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welfare rights in the 1960s Arrow vol 4 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 4 number 3, 2005


Nonviolence and Long Hot Summers":
Black Women and Welfare Rights Struggles in the 1960s

Rhonda Y. Williams

Case Western Reserve University



1. In 1966 Baltimore, Maryland, USA, a cadre of black and white women who depended on Aid to Families with Dependent Children to financially support their families formed a welfare rights coalition. The coalition included the city's first welfare rights group, Mother Rescuers from Poverty, which informed "welfare recipients of their rights to welfare and to work for a minimum standard of living with dignity" (State Board of Public Welfare, 1969). Mother Rescuers and other welfare rights groups labored to fulfill the National Welfare Rights Organization's (NWRO) imperative to fight for jobs, better welfare services, and dignity for low-income women. Founded in 1966, the NWRO was a multiracial organization of welfare recipients, but the majority of its members and its most vocal leaders were black women. Clearly echoing black rights and freedom struggles of the day, the NWRO implored all low-income women to: "Know your rights, demand your rights, protect your rights, link up with Welfare Rights" (NWRO, 1966).

2. In 1969, the Baltimore coalition attended a meeting at the city's welfare headquarters. Protesting mothers, who had children in tow, wanted the welfare agency to act on a series of demands aimed at improving their quality of life. They not only sought to meet immediate needs such as an adequate income, food, clothing, and shelter, but also to participate in and thereby change what they perceived as a "paternalistic" and "dictatorial" bureaucracy that structured their daily lives and attacked their human dignity ("Goals," 1966).

3. But the meeting at the welfare agency did not proceed as smoothly as might have been desired by either activists or local agency officials. It turned into an overnight protest--a sleep-in at welfare headquarters. That day in May 1969, Rudell Martin, a welfare rights activist and a tenant of Cherry Hill Homes, a public housing complex in Baltimore, told a newspaper reporter that the welfare director, Esther "Lazarus told us last week to come back Monday for an answer. ... Well when we got here today she told us she couldn't answer us till Thursday" ("Welfare," 1969). In fact, Lazarus, who worked to dispel "popular but baseless misconceptions" of welfare clients, had approved most of their demands including allowing coalition members to represent recipients upon request and to set up a welfare rights advisory service inside the agency (Lassiter, 1969). But a few of the demands had required state approval and thus the wait.

4. The mothers who had sacrificed money and time to attend the meeting at the welfare department held vigil throughout the night, vowing to stay "until we get action" (White, 1969). Rudell Martin recalled that people gathered outside once they knew that the mothers would camp out in the building. Supporters from a local church and other civil rights groups brought the protestors food, drinks, and blankets and kept in touch with them through walkie-talkies. Police confronted the demonstrators but made no arrests, apparently upon the request of Lazarus--a wise action given that police mistreatment of welfare recipients, civil rights activists, and black citizens in general had escalated out of control in other cities over the last five years (Keaton & Randall, 1997; Martin, 1997; White, 1969; "Welfare," 1969). In Boston, for instance, police beat welfare recipients who staged a sit-in at the welfare department. The women's screams "from the windows to the streets below" provoked "three days of rioting" (Piven and Cloward, 1977, p. 274). An advisor to the contingent from Baltimore's Cherry Hill Homes, Charles Henry, maintained that the sleep-in, a nonviolent direct action protest, not only resulted in positive action on the remaining demands, but also exemplified self-determination or "people power ... This is something Malcolm X and the late Martin Luther King were working towards" (White, 1969).

5. Focusing on the modern era of black freedom struggles, this essay explores the influence of Mohandas K. Gandhi's nonviolent philosophy on a specific articulation of black American politics—welfare rights activism—and examines the complex interaction and often simultaneous operation of nonviolence, self-defense, and threats of violence on the ground. Against the backdrop of decades of black civil disobedience in the post-1930s era, nonviolent direct action at the grassroots had become a folkloric, or customary, strategy of activist import among everyday people. Welfare rights activism, which exposed urban-based social justice imperatives and low-income women's concerns, provides a context for exploring the disparate and multiple strategies adopted by working-class people at the grassroots. Welfare rights activists engaged in political lobbying, litigation, educational programming, leadership development, coalition and institution building, and direct action campaigns.

6. From the mid-1960s, when the first local welfare rights groups and the national organization emerged, through the 1970s, these direct action campaigns comprised different forms and tenors. The fluid and embedded nature of welfare rights protest tactics (from sleep-ins, marches and door-to-door organizing) and utterances (from cooperation to threatening hot summers) exemplifies how Gandhian nonviolence operated as a situational liberation technique--one of many purposefully and ably deployed by low-income black women not usually regarded as astute political actors. In fact, racialized public rhetoric described them as problems, frauds, and leeches comfortable with their life on the government dole.

7. Welfare rights activists, however, were not content, and their engagement in campaigns to publicly expose and confront unjust, undemocratic, and even violent state programs served as evidence of their dissatisfaction. In the 1969 sleep-in, nonviolence as a strategy and language found expression among low-income black women—as it had among numerous civil rights activists for decades. But nonviolence did not monopolize welfare rights activism or black freedom politics. Aggressive self-determination and vocalized threats of violence also existed at the grassroots--often times used by the same activists who sought to challenge power through peaceful protest. In their daily battles, low-income black women enacted divergent strategies and verbal postures to secure better services, adequate income, dignified treatment, democratic participation, and "a constitutionally and humanely just system" ("Goals," 1966).

8. These philosophical complexities, tactical flexibility, and the eventual public concern about self-defense and counter-force detail the nuances of black struggle, expose the "utter usability" and "malleability" of Gandhian philosophy (Gandhi, 2004), and conjure up a decades-old debate among black U.S. activists. As early as the 1930s, such black activists including Ralph Bunche and Channing Tobias had questioned whether "Gandhi's unequivocal commitment to nonviolence" translated well to black America--thereby exposing the way liberation philosophies traveled internationally and operated domestically (Plummer, 1996, p. 29, 91). Gandhi believed that nonviolence should operate not only as a disruptive and moral mechanism to transform the human condition, but also as a way of life. But just as in India where lower castes, Marxists, and those who preferred or saw the utility of violence contested Gandhi's belief in nonviolence as a way of life (Chakrabarty, 2004), so did black activists engaged in freedom struggles in the United States similarly question its applicability, utility, and desirability.

Black Americans, East Indians, and Liberation

9. In the first decade of the twentieth century, news of Gandhi's heroism and Indian peoples' struggles against British colonials spanned the globe, landing in Europe, South Africa, Asia, and Australia. Returning to India from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi challenged repressive British policies and led campaigns for self-rule. Gandhi became the leader of the Indian National Congress, protested the British partition of Bengal in East India, organized non-cooperation campaigns including the anti-tax Salt March of 1930, and contested the marginalization and stigma of "Untouchables" whom he called Harijans or "children of God" (Kapur, 1992, p. 60). Reports of the audacity of this determined "little man with spectacles"--a former British trained lawyer--who dared to contest British power and domination similarly reached the United States where African Americans engaged in their own battles against racism and exclusion.

10. As early as the 1900s, black Americans learned of Gandhi and the anti-colonial struggle in India. Author, activist, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and "father" of pan-Africanism, W.E.B. Du Bois expressed global "racial solidarity" with Indian freedom fighters and other subjugated people of color. In 1919, Du Bois wrote: "We are all one--we the Despised and Oppressed, the 'niggers' of England and America" (Kapur, 1992, p. 11). Mary Church Terrell, an esteemed black middle-class clubwoman, and Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist Jamaican founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and political ancestor of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, also publicly supported India's freedom struggle in the 1920s. Black journals, including the NAACP's Crisis and UNIA's Negro World , and newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American , Pittsburgh Courier , and Chicago Defender all carried news about Gandhi and his country's struggle against British colonials (Kapur, 1992, pp. 16-23, 38-39). A Defender writer even described "India's concepts of equality and freedom" as "the world's ideals" (Von Eschen, 1997, p. 31). Already possessing a tradition of religiously driven activism and "civil disobedience to unjust systems," black people showed an interest in and receptivity to Gandhian strategies and the travails of Indian peoples (Kapur, 1992, p. 3).

11. In the 1930s and 1940s, amid the Depression, the U.S. government's espousal of democratic liberalism, the rise of fascism internationally, and continued racist and colonial oppression, several black men, who would emerge as nationally recognized civil rights leaders in the United States, visited India and even met Gandhi, and began discussing nonviolent direct action as a tool to bring about mass struggle and social change. Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University, and Channing Tobias, a clergyman and future member of the NAACP Board of Trustees in the 1940s, all traveled to India and met with Gandhi (Kapur, 1992, p. 7). So did Howard Thurman, a Howard University dean and well-respected black intellectual and theologian who remained a strong voice of Christian-based social justice. In an effort to end the exclusion of black people from World War II industrial jobs underwritten by the federal government, A. Philip Randolph consciously deployed a nonviolent direct action protest strategy by threatening a mass march on Washington, D.C. Pacifist and anti-Jim Crow activist, Bayard Rustin learned about Gandhian nonviolence through the Christian, interracial, and pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). The Gandhian philosophy of social change-- satyagraha --based on truth ( satya ), resolute persuasion ( graha ), and non-injury ( ahimsa ) included the deploying of strategies such as direct action, mass peaceful protest, and non-cooperation campaigns. Rustin expressed a commitment to "the struggle for racial equality, a peaceful international order, and a democratic economic system." John D'Emilio's recent biography of Rustin credits him with insinuating "nonviolence into the heart of the black freedom struggle" (D'Emilio, 2004, p. 1). And like Gandhi, Rustin enacted nonviolence as a principled way of living, not only as a pragmatic strategy for black freedom in the United States.

12. Inspired both by Thurman's teaching and FOR's philosophy, James Farmer called for "a creative use of Gandhi's philosophy tailored to American conditions" and helped found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1940s' Chicago. CORE spearheaded nonviolent, direct action campaigns in the United States, organizing sit-ins and boycotts in the 1940s and freedom rides in 1947 and 1961. By the 1960s, CORE had participated in campaigns with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the popular and most recognized "prophet" of nonviolence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Both Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King had visited India in 1959, four years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott and eleven years after Gandhi's murder (Branch, 1989, pp. 250-255, 258-261; Testament of Hope, 1986).

13. In 1953 a CORE chapter was established in Baltimore. An eastern city with an inner harbor, Baltimore enjoyed a vibrant industrial and commercial economy during World War II. As the northernmost southern city, its political economy reflected de facto and de jure racial segregation, state control, and financial conservatism—all of which worked to limit black advancement and opportunity. Baltimore CORE's initial group of 25 to 30 members included middle-class whites and blacks such as a minister and his wife and a "significant contingent of upwardly mobile black trade unionists who were active in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union" (Meier and Rudwick, 1973, p. 57). While some members believed in direct action in the early years, others were reticent about doing anything to cause "potential embarrassment" and feared the "limelight." In general, however, men and women civil rights' protestors experimented with sit-ins and marches to open up jobs, restaurants, and theaters. In particular, the Interstate Route 40 campaign, organized by the national CORE with indispensable aid from the Baltimore chapter, highlighted the irony of a logic that excluded U.S. black people from public accommodations, but not African diplomats--the latter often confused with the former to the federal government's great embarrassment. In 1961, the Route 40 Freedom Riders came through Baltimore, revitalizing what had become a relatively unstable and lethargic chapter (Meier and Rudwick, 1973, pp. 162-163).

14. This broad-based, interlocking constituency and agenda provide early evidence of the direct activist linkages at the grassroots level. Concern about race, religion, rights, and labor undergirded the deployment of nonviolent resistance against colonialism, black subjugation, economic discrimination, and eventually women's marginalization both locally and nationally. In fact, one of CORE's former national officers, George Wiley, helped to found the NWRO in 1966. Alongside the examples of local direct action mobilizations and antiracist activism, such relationships between civil rights' workers and low-income grassroots women's activists, in particular, not only helped to transmit nonviolence as a protest strategy, but also contribute to its folkloric status and sustained use in welfare rights organizing.

15. While black Americans journeyed to India, the exchange of ideas and people flowed in both directions. Between the early 1900s and the mid-1940s, numerous Indian scholars visited historically black colleges, and Indian officials had toured Jim Crow cities, including Baltimore. In 1914 as a political exile and member of Arya Samaj, the Hindu self-government movement, Lala Lajpat Rai came to the United States. During his five-year stay, Rai developed a relationship with Du Bois and other black political activists and publicly gave intellectual witness to the "analogy between the Negro problem in the United States of America and the problem of the depressed classes [Untouchables and members of tribal groups] in India" (Kapur, 1992, p. 14). While Rai was not singularly devoted to nonviolence, exposing the contested nature of the philosophy even in India, another Indian traveler, Haridas T. Muzumdar, who reached the states in the 1920s, worked to spread the power of Gandhi and sataygraha (Kapur, 1992, p. 16). J.J. Singh, who "had participated in Gandhi's salt march to the sea in 1930 but alienated the Mahatma when he fought off a clubbing by British soldiers," came to the United States in the mid-1930s as head of the India League of America (Plummer, 1996, p. 92). And in 1945 during the United Nations' first meeting, Madame Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit toured the United States. Pandit was an outspoken antiracist and women's rights activist and the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru who led the Indian Congress Party. A future India ambassador to the United States, Pandit had refused to speak at the Lyric Theater, Baltimore's premier music hall, when she visited the city because of its segregationist policy. She told a Pittsburgh Courier reporter: "I feel very close to the Negroes in America, in fact I feel like one of them and I am certainly in sympathy with their struggle for full citizenship rights" (Gallicchio, 2000, p. 208; Kapur, 1992, pp. 127-132).

16. In this post-1930s age of white supremacy, imperialism, colorism, and caste, black activists identified with Gandhi's battle. Gandhi not only knew this, but also recognized the struggles of black Americans and the potential power nonviolence could have through their freedom movements. In fact, after a 1936 meeting in India between Gandhi and Thurman, who argued black people possessed a religious tradition "conducive to Gandhi's philosophy and that they were ready to practice it," Gandhi stated: "Well, if it comes true, it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world" (Nelson, 1971, p. 155).

17. Inspired by the success of Gandhi's non-cooperation campaigns, CORE, SCLC, and SNCC leaders and organizers helped spread nonviolent protest strategies among thousands of black activists, who participated in mass public accommodations' demonstrations and voter education campaigns. By the 1960s, nonviolence as a strategy and political technique was affirmed, although not uncontested. The philosophy had penetrated the civil rights movement and, with the growing reach of television, provided the stark footage that both depicted nonviolent protestors in battle against violent state authorities and galvanized national and international sympathy for black Americans.

18. While many of the most publicized nonviolent civil rights campaigns did not alleviate deep-rooted racism and the dire economic needs of impoverished black residents, the strategy of nonviolence influenced activism in cities nationwide. And some of these grassroots activists applied similar tactics against government authorities. Welfare rights' activists, most of them black women, assumed a nonviolent politics of confrontation to achieve their goals—not because they necessarily knew of or revered Gandhi, but because nonviolence had become a widespread quotidian tactic for social change. By then, movement activists had widely used sit-ins and marches as tools of mass resistance. The dissemination of strategic nonviolence, then, did not travel a direct or linear path from Gandhi to low-income black women activists. Many organizers, including welfare rights activists, reshaped and creatively adapted nonviolence and the sit-in by waging, for instance, sleep-ins, lie-ins, and even shop-ins. Moreover, when several of these women activists reminisced about their politicization and discussed their confrontational ethos and activism, they recalled not Gandhi as had Rustin, King, and Farmer, but the influences of family members, then contemporary grassroots urban activists, or simply the urgency of daily life. For instance, Goldie Baker recollected being dragged from demonstrations to meetings to picket lines by her grandmother and mother in 1940s' Baltimore (Baker, 1997). And Margaret "Peggy" McCarty, a black mother, welfare recipient, and the first chair of Mother Rescuers from Poverty, said her activism "came out of ... a need and [being] just sick and tired of people putting you down. Let me see, what word would I want to use for that? Fatigue ... I was just tired, tired of not being able to get any justice" (McCarty, 2003). Low-income black women's historical memory, family legacy, and personal travails, as well as components of Gandhian philosophy already incorporated into black protest traditions, infused their activism and influenced their protest tactics.

19. But the questioning of "suitable" and "honorable" strategies for black liberation caused significant public furor in the 1960s, particularly with the rise of Malcolm X, media coverage of the incendiary rhetoric of SNCC student activists like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, and the increased adoption of radicalizing power stances by local CORE chapters. While the rhetoric and ideologies of these men and groups precipitated public discomfort and new rifts in movement politics, the overarching debate regarding effective and appropriate strategies had a history that involved men and women. The long view of African-American resistance has demonstrated the consistent existence of the all-important question: What methods should black people employ to attack and dismantle racial exclusion and violence? After the 1930s the harnessing of nonviolence in the United States reflected the spread of a black liberation politics shaped by homegrown protest traditions including self-defense and a growing familiarity with Gandhi and the Indian liberation movement. The name of the premier black students' rights group in the 1960s—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—signified this. But the black political terrain was a complicated and shifting one. For just as SNCC and CORE organizers would increasingly harness self-defense and threats of counter-violence, especially in the face of state fomented police brutality, murders, and social oppression, so did low-income black women activists who confronted their own forms of state violence.

Nonviolence, Self-Defense & Threats of Violence

20. While nonviolent strategies infused black women's activism, these women also drew on other black traditions such as self-defense and threats of violence--as signified by Cherry Hill Homes welfare rights advisor Charles Henry's pairing of King (known for his nonviolent stance) with Malcolm X (known for his support of self-defense) during the welfare rights protest in 1969. Henry's statement and low-income black women's activism also help to historically complicate the narrative boundaries that routinely pair stories of southern civil rights with nonviolent efforts and northern Black Power with violence and self-defense struggles.

21. While some real ideological and organizational distinctions existed, an examination of grassroots tactics and campaigns reveals a much more fluid freedom tradition. As historian Clayborne Carson has stated: "Debates over the use of violence are unproductive without a recognition that all effective political movements combine elements of persuasion and coercion" (Carson, 1991, p. 49). Moreover, while in popular perception self-defense was often conflated with or confusedly understood as inextricably intertwined with violence, historian Emilye Crosby has argued that "self-defense is not the opposite of nonviolence nor the equivalent of violence" (2002, p. 160). Neither were self-defense claims, threats of violence, and nonviolence necessarily mutually exclusive or antithetical; for some, they represented available options on a tactical continuum. Historian Simon Wendt's work on black protective clubs in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for instance, revealed the simultaneous operation and lack of conflict among "God, Gandhi, and Guns" in local movement politics (2004). In fact, while self-defense experienced popular resurgence in the late 1960s, it also had a long history, stretching at least as far back to anti-lynching crusader and international activist Ida B. Wells. In her well-known treatise, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law and All Its Phases, published in 1892, Wells maintained: "The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches and which every Afro American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give" (Southern Horrors, 1997, p. 70).

22. Low-income black women's use of various traditions reaffirms the ways in which nonviolence had become a political technique and an embedded practice, but just one of many. In Cambridge, Maryland, grassroots activist Gloria Richardson challenged the unequivocal acceptance of nonviolence in a multilayered movement confronting violent state authorities. In June 1963, violence erupted between armed activists and gun-wielding Cambridge authorities (Giddings, 1984, pp. 290-292; Harley, 2001). A good friend of Rustin's, Ella Baker, who helped run King's SCLC and found SNCC, similarly viewed nonviolence as a strategy. A radical humanist who believed in fundamental social change through the democratic participation of everyday people, Ella Baker in speaking of Rustin, and by extension nonviolence, said: "He had a history of dedication to the concept of nonviolence. I have no such history; I have no such commitment." According to historian Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker "accepted nonviolence as a tactic." Departing from the moral de rigueur of Gandhian philosophy, Baker "never internalized the concept as a way of life or made it a defining feature of her worldview" (2003, p. 193). These words exemplify the stance of many black Americans who either did not witness the emergence of a beloved community in the aftermath of nonviolent protests in the 1950s and 1960s or questioned whether adopting Gandhi's philosophy wholesale in the face of state violence would be wise or productive.

23. Between 1964 and 1968, in particular, when welfare rights organizations proliferated and flourished in cities, urban residents experienced police power, witnessed urban rebellions, and confronted systemic inequality that posed as "normal" social relations. Moreover, after years of protest and lost lives, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had provided legal equality, but had not ended entrenched economic inequality. During these years, militant civil rights, Black Power, and New Left activists made cities their new targets. For instance, CORE, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and Students for a Democratic Society's Economic Research and Action Project (SDS-ERAP), operated in cities, including Baltimore, where low-income women confronted the harshness of state power. These women did not allow the notions of orderliness, bourgeois deportment, and demeaning stereotypes to limit their activism. Low-income women activists in Baltimore and elsewhere sometimes used nonviolent language and other times discarded it—depending on the perceived needs and effectiveness for their particular urban-based, racialized, gendered and working-class issues. Welfare rights groups not only engaged in resistance based on truth, but also vigorously spoke truth to power thereby exposing the limits of the liberal state's gradualist reforms and sometimes willful inaction in response to marginalized people's demands (Williams, 2004, pp. 200-204).

24. Mother Rescuers from Poverty, which had participated in the 1969 sleep-in protest in Baltimore, followed the strategy of a black freedom organization known as Union for Jobs or Income Now (U-JOIN). Founded years earlier by an integrated cadre of SDS-ERAP students organizers concerned about poverty, U-JOIN had a "reputation of getting in the Establishment's hair and pulling hard." Inspired by U-JOIN's unrelenting defiance of state authority, Mother Rescuers confronted bureaucrats and commanded the public eye by frequently marching and passing out leaflets. In order to recruit other low-income women to their cause, the group regularly protested outside the local welfare department office when welfare checks were issued—once even using a sound truck to encourage people to join their picket line. Baltimore recipients' outspokenness and their demonstrations garnered attention from the press, and in the first six months of their existence, their nonviolent protests resulted in meetings with municipal and state welfare officials and legislators.

25. On occasion, they also deployed an assertive, even threatening stance to secure their rights, to convey a strong sentiment of self-determination, and to confront a legacy of government indifference and inequality. At a September 1966 hearing before the Maryland Welfare Costs Committee, McCarty declared: "We are intelligent, ambitious women. ... We are going to grow in numbers and we're going to tell it like it is" ("Mothers," 1966). Within several months, telling it like it was included cautioning officials about the explosive potential of rising disgruntlement. In 1967 the welfare rights' struggle began to intensify, particularly with increased national coordination of poor mothers' actions and more widespread critiques of poverty including by Martin Luther King (King, 1967; Kotz & Kotz, 1977; Nadasen, 2005; Williams, 2004). In February, Mother Rescuers geared up for a battle to reinstate money for rent, food, and clothing that Maryland's white governor, Spiro T. Agnew, had cut from the state budget. Handfuls of women participated in a peaceful march in Annapolis, the state capital, to demand the restoration of cut items and challenge a "'slap in the face' wholesale cutting of the State welfare budget" ("Rescuers," 1967; "Protests," 1967). Viewing the governor's policy as physical assault, welfare rights activists, who participated in the nonviolent protest, however, did not feel compelled to engage in verbal niceties. During another march in Annapolis on March 22, dubbed Poor People's Independence Day, Peggy McCarty threatened legislators with a "long, hot, angry summer" ("Protests," 1967) Unlike other major cities, Baltimore had escaped the rebellions that had exploded between 1964 and 1966—and municipal and state officials wanted to keep it that way. Organizers knew this and not only exploited officials' fears, but, in a sense, offered an alternative to upheaval while also issuing a warning: Continuous government inaction would chip away at civility. In these ways, activists exposed the existence of state violence, the particular forms it took in the lives of low-income black women and their families, and their preferred alternative for peaceful but immediate change.

26. While Gandhi may not have encouraged threats of violence as a liberation or social change strategy, he was quite familiar with state sponsorship of violence and did not unilaterally dismiss violence or retaliation as an option—especially if the choice was between violence and cowardice (Potter, 1971, 93). Popularly imagined as a martyr of moral righteousness, Gandhi was more than a symbol of redemption; Gandhi was also a vocal critic of imperial power and its effects on people's material realities and wellbeing. Until his death in 1948, Gandhi challenged British imperialism and its violent repercussions. The demands for political autonomy, nationhood, and self-determination, which suffused both the Gandhian-led anti-colonial movement and black freedom struggles including welfare rights' protests, in fact, represented a path away from violence. Gandhi critiqued American democracy and its underlying hypocritical treatment of black people. Motivated by the similar forces of state power, race, and caste, Gandhi's movement, like the contentious battles against Jim Crow, even exalted the language of "open rebellion" and "mass movement on the widest possible scale" (Von Eschen, 1997, p. 31).

27. As the 1960s proceeded, AFDC recipient-activists, and their middle-class sympathizers, increasingly conceived state violence broadly and exhibited a commitment to organizing against it. Violence did not simply refer to those acts that resulted in immediate bodily harm such as slavery, lynchings, Ku Klux Klan vigilantism, massive resistance in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, and police brutality. It extended to dehumanization and oppression in its many forms. Echoing the sentiments welfare rights organizers had expressed for years, Coretta Scott King conveyed this expansive view at a Mother's Day March of welfare recipients in May 1968 during the second phase of the Poor People's Campaign, which followed on the heels of her husband's assassination. At the end of a 12-block march culminating in a rally, Scott King reaffirmed a commitment to interracial, nonviolent activism and encouraged "black women, white women, brown women, and red women—all the women of this nation—[to join] in campaign of conscience." But while Scott King stressed nonviolence, she also knew it did not represent "an easy way, particularly in this day when violence is almost fashionable, and in this society, where violence against poor people and minority groups is routine." She continued: "I must remind you that starving a child is violence. Suppressing a culture is violence. Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence. ... Ignoring medical needs is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence. Even the lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence" (Welfare & the Poor, 1977, pp. 28-29). This timely remark not only helped to publicly redefine violence, but also exposed the interaction of nonviolence and violence in American society.

28. But, clearly, even before Scott King's public comment before 5,000 people in the nation's capital, such violence had infiltrated low-income black women's lives, their familial legacies, their historical memories, and their relationships with government authorities and programs--including the lives of some fellow black men activists. Walter Lively, the leader of Baltimore's U-JOIN, grew up in poverty in public housing in Philadelphia. Stories of abusive treatment by social service workers and the systems they represented existed much earlier than the 1960s heyday of welfare rights activism. Even Malcolm X, the charismatic icon of Black Power activists, argued that the belittling of his mother by a white welfare worker in the 1930s led to his mother's nervous breakdown and the break-up of their family. Goldie Baker remembers her grandmother and mother contesting unfair welfare agency policies in the 1940s and 1950s. Given the tumult of the 1960s, the violent dehumanization of welfare recipients through debasing stereotypes of black women disseminated as truth, and the sometimes evasive or overzealous responses of public welfare and government officials toward assertive protestors, it was not surprising that the threat of violence emerged as a strategic call.

29. The relationship between and expression of violence and nonviolence in welfare rights' activism, however, differed from other black freedom organizations. In several southern cities in Alabama, North Carolina, and Louisiana, black civil rights activists developed self-defense units and rifle clubs that actively protected demonstrators and freedom workers with rifles and arms. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and US, both founded in the mid-1960s in California, also established paramilitary units within their organizations (Brown, 2003; Self, 2003). Welfare rights activists did not express a belief in self-defense through the development of such organizational sub-units. Instead these women, who sought to protect themselves, families, communities, and fellow activists against state violence, engaged in rhetorical posturing. In Baltimore and elsewhere, low-income black women activists exhibited a willingness to deploy the aggressive language of "force" or "long hot summers," thereby utilizing the fear of urban uprisings and black radical confrontation as they negotiated their demands.

30. In August 1967 at the NWRO's first national convention, a 1,000-member singing and shouting delegation that included Baltimore women protested the federal government's proposed bill that would force mothers who received welfare to work or remove them from the rolls. NWRO organizers invited Senators to meet with them, but none did. Protestors vented their disappointment and outrage in a demonstration at the Health, Education, and Welfare building in D.C. and a rally on the Mall. Despite their nonviolent direct action character, both protests drew heavy police details and the specter of state power in the nation's capital, so much so that even a Washington Post reporter wrote: "The Capitol and metropolitan police were present in unusual force" (Loftus, 1967).

31. Even so, black female recipient-activists did not mince words. Questioning the sanity of spending billions on the Vietnam War while spending a pittance on social programs, NWRO activists characterized the restrictive welfare bill as "a betrayal of the poor, a declaration of war upon our families, and a fraud on the future of our nation" (Loftus, 1967). At the rally on the Mall, McCarty aroused the national delegation, drawing resounding applause when she bellowed that "lousy, dirty, conniving, brutes" devised the welfare bill to "take us back to slavery." In her emphatic statement that conjured up a systemically violent and oppressive saga in black people's lives, McCarty connected the historical memory and brutality of slavery and racial discrimination to contemporary oppression. She continued in her statement: "It's another form of slavery, baby. But I'm black and I'm beautiful. They're not going to take me back" (James, 1967). McCarty then stated that if the protestors' collective voices did not motivate federal officials and elected representatives to change the laws and welfare system, maybe "force" would. Activists' efforts at calm negotiation and frank discussion hardly ever met willing listeners among political officials. Instead, disruption and aggressive responses including the threat of violence and the impending doom of urban rebellions seemed to be the premier language that the government paid attention to and yet simultaneously reviled. For several summers in a row, pent-up frustrations had exploded into full-scale uprisings. During 1967, urban rebellions in Newark, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit were still fresh, and the summer was not yet over.

32. Protesting mothers felt the proposed bill penalized them for their poverty and would force them to abide by a less than fair policy. In fact, they claimed that government officials treated them as less than second-class citizens. The potential for black uprisings and government retaliation mediated political relations. Responding to the physical and political presence of government force, Beulah Sanders, vice-chair of NWRO and a New York City resident, similarly deployed the rhetoric of counter-force at the Mall rally, saying protestors' money "paid for the Capitol" and they should "tear it down if they don't listen to you." Other NWRO figures echoed McCarty's and Sanders' sentiments. George Wiley, the former CORE organizer and NWRO founder, conjured up more starkly the urban rebellions and upheaval in the streets: "If this country does not listen to poor people after what happened in Detroit and Newark and New Haven you haven't seen nothing yet" (Honsa, 1967). And Johnnie Tillmon "said it was time officials understood the meaning of the long hot summer." The Evening Star newspaper, which covered the rally, blared in its headline: "Welfare Rally Threatens Riots" (Honsa, 1967; James, 1967). Two years later in 1969, Sanders and Wiley used similar fiery rhetoric and warnings of counter-force when the New York legislature cut benefits for three-quarter of a million mothers and children and again before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee following an urban uprising (Orleck, 2005, pp. 122, 127).

33. In an era ripe with urban uprisings, law and order claims, and police attacks on black activists, state force met the people's threat of counter-force and self-defense. While harnessing "protests in the streets and negotiation in the suites," welfare rights activists had once again warned politicians that if you want to avoid violent responses from people you do wrong, you had better do right (Orleck, 2005, p. 115, 127). In Boston in 1968, the state welfare commissioner seemingly did just that; he consciously decided to avoid the explosive potential of large scale welfare rights' campaigns by at least pledging to increase financial resources to clients. In testimony before a state legislative committee, the commissioner maintained: "If anyone had been at Roxbury Crossing in June 1967, when a riot occurred, he would have noticed some of the same elements here at the welfare office on July 30, 1968" (Piven and Cloward, 1977, p. 304).

34. While such lively welfare rights' protests garnered the attention of the media and powerbrokers, welfare rights activists did not naively or unreservedly embrace the battle cry of long hot summers or the potential violence it could spur. Some women welfare rights' activists not only worried about losing local and national public support given white America's preference for nonviolent direct action, but also feared retaliation from anti-welfare constituencies and municipal authorities. During the sleep-in protest in Baltimore, Rudell Martin recalled: "I happened to look out the door and I saw all these police cars. It scared me to death. But you know ... at that point I said Lord I cannot disappoint these people" (Martin, 1997). Other activists staunchly positioned themselves as peacemakers in a socially and economically violent society. As indicated throughout this essay, black welfare rights activists envisioned their demonstrations and demands as a compelling alternative to the state violence that Scott King had lucidly described in her 1968 Mother's Day speech. In fact, at the sleep-in, Martin assured welfare officials that protestors were not there "to destroy. We are only here to make a point. And the point was that we had applied for furniture, we were here to talk about this mistreatment, and the disrespect that we get" (Martin, 1997). Through nonviolent civil disobedience, welfare recipient-activists had sought to educate officials and bring about solutions. Still other women activists argued that diverse local political cultures simply required different (if not multiple) tactics. For instance, in Las Vegas during a news briefing announcing a march to protest enormous benefits cuts in 1971, George Wiley threatened "a long hot summer in Las Vegas" if welfare officials did not restore benefits. Ruby Duncan, however, the director of the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization in Las Vegas, "worried that threats of violence could backfire" and argued that such strategies "might work back East but it won't work here" (Orleck, 2005, p. 148). For all these reasons, delimiting, if not preventing, the actualization of threats of volatility were also critically important to welfare rights activists.

35. Pressing for change was strenuous and risky work. Welfare rights activists at the local and national levels had to constantly figure out the best way to manage mothers' real frustrations, feelings of abuse, and occasional displays of anger over government mistreatment with their overwhelming desire for effective and substantive change. While the pathways to change were myriad and definitely difficult, one thing remained starkly obvious: welfare mothers ardently maintained that ultimately they were the nonviolent ones. The powerbrokers who repeatedly denied them and their families the basic necessities of life and human dignity were the violent ones.


36. In welfare rights activism, nonviolent direct action and rhetorical threats of violence were the wrenches and hammers in the activist toolkits of low-income black women who challenged their impoverishment and exclusion in American society. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the struggles of welfare rights activists drew on various traditions of grassroots empowerment--and black freedom struggles inflected by Gandhian nonviolence represented one of them. In fact, these women's activism exemplifies the point that "nonviolent direct action and self-defense were not mutually exclusive, but were often used by the same people in different situations" (Crosby, 2002, p. 160). Low-income women's strategic use of nonviolent resistance, aggressive confrontation, self-defense, and threats of force also reaffirm the complexity of the unfolding of the history of black liberation. Their strategies and rhetoric exemplify not only the development of Gandhian-inflected civil disobedience and direct action as folkloric strategies in black freedom struggles, but also the malleability of nonviolence as well as the creativity of black activists who purposefully shaped it to provoke responsiveness from a government that excluded them.

37. Examining welfare rights protests in Baltimore and elsewhere not only help to bring women and their activism center stage. Low-income women's stories expand our understanding of black freedom struggles and working-class protest in post-Depression and postindustrial cities beyond the charismatic leader, and the formal and popularly recognized black political organizations. By forcing scholars to deal with how women enacted their issues and pushed the boundaries of accepted political practice, low-income women's struggles unveil a much fuller picture of whom black freedom activists were and the traditions they fostered.

38. Finally, welfare rights activism that incorporated nonviolence, self-determination, and threats of forceful action had an impact on low-income women's lives "in the moment"--not just on expanding history beyond the traditional narratives. Contending with marginalization by the government, poverty, and gender and racial discrimination, these low-income black women activists refused to be marginalized as political actors and U.S. citizens. As organizers, these low-income black women knew that combating marginalization required thoughtfulness, flexibility, multiple negotiating strategies, physical and moral stamina, and indefatigable commitment, and they wielded consciously the language of citizenship and rights, self-defense and force, and nonviolence in their grassroots battles—some of which they won. They garnered increased benefits from the state and carved out an official public space of representation on local and state government boards and in welfare agencies. In short, welfare rights activists not only fought for subsistence rights and a better quality of life, but they also sought to participate in government decision-making and to contest the state's discriminatory and violent stance against its low-income citizens--a stance that that remains all too present decades later in this the 21st century.


Rhonda Y. Williams is an associate professor of History at Case Western Reserve University and the author of The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles Against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) which won the Association of Black Women's Historians' 2004 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award. Williams also co-edited Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom's Bittersweet Song (New York: Routledge, 2002) with Julie Buckner Armstrong, Susan Hult Edwards, and Houston Bryan Roberson.


I would like to thank Pamela E. Brooks, Peniel E. Joseph, Premilla Nadasen, Annelise Orleck, Karen Sotiropoulos, and Eric Schneider for reading this essay in its entirety and offering useful suggestions for revisions. This essay grew out of a paper presentation at the "Gandhi, Non-Violence & Modernity" Conference at the Humanities Research Centre of the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, in 2004. Therefore, I must absolutely thank the organizers, John Docker and Debjani Ganguly, for inviting me to participate in the conference, as well as my fellow conference participants for a wonderfully rich intellectual exchange. Finally, for greater detail on many of the incidents of activism and low-income women's stories referenced in this essay, see Rhonda Y. Williams, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles Against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

1.   I would like to thank Dr. Mary Bivins for suggesting the term "folkloric" as a way to think about the indirect conveyance and expression of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience among grassroots black women activists.

2.   In his work on Aboriginal politics, Garveyism, and resistance strategies, scholar John Maynard explores the connections of Gandhian and Garveyite rhetoric and activist formations. " 'Be the Change That You Want to See': The Awakening of Cultural Nationalism—Gandhi, Garvey and the AAPA," Paper presentation at the "Gandhi, Non-Violence & Modernity" Conference, HRC, ANU, September 2, 2004.


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