During the 1950s, the black population of Chicago more than doubled, fed by a stream of Southerners, many of them from the Mississippi Delta, where sharecropping as a way of life was coming to an end. As many as two thousand a week passed through the Illinois Central train station, the Ellis Island of this immigration. Many were recognized by blacks hanging around the station, waiting for the arrival of friends or relatives, ready to show them the glories of this Promised Land.

Others were waiting there, too, many to be of help—“reporters, academics, reformers, and liberal clergymen,” as Nicholas Lemann describes the scene. Cardinal Stritch, of the Roman Catholic archdiocese, sometimes went himself, and more often sent his emissaries. Racism would move north with the blacks, many had predicted; but a formidable combination of interests was opposing that development.

The stream of blacks, begun in the Forties and drying up only in the Eighties, would severely tax the resources of this northern city, the one Lemann wisely chooses as a test of them all. If blacks could make it anywhere, it would be there, not in New York or Detroit or Philadelphia. If they should fail in Chicago, then they must be doomed indeed.

Lemann puts together with great skill the array of institutional and personal sources of aid, many only partly visible at the time, available to the incoming blacks.

  1. First, there was Mayor Daley. After the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, Daley would be remembered as a repressive mayor (though even in 1968 the blacks of Chicago stayed quiet, thanks to programs Daley had deployed to insure their quiescence). Blacks had been the winning bloc in his first election, and they remained indispensable to his political base. Besides, Daley was indebted to, and a benefactor of, the Catholic liberals of Chicago—including R. Sargent Shriver—who would play a large role in the War on Poverty.
  2. Blacks had been part of the Chicago machine even before Daley, with the patronage benefits accruing from that position. Arriving Southerners would be processed as nineteenth-century immigrants were in Boston and New York, given jobs for their votes. Congressman Ralph Metcalfe showed the path to power in the machine that was followed by Harold Washington.
  3. The University of Chicago had a great and activist sociology department doing research in, and offering new conceptual tools for alleviating, ethnic tensions in that most ethnic of cities. Two scholars in particular, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, would have a great influence on government policy dealing with Chicago’s (and other cities’) blacks.
  4. Chicago was 40 percent Catholic in the 1950s, and its archdiocese, under Cardinal Stritch, was the most liberal of any big city’s, with activist priests like Jack Egan and laymen like Ed Marciniak. Marciniak helped bring Daley and Martin Luther King together for the first time, and felt hope for the future when the two men took pictures of their children out of their wallets for some mutual congratulating.

  5. Chicago also has a heritage of gritty and realistic social work descending from the heroic Jane Addams. Its 1950s avatar was Saul Alinsky, who had talented young assistants on the scene, like Nicholas Von Hoffman. Alinsky also had good relations with Cardinal Stritch, who ran interference for him with Mayor Daley.

  6. Going into the 1960s, Chicago had excellent ties with Washington policy makers and legislative resources. These ties were typified by, but not confined to, Mayor Daley’s close Kennedy connections. Sargent Shriver had run Chicago’s Merchandise Mart for Joseph Kennedy and still had political aspirations in Illinois, perhaps to be the state’s senator.

  7. The Kennedys became interested in urban problems even before the civil rights movement pushed them into the protection of endangered blacks.

With all these forces on the side of black incorporation into the political and social life of Chicago, what went wrong? Well, in Lemann’s account, practically everything.

For a start, the whole approach to city problems was subtly skewed by the entry point that was chosen: juvenile delinquency. This was the urban problem that had attracted sociological attention in the comparatively placid 1950s. Liberal concern over it is still marked by the 1957 musical West Side Story. When Tom Wolfe grumped about Leonard Bernstein’s Panther party in 1970, he spent much of Radical Chic poking around for historical antecedents, but missed the real and obvious tie between the Panthers and “the Jets.” Many scholarly articles on delinquents led to the publication, in 1960, of Cloward and Ohlin’s Delinquency and Opportunity. The authors were soon being used as consultants to the new Kennedy administration, which meant to bring peace to city streets. This explains why the war on poverty emerged from that unlikeliest nest, the Justice Department:

The juvenile delinquency committee was the passageway that led [Robert] Kennedy from his background as a conservative lawman into the political persona for which he is remembered, as the soulful champion of the downtrodden—it connected the two versions of himself. Delinquency was at first blush a law enforcement issue, so attending to it was consistent with the main thrust of Kennedy’s career thus far; it didn’t have the soft, abstract quality that he associated with most of the leading liberal issues and personalities. Unlike other criminals, though, delinquents were people he could identify with personally. They were troubled adolescents just as he had been—outsiders; the most common nickname for delinquents at the time, “young toughs,” was a marriage of two words that carried the most positive possible connotations for Kennedy.

Kennedy, on the move, wanted quick answers. His epiphany on the delinquents came in a hasty briefing Lloyd Ohlin gave to him at breakfast and in a car taking the attorney general over to testify on the Hill. Late in the car ride, something finally clicked with Kennedy: “Oh, I see—if I had grown up in these circumstances, this could have happened to me.”

Robert Kennedy’s involvement with the delinquency program was guaranteed when David Hackett, Kennedy’s athlete-hero from his days at Milton Academy, became its chief supporter in his circle. Hackett, after his own magic prep school days, celebrated under the persona “Phineas” in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, had been drifting rather aimlessly until Kennedy, to the astonishment of the more successful strivers around him, brought him to the Justice Department. Kennedy had several reasons for rejoicing in a program that meant Dave had finally “found himself” again.


Meanwhile, over at the White House, John Kennedy had his own reasons for doing something about poverty. Myth links this with a reading of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, though Lemann has the word of Walter Heller and William Capron that Kennedy never read the book. He read, instead, Dwight Macdonald’s more acidulous and “tough” review in The New Yorker. But Kennedy had pressing political reasons for a gesture toward the lower-income brackets, to make his proposed tax cut politically defensible. There was the ordinary scuffle over the bureaucratic housing of any poverty program—should it be in the Department of Labor, or in HEW, or in Bobby’s widening community action project in Justice? Wherever it went, it would be infected by the Cloward-Ohlin approach that percolated out of seminars at the Shriver house, or from the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency where Hackett was recruiting activists like Dick Boone.

Cloward and Ohlin had studied juvenile gangs not merely as stray deviations but as embodying principles of organization in a situation without more conventional forms of social structure. This was construed, rather broadly, in Washington to mean that gang leaders were just Bobby Kennedys deprived of more legitimate channels through which to rise. Instead of pouring more police money and energy into a vain attempt to suppress these youthful energies—like dumb Officer Krupke chasing members of the Jets in circles—a smart government would recruit the misdirected energies of the gang leaders and organizers. This was a true Kennedy approach. It was not namby-pamby “social work” of the sort they associated with the do-goody Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson. It resembled, instead, the approach they would be taking to Vietnam. One could go around the bureaucracy, ignore old-fashioned police tactics, “win the minds and the hearts” of indigenous fighters, and use a cadre of imaginative free agents to build up a “native” community, self-defending and self-governing.

Thus was born the idea of “maximum feasible community participation” in programs meant for the poor. This would lead to comic episodes like Sargent Shriver’s consultations with the Blackstone Rangers on the best way to spend federal money in the ghetto. Jeff Fort, the murderous leader of the Rangers (now the El Rukns), had great fun with the money before going off to prison. Like the chaplain in Waugh who tried to humor a prisoner’s creative desire to “work in wood,” the people behind these Community Action Programs got their heads sawn off.

Things were already going wrong at the local level. In Chicago, Alinsky had to choose the neighborhoods he wanted to “save” very carefully—they had to have certain resources left to them (jobs, a minimally disciplined black component, a minimally tolerant white one). But when he found the right showplace to validate his theories—Englewood—he was overridden by his ally, Cardinal Stritch, who wanted to save endangered parishes in Woodlawn. Counting Stritch’s support more essential than the ideal conditions he hoped for, Alinsky sent Nicholas Von Hoffman into Woodlawn, where the eponymous organization became a success story for community action, one praised across the nation. But the structural weaknesses in the situation were being hidden. The overselling of the Woodlawn Organization’s short-lived triumphs seemed to vindicate principles that Alinsky had never really adopted. The Woodlawn Organization would be used to justify money given to gangs like Jeff Fort’s.

And the hub of all the spokes in Chicago now refused to turn. While the poverty fighters were studying the psyches of young gang leaders, they neglected that larger object of wonder, the scorned politician’s ego. By circumventing “the bureaucracy,” their domestic Green Berets were defying the city machine, the Democratic organization, elected and appointed officials with fiefdoms and perks under challenge. The machine, after all, was an even more visible organizational structure than the gangs—and one, for all its faults, with a better record of benign results in the black community.

Robert Kennedy had resented the payoffs and deals with white and black leaders he had made to win black support for his brother in 1960. He had wanted to show these people he could do what they were commissioned to do, and had failed. His dealings with vicious white leaders in the South did not make him more patient with less racist but also recalcitrant political leaders in the North (though he kept his own regard for the tough Catholic, Mayor Daley). As a senator from New York, Kennedy would even start his own personal program in Bedford-Stuyvesant as a model of “counterinsurgency” community development. By the time Dr. King went to Chicago, Daley was the foe of all “outside agitation.” What he had seen of their “help” looked more like aid to criminals than to less-developed communities.


The story that Lemann tells is a heartbreaking one of good intentions gone astray. And it just gets worse under Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Johnson came to power determined to show the Kennedys and their supporters that their contempt for him was misplaced. He would beat Kennedy at his own game—in civil rights, in aid to the poor, in freedom abroad. The overblown rhetoric of the early poverty programs he took as a direct personal challenge. The heirs to the Kennedy legacy unconsciously egged him on:

In the weeks following the assassination, however, John F. Kennedy, as his associates went to work burnishing his reputation, began to become more liberal—in particular, more liberal than Lyndon Johnson. Caution and pragmatism do not make an easy foundation on which to build an argument for historical greatness, and they were not stressed in the memorialization of Kennedy. In early December 1963, in a eulogy that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, “In one of the last talks I had with him, he was musing about the legislative program for next January, and said, ‘The time has come to organize a national assault on the causes of poverty, a comprehensive program, across the board.’ ” The severely grieving Robert Kennedy found a piece of note paper on which his brother, during the last Cabinet meeting he had conducted, had scribbled the word “poverty” several times and circled it; he framed it and kept it on display in his office at the Justice Department. Theodore Sorenson, who had been so skeptical about the antipoverty program before the assassination, now became an enthusiastic champion of it. Walter Heller was not averse to letting it be known that fighting poverty had been President Kennedy’s last wish.

Conservatives say the poverty program just threw money at the problem. Lemann partly confirms them. When Dave Hackett’s committee proposed a million-dollar pilot program, Johnson’s people, to show their dedication, gave it a billion dollars. Those with misgivings about the programs were ready to take the money on any grounds, knowing it would not be there for more carefully conceived projects later on. Thus they helped subsidize disaster.

When Richard Nixon came to power, he too threw money at the problem, trying to buy domestic peace for his war in Vietnam and to show the liberals he could be hardheaded but caring—as in his support of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Family Assistance Plan. Though that concrete plan lost, the principle behind it prevailed:

The Nixon administration in effect did implement the income strategy by greatly increasing the payment levels of welfare, food stamps, Social Security, and disability pensions, while allowing government social welfare employment to level off.

Moynihan is the Nixon administration’s Sarge Shriver in this account. Both men float about on gusts of enthusiasm and good will, innocently wreaking havoc. Neither will be happy with his portrait.

So far I have left out what is best and most original in Lemann’s account. How did the failures of the “war on poverty” affect those it was trying to help? To answer that question, Lemann follows specific families north into Chicago from the old sharecroppers culture of the Mississippi Delta. He concentrates on those who came up, in great numbers, from the farms and towns around Clarksdale, Mississippi. That town gave one famous person to Chicago, the blues artist Muddy Waters. But it sent hundreds of more obscure people on the same journey of hope, which was mostly dashed. Lemann has traced dozens of these over the years, interviewing them in detail, letting us get to know them and how they had to cope with Chicago’s open menaces and tricky reversible blessings. Thus he creates a tale of three cities and their interaction—Clarksdale, Washington, Chicago—as a synecdoche for the larger patterns of urban policy.

Clarksdale itself he reveals by making one woman’s relatives, children, and friends the center of his story. Ruby Lee Daniels Haynes becomes the Ma Joad of this epic of survival and continuity, reminding us, at each step of the tale, what human stakes were at issue in the sociologists’ models, the economists’ statistics, the politicians’ issues and programs. No other account of the social, political, and intellectual interests at play has done this for the poverty campaign—as opposed to the civil rights histories, whose power lies in the individual stories told. Lemann is reclaiming one whole section of our history as a human transaction, not a story of departments and programs and political devices.

What effect does “community action” have on Ruby and her circle? It means, among other things, that admission to the teeming housing projects is no longer gained by strict screening procedures—removing what little help Ruby had in keeping her sons out of the gangs who range through the projects as their “turf.”

What about Moynihan-inspired programs to make males stay together with their families? Consider Connie, one of Ruby’s friends, who almost miraculously raised a daughter in one of the housing projects to be the valedictorian of her DuSable High School class of 1987 and win a new car offered by Jet magazine for scholastic achievement:

When the news of Melanie’s new car appeared in the newspapers and in Jet magazine, she got a call from her long-absent father, Charles Mays, who wanted to borrow it. She refused, sold the car to help pay for her education, and never heard from him again.

Social theories about optimum social arrangements count for little when a person is surviving from one crisis to another. One of the things that emerges from Lemann’s narrative is the way an extended family of women must partly compensate for the loss of nuclear families, babies being cared for in a network of relatives and friends stretching all the way back to Clarksdale.

It is a mark of the human desire for continuity that the Clarksdale immigrants to Chicago remember their roots, greet new arrivals from their home town even now, and have a club for others who come from their place of origin. In a turn of the story that is an ironic commentary on developments in the North, Ruby and her daughter begin to think of Clarksdale as the Promised Land they should be yearning for. Ruby, indeed, goes back, and finds a Clarksdale far more receptive to her than Chicago ever was.

Yet Clarksdale is sentimentalized in this tale no more than Chicago or Washington. It breathes a little bit freer now because it ruthlessly extruded the blacks it had taken harsh measures to retain when they were economically useful in the cotton fields. No city comes off well in this account. The old sharecropping had been more demeaning than life up North. Death was always near—“moonshine” liquor killed, crazed, and drove people to suicidal acts just like cocaine. There were no good old days.

It would be a terrible, a tragic misreading of this book if it were considered simply, as I fear it may be, the story of the poverty war’s failure. That war, to use the overwrought rhetoric of Richard Goodwin and Lyndon Johnson, certainly did fail to end poverty. But the poor were not ended, and that was a success. The poor lived. Some ate, fed their children, moved up in status or aspiration. The one lasting effect of the program was to give some middle-class blacks government work in the bureaucracy.

If one throws enough money at a problem, some of it will stick. That is a principle people understand well enough when the money is being thrown in their direction. The hasty boosting of a poverty program from a million to a billion dollars is a small thing compared to David Stockman’s description of the way Cap Weinberger set the Pentagon budget by money figures before choosing programs. There was corruption and waste in the military boom of the Reagan years, as in all the other booms of that time. A whole class of procurement operators grew up, handling far more money than any welfare scam imagined. But some of the weapons were made, and some of them worked; and people upset about the 1.7 percent of our federal spending that goes to Aid for Families With Dependent Children do not get angry at the far greater waste in weapons procurement. Why is that? Is even partial success at building the instruments of death more important than a similarly partial success at feeding babies?

That would be a hideous conclusion to reach—and we must have the courage to reach it. One unfortunate aspect of Lemann’s brilliant book is that his analysis of the conceptual flaws in the war on poverty’s programs may lead some readers to think that the right concept, the properly formulated plan, is what we have to wait for and depend on.

There is rarely any one right solution to a complex social problem; and if there were, the odds on finding it and getting support for it would be long; which means no such problem could ever be solved. In human affairs, such problems are usually addressed by a range of actions, good or bad, with varying effects. But when people want to solve the problem, even bad programs can be made to work. Their successful aspects are recognized and built on; their detrimental ones downplayed, or accepted with minimal social concern—witness the failure of the weapons systems. Besides, those anxious to address the problem do not rely on one approach, and then drop the whole matter if it fails. They keep pushing ahead with whatever tools are at hand.

Conversely, even a good program will fail if people do not really want it to succeed. Why were so many good intentions and mobilized resources so quickly dropped in dealing with poverty as it affects blacks? The answer is not in the conceptual details of this or that program. The answer is racism. There are still too many in America who think such programs cannot succeed; that, in fact, they should not, because they will divert resources better spent elsewhere, foist false notions of equality on the mass of people, distort our legal system. These same objections could have been raised against various immigrant groups and ethnic enclaves of our society, and to some extent they were, but never to the crippling degree that affected blacks. Indeed, the inability of blacks to rise faster, even after so much government help, is a proof to some that good money should not be thrown after bad on a lost cause.

No other group in America has been subject to racism in the full sense—to xenophobia, to chauvinism, to ethnic stereotypes, yes; but not to the radical sense of otherness that racism presents in its full virulence. Blacks have been alien, not only in national or cultural or social terms, but in the deepest human sense of worth that can make intermarriage more a blasphemy than a social comedown where blacks—as opposed, say, to those of different religions, or nationalities—are concerned.

It is because of racism that approaches to aid for blacks have usually been so indirect. Beginning from emancipation, blacks have been granted recognition only as part of some larger program of social usefulness. Lincoln emancipated only the slaves in the Confederacy who could help the war effort as soldiers or laborers (or their families). Lemann regrets this indirection, and calls in the book for an outright attack on the slums, saying there is a consensus on the goals of creating safe neighborhoods with much improved schools in place of the ghettos that now spawn crime, ignorance, and fear. But even that consensus is, in its way, indirect. The “war on drugs” gets more public support for improving ghetto conditions than does the plight of children brought up in subhuman conditions.

Of the many reasons for the failure of the war on poverty, Lemann, despite his deep acquaintance with the human story he is telling, and perhaps in part because of it, does not emphasize enough an underlying sense, in the white community, that it should have failed; that blacks could not be trusted to conduct their own affairs; that they must learn to live with the lowered expectations others have of them. (There were more direct causes of failure that Lemann does take into account—e.g., labor unions keeping blacks out of jobs controlled by whites, politicians keeping them out of their organizations, homeowners out of their neighborhoods. Those who talk about “all the help” blacks have been given do not weigh in the scale all these hindrances, covert and overt, reaching into every aspect of their lives.)

Ruby Haynes survived. She did it with extraordinary determination and ingenuity, picking up the pieces of this failed program and that. The war on poverty mainly hurt her, by destroying the safety of the housing project she lived in. What helped her was often an old arrangement—she worked as part of the political machine. Social security—given to all Americans, not merely the poor—finally helped her back to Clarksdale and into a good home beyond her childhood experience or hopes. She is a model of courage in a blighted world. What help she got was mainly indirect.

Republicans are now coming up with their version of “empowerment,” bound to be at least as mischievous as the Democratic form of it was. These look for some shortcut solution to what is one of our deepest national legacies of fear and distrust and hate. The aim is to end social commitment and cost by some crash program. People who can live for generations with the crushing costs of defense want to phase out poverty—i.e., to get rid of the poor—by either advancing them, or by finally proving that advancement is impossible, so the poor must be “written off.”

The black poor are not going away. President Bush now needs them in the military, as Lincoln did once. And that kind of social service requires repayment. Lincoln, who opposed the black franchise even for freed slaves, began to soften his stand where black veterans were concerned. President Bush’s opposition to the last civil rights bill will be hard, if not impossible, to sustain with so many black military men and women in the Middle East.

The military has played an important part in the black community’s life, from emancipation to Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces after World War II. That is why Dr. King had to widen his civil rights crusade to address Vietnam in the Sixties. Lemann tells how some of the Clarksdale children in Chicago made good by getting out of Chicago, out of the projects, into the military. The armed forces are now the most integrated part of American society—and the part where blacks unquestionably perform a service, even when they must be trained up to it from initial deficiencies. It is a place where affirmative action is employed without causing social resentment—blacks are encouraged to join, even out of proportion to their numbers in the population, and they are given special education if that is needed. But they must meet standards; perform; not let the joint endeavor down. This is proof that affirmative action can exist without a lowering of the basic standards.

One of the achievements of the war on poverty was the creation of employment for a black middle class in the welfare bureaucracy (which is not the same as the war on poverty bureaucracy, most of whose programs are gone or vestigial). It is important to society that these blacks be well trained—as important for our social health as is good training in the military. Some say this bureaucracy augments the problems of poor blacks by draining talent out of their communities. But these people need their clients, and need to serve them, just as political bosses like Daley did in the past. They are not in the position of the stray black doctors or law professors or English professors—for example, Shelby Steele—who are so anxious to prove they made it “on their own” that they kick out the ladder behind them.

No social group was ever treated with blindness to its ethnicity in local politics. Irish pols gave patronage and community service to their own. As Lemann notes, Mayor Daley was especially solicitous not only for the Irish but for Catholics—even the blacks he got along with best were often the products of Catholic schools.

It is harder to accommodate these inevitable favoritisms at the federal level, where civil service and “colorblind” restrictions are enacted. But rules get stretched to meet extraordinary social needs when a Lockheed must be bailed out or the S&L debts redeemed. “Favoritism” toward one company or social sector is justified by social need. Welfare for the rich makes people very lax about the rules. This nation is full of the debris of social failure, most of it caused by white citizens calling for emergency measures. The plight of the city is a failure for which all our society is responsible. National service there would not only employ blacks and whites in Peace Corps activities for the inner city—teaching, doing child care, health care for the old and infirm—but would lead to a new level of safety. When middle-class kids go anywhere, the police suddenly find ways of protecting them.

All this takes money, which our Reaganized government no longer has. The money drained upward, and evaporated, instead of draining down, where it might have irrigated. But all our failures take money, and we find it if we want to. Again, Republicans talking about empowerment say “money is not the answer” to education and other problems. (They never say that about missiles or capital formation programs.) What do we need more—peace and a trained citizenry at home, or a New World Order that sends up beautiful rockets from a rotting civic and industrial base? In time, blacks will advance because the nation needs them; but it can cripple itself and them for a long time before that becomes as obvious in other walks of life as it is in the military. The Ruby Hayneses are not the failures. The rest of us, black and white, are. In the meantime, if we would understand the problem—which is the first step toward fully wanting any programs to succeed—The Promised Land is, along with Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, one of the two indispensable books.

This Issue

March 28, 1991