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The Mainline Churches and Head Start in Mississippi: Religious Activism in the Sixties

  • James F. Findlay (a1)


One of the most innovative provisions of the Economic Opportunity Act, passed by Congress in August 1964 as the heart of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, was funding for a preschool program for the youngest of America's poor, known as Head Start. Many children were qualified for Head Start in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation. This was especially so in the northwest quadrant of that state. The area, known locally as “the Delta,” was dominated by the floodplain of the lower Mississippi River, a largely rural, cotton-based economy, and tens of thousands of desperately poor, largely black, farm workers.



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1. An excellent recent historical study of the Delta is Cobb's, James C.The Most Southern Place On Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (New York, 1992). See also Friedland, Michael B., “‘To Proclaim the Acceptable Year of the Lord’: Social Activism and Ecumenical Cooperation Among White Clergy in the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements of the 1950's and 1960's” (Ph.D. diss., Boston College, 1993). This work is especially valuable for the wide range of printed sources provided in its footnotes.

2. On Freedom Summer and its historical background, see McAdam, Doug, Freedom Summer (New York, 1988);Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (New York, 1988);Carson, Clayborn, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960's (Cambridge, 1981);Dittmer, John, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana, 1994)

3. “Oral History Memoir of Dr. Tom Levin,” folder entitled “History, oral—July, 1965, Interviewee Tom Levin,” box 3, Tom Levin Papers, Martin Luther King Center, Atlanta; unpaginated typewritten notes in notebook entitled “Current Writing: Chap. II-History (Draft),” John Mudd Papers [private collection], Cambridge, Massachusetts.

4. On the Freedom Schools, see Perlstein, Daniel, “Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools,” History of Education Quarterly (Fall, 1990): 297324. For a superb analysis of “participatory democracy” as understood by movement people in Mississippi, see King, Richard H., Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom (New York, 1992), pp. 386, 138–171.

5. There is no comprehensive scholarly history of CDGM. But see Greenberg, Polly, The Devil Has Slippery Shoes: A Biased Biography of the Child Development Group of Mississippi, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C., 1990). Recent brief assessments are in Findlay, James, Church People in the Struggle: The National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement, 1950–1970 (New York, 1993), pp. 124128;Lemann, Nicholas, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (New York, 1991), pp. 324327; and especially Dittmer, , Local People, chap. 16. Dittmer's account is especially revealing in tracing the connections between the beginnings of CDGM and the movement in Mississippi.

6. “Proposal for a Full-Year Head Start Program of the Child Development Group of Mississippi,” p. 1, in folder entitled “CDGM Proposal #2,” box 1, Levin Papers. See also Jule Sugarman, interview, typescript, Oral History Collection, Lyndon Johnson Papers, Austin, Texas, p. 27.

7. For a clear indication of how CDGM provided jobs and money for the African American community in Mississippi, see “Revised Budget for Central Administration for CDGM, March 8, 1966,” in Record Group [RG] 301.7, box 44, folder 2, National Board of Missions Papers, United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia [hereafter UPCUSA]; on the CDGM newsletter, see folder entitled “Volume III: Teacher Development and Program for Children,” John Mudd Papers [private collection], Davenport, New York.

8. Findlay, , Church People in the Struggle, p. 125.

9. Ibid., p. 126.

10. A powerful evocation of these long-standing divisions within the Mississippi black community is contained in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer recorded in “Chance for Change,” an hour-long documentary on CDGM produced by PBS-WNET in 1966 and now in the files of Blacksides, Inc., in Boston, Massachusetts. See also telegrams, Newell Chapel CME Church Board of Christian Education to Shriver, 13 October 1966; and Mississippi State Conference, NAACP, to Theodore Berry, 13 October 1966, in box 1, OEO files, folder 3, “Child Development Group of Mississippi,” Sargent Shriver Papers, John F. Kennedy Library; and Dittmer, Local People, pp. 370–371, 373, 377–382.

11. Findlay, , Church People in the Struggle, chaps. 3–5.

12. “Oral History Memoir of Dr. Tom Levin,” pp. 9–13, box 3, Levin Papers; “Statement to the Evaluation Committee,” miscellaneous documents, box 3, and “Confidential Report to the Executive Committee, Commission on the Delta Ministry,” 1 October 1965, p. 1, box 5, Arthur Thomas Papers, Martin Luther King Center, Atlanta; Jon Regier, interviewed by the author, tape recording, 7 August 1986, New York; “Board of Directors, CDGM, 1 September 1966,” and Arthur C. Thomas to Child Development Group, 6 July 1966, both items in notebook entitled “Board of Directors, CDGM,” Mudd Papers, Davenport, New York. In mid-1966 three of the fifteen members of the executive committee of CDGM were from the Delta Ministry, and Art Thomas served on CDGM's Finance and Personnel Committees, at least until he resigned from the Ministry in July 1966.

13. Harry L. Stearns to Kenneth G. Neigh, 17 September 1965, folder 1; Bryant George to Kenneth G. Neigh, 28 February 1966, and Neigh to Dawson I. Horn, 2 March 1966, both items in folder 2, box 44, RG 301.7 UPCUSA Papers; Bryant George to President, CDGM, 2 March 1966, attached to Minutes, Board of Directors, CDGM, 6 March 1966, box 4, Thomas Papers; Jon Regier, interviewed by the author, tape recording, 7 August 1986.

14. Dunbar, Leslie, “An Essay in Self-Reliance,” pp. 36, in folder entitled “Reports: CDGM by Monsonis, Dunbar, Robinson,” box 1, Levin Papers; Dittmer, Local People, pp. 369–374.

15. Watters, Pat, “Mississippi Children and Politics,” p. 4, undated essay, in folder entitled “CDGM Review File,” box 2T93, Field Foundation Papers, Charles Barker Center, University of Texas; Monsonis, James, “Parties, Politics and Poverty: Some Aspects of Conflict in a Mississippi Poverty Program,” pp. 7–8, in folder entitled “Reports: CDGM by Monsonis, Dunbar, Robinson,” box 1, Levin Papers.

16. The expanding role of the Presbyterian National Board of Missions appears in Bryant George to Kenneth Neigh, 24 February 1966, and 28 February 1966, both items in RG 301.7, box 44, folder 3; Bryant George to President, Child Develpment Group of Mississippi Board, 2 March 1966; George to Robert Barrie, 8 March 1966, and 17 March 1966; George to John Mudd, 17 March 1966; George to Jule Sugarman, 17 March 1966; all items in RG 301.7, box 44, folder 2, UPCUSA Papers. See also the lighthearted, but telling, words in Gay Wilmore to Bryant George, 10 March 1966, RG 301.7, box 44, folder 2, UPCUSA Papers: “If we have helped to beat Stennis and the Mississippi segregationists on this one, I hope we tell the world and rub their noses in it—just one time. Now do it one more time…now do it one more time…”

17. Jackson Clarion-Ledger (Miss), 1 October, p. 5; 4 October, p. 14; 5 October, pp. 1, 20; 11 October, pp. 2, 14; and 12 October 1966, pp. 1, 18; Jule Sugarman, interview, Lyndon Johnson Papers, pp. 33–34. The quotation is on p. 34. Also compare OEO press releases on MAP and Southwest Mississippi Opportunity, Inc., both dated 11 October 1966, with “Shriver Drops CDGM,” The New Republic, 13 October 1966, all items in RG 301.7, box 45, folder 19, UPCUSA Papers. The best brief analysis of the socio-political make-up of Mississippi Action for Progress and the role MAP played in the efforts to destroy CDGM is in Dittmer, Local People, pp. 377–378.

18. Findlay, , Church People in the Struggle, p. 128. Sargent Shriver steadfastly maintained that OEO terminated CDGM in September 1966 because of long-standing fiscal and administrative weaknesses which CDGM seemed unable to correct. He strongly denied that political pressures from people like Stennis motivated OEO actions. A knowledgeable national church leader, reflecting on the matter in early November, 1966, effectively rebutted his friend Shriver with these words: “I am certain that there were bad administrative procedures [in CDGM]…. I am also certain, however, that none of this would have been important in the absence of the political pressure. It was because political pressure existed that these things became important. And if the project [CDGM] had been…in any other state but where it was, no fuss would have been made.” Paul Jacobs to Donald A. Petrie, 1 November 1966. Shriver's views are well expressed in his letter to the editor, New York Times, 19 October, typewritten draft. See also Samuel F. Yette to “the Director,” 6 January 1967, especially Shriver's handwritten marginal comments. All in box 1, OEO files, folder 1, “CDGM,” Shriver Papers, John F. Kennedy Library.

19. Robert Barrie to Leslie Dunbar, 29 November 1966, RG 301.7, box 45, folder 20, UPCUSA Papers; Leslie Dunbar to John Mudd, 21 November 1966, folder entitled “United Presbyterian Church (CDGM) 1967,” box 2T93, Field Foundation Papers, Charles Barker Center, University of Texas.

20. “Statement of 73 Urban Church Specialists,” undated press release in notebook entitled “CDGM Press Clippings, 1965—,” Mudd Papers, Davenport, New York; telegram, Bryant George to Charles Leber, Jr., 13 October 1966, RG 301.7, box 45, folder 19; untitled memo of George Todd and James McDaniel, 28 October 1966, folder 20, UPCUSA Papers.

21. “The Child Development Group of Mississippi,” p. 7, undated memo in folder entitled “CCAP-CDGM,” box 2, Citizen's Crusade Against Poverty Collection [Collection #516], Walter Reuther Papers, Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

22. A copy of the ad is in folder entitled “Church Records, Miscellaneous, 1966–67 (CDGM),” Truman Douglass Papers, Archives, Syracuse University Library. Kenneth Neigh, at the time executive director of the National Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., preserved and later hung on his living room wall the original metal casts used to print the ad. For revealing comments about Shriver's response to the ad, see Jule Sugarman, interview, Lyndon Johnson Papers, p. 34, and folder 1, “Child Development Group of Mississippi,” box 1, OEO file, Shriver Papers.

23. Two other elements of the national coalition of groups fighting to save CDGM must be recognized. The Citizens' Crusade Against Poverty, a public-interest group intent on policing Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty program and funded largely by Walter Reuther and the United Automobile Workers, coordinated the nationwide lobbying effort. The executive director of the Crusade, Richard Boone—a longtime union official who had briefly worked for OEO in Washington—possessed shrewd tactical instincts and wide contacts in liberal political circles which he put to good use in the CDGM struggle. As already noted, the Field Foundation provided essential financial support, based on the fortune of the Marshall Field family from Chicago, for beleaguered Head Start centers in Mississippi after federal funding ceased in September 1966. Behind the scenes the president of the Field Foundation, Morris Abram, a longtime friend of Shriver's and the latter's legal counsel while director of the Peace Corps, strongly pressed the OEO head to back down. So did Reuther, chiefly through his unequivocal support of the efforts of the Citizens' Crusade Against Poverty. The role of CCAP in the funding battle over CDGM is amply documented in Collection no. 516, a small but separately identified portion of the Walter Reuther Papers in the Reuther Library at Wayne State University. See also Richard Boone to Sargent Shriver, 13 October 1966, Shriver to Boone, 13 October 1966, and telegram, Shriver to Walter P. Reuther, 13 October 1966, all items in box 1, OEO file, folder 2, “CDGM,” Shriver Papers. On the Abram-Shriver relationship regarding CDGM, see especially Morris Abram to Sargent Shriver, 17 October 1966, folder entitled “CDGM Review Files,” box 2T93, Field Foundation Papers; Leslie Dunbar, interview by author, tape recording, 3 September 1993.

24. The Presbyterian National Board of Missions was responsible for most of the staff work necessary to activate this group. See James A. McDaniel to Kenneth Neigh, 1 November 1966, and related documents in RG 301.7, box 44, folder 3a, UPCUSA Papers. See also news release, 9 November 1966, and Richard Boone to Truman Douglass, 14 November 1966, both items in folder entitled “Church Records, Miscellaneous, 1966–67 (CDGM),” box 22, Truman Douglass Papers.

25. “The Re-Funding of CDGM,” Christianity and Crisis, 23 January 1967, pp. 314–315; Leslie Dunbar, interview by author, tape recording, 3 September 1993; Morris Abram to Leslie Dunbar, 14 December 1966, folder entitled “CDGM Review File,” box 2T93, Field Foundation Papers; Hubert H. Humphrey to Sargent Shriver, 29 December 1966, box 1, OEO files, folder 1, “CDGM,” Shriver papers. Shriver's continuing belief that CDGM was not correcting major administrative weaknesses is forcefully expressed in Shriver to Humphrey, 5 December 1966, box 1, OEO files, folder 1, “CDGM,” Shriver Papers.

26. Kenneth Neigh to “Board and Staff Membership; Office of the General Assembly…” 22 December 1966, RG 301.7, box 45, folder 20, UPCUSA Papers; Richard Boone to “Friend of the Crusade,” 23 December 1966, in folder entitled “Child Development Group of Mississippi, 1966,” box 3, Collection #516, Reuther Papers; and especially memo, Sargent Shriver to Cliff Alexander, 24 February 1966, with attachments, in folder entitled “WE 9–1, Project Head Start,” Confidential File, WE 9–1, Box 98, Lyndon Johnson Papers.

27. Ibid.; Jule Sugarman, interview, Lyndon Johnson Papers, pp. 36–37; telegram, Kenneth G. Neigh to Jule Sugarman, 29 December 1966; draft memorandum of understanding, 15 January [1966]; telegram, Bryant George to Peter Hall, 31 January 1967; all items in RG301.7, box 45, folder 20, UPCUSA Papers; Richard Davies to Sargent Shriver, 11 January 1967, folder 3a, UPCUSA Papers; Morris Abram to Board of Directors of the Field Foundation, 24 January 1967, folder entitled “CDGM Review File,” box 2T93, Field Foundation Papers; “Shriver Comes Across,” The New Republic, 7 January 1967, p. 10.

28. On doubts about CDGM's continuing effectiveness as a source of “people power” and educational innovation, see Jake Ayres, interview, typescript, 14 August 1967, in folder entitled “Interviews,” in file cabinet, “CDGM—Writing and Notes,” Mudd Papers, Davenport, New York; John Mudd and Marvin Hoffman, “The New Plantations,” The Nation, 24 October 1966.

29. Marvin Hoffman, “Negro-White Relations in CDGM,” undated typewritten ms., in folder entitled “Negro-White Relations—MAP and CDGM,” Mudd Papers, Davenport, New York; Minutes, Board of Directors, CDGM, 4 March 1967, pp. 3–5, Minutes, Ad Hoc Committee, CDGM, 17 March 1967; Minutes, Board of Directors, 12 August 1967, pp. 5–7; Executive Committee to “Board Member,” CDGM, 18 August 1967, all items in RG 301.7, box 45, folder 15, UPCUSA Papers.

30. Some recent historical discussions of poverty in the United States have focused not only on the broad impersonal forces and powerful national institutions which perpetuate deep economic inequality, but also on the less recognized ways in which the poor themselves always have worked to ameliorate and change their conditions. This latter point of view is highly relevant to the history of CDGM. See, for example, Gordon, Linda, “Black and White Visions of Welfare: Women's Welfare Activism, 1890–1945,” Journal of American History (09 1991): 559590;Jones, Jacqueline, The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present (New York, 1992), and especially Katz, Michael B., ed., The “Underclass” Debate: Views from History (Princeton, N.J., 1993).

31. Findlay, Church People in the Struggle, is one of the first efforts to recreate the mainline Protestant churches' work, but much remains to be said about individual denominations and ecumenical agencies other than the National Council of Churches. See also Alvis, Joel L. Jr, Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946–1983 (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1994).

32. Two pioneering studies in this regard are Eagles, Charles, Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1993), and Longenecker, Stephen L., Selma's Peacemaker: Ralph Smettzer and Civil Rights Mediation (Philadelphia, 1987).

33. There is as yet no comprehensive scholarly study of Jewish contributions to the civil rights movement. The important role of Roman Catholic clergy and lay people in efforts at racial justice in the sixties is discussed briefly in McGreevey, John, “Racial Justice and the People of God: The Second Vatican Council, the Civil Rights Movement, and American Catholics,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 4 (Summer 1994): 221–54. McGreevey's book-length treatment of the topic is forthcoming.

34. John Mudd, interview by author, tape recording, 3 August 1989, Boston, Mass. For White House and OEO exasperation with the persistent pressures applied by Kenneth Neigh in behalf of CDGM, see W. Marvin Watson to Sargent Shriver, 30 November 1966 (especially Shriver's handwritten marginal notes), box 1, OEO files, folder 1, “CDGM,” Shriver Papers.

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
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