey their teachers’ commands.
CDGM was different. It grew out of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, the summer when the murders of white civil rights workers aroused the anger of liberals against Southern racism. Tom Levin, a white psychologist who was in Mississippi during the “freedom summer,” conceived of developing a headstart program that would involve workers from the civil rights movement who had worked in poor communities in the past. He also wanted to involve liberal professional teachers who could learn how to keep out of the way of poor people or train them to take control of their own programs. Levin’s notion of control by the poor was a very broad one. He envisioned the poor writing their own proposals, administering their own programs, and controlling their own schools. The political implications of these ideas were obvious—the white bureaucrats and politicians of Mississippi could hardly be expected …