On April 14, 1967, longtime Albany County Democratic Party Chairman Daniel P. O'Connell walked up the County Courthouse steps amid newspaper and television cameras. An Albany County Grand Jury subpoenaed O'Connell, the behind the scenes kingpin of the Albany Democrats, to testify in the hearings on allegations of vote buying and election fraud by the Democratic Party. Local community activists initiated the hearings because of frustration with delays and the exclusion of local African Americans from planning and administration of the local War on Poverty. The Albany Democratic Party was ending a nearly three year struggle with community groups, social welfare professionals, and civil rights activists over the 1964 War on Poverty's Community Action Program (CAP). Much has been written about the power and patronage of the Albany Democratic machine, yet very little has been written about groups and individuals that challenged their power and legitimacy, specifically the impact of CAP on local political power.
The historical narrative of the Great Society in general, and the Community Action Program in particular, has largely reflected the events and experiences in large cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago, ignoring smaller communities' implementation of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act (EOA). This article examines the struggle to develop Albany's CAP and provides a greater understanding of city's race relations during the early 1960s. The Community Action Program was a monumental effort to alleviate poverty by empowering poor people at the grassroots level and in October 1964, Congress appropriated $300 million for CAP in 1965. By the end of 1966, more than 1,000 community action agencies were in existence. The most controversial part of the legislation required "maximum feasible participation" from residents of poor neighborhoods. (2) The debates over the participation of the poor in developing Albany's anti-poverty program was the primary obstacle and resulted in Albany having the dubious distinction of being the last major American city to develop a an anti-poverty program. (3) During that same period, Rochester New York's CAP had an annual operating budget of four million dollars. (4)
I argue that the conflict over community action exacerbated race relations in Albany and contributes to the ongoing narrative about the significance of the War on Poverty in smaller urban areas. A study of Albany's experience's with the CAP suggests that the city and county government leaders went to extreme measures to resist outside interference, intimidate political opposition, and ignore the repeated call for involvement of the poor in the decision making process. The events surrounding community action indicate that the Albany Democrats saw an opportunity to further strengthen their patronage system by marginalizing the poor out of the decision-making process. A liberal coalition emerged in Albany that engaged in a fierce political battle with Albany Democrats surrounding the control and implementation of the CAP and President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. The political deadlock between competing forces in Albany over community action and participatory democracy caused the city to lose access to critical funding for social welfare programs and created tensions that are still felt today.
For decades, Albany Democrats successfully refuted state and federal interference in local affairs and politics. Led by Erastus Corning, Mayor of Albany from 1941 until his death in 1983, and Daniel O'Connell, the Albany Democrats promoted steadfast resistance to dissent since taking over Albany politics in the 1920s. The Albany political organization withstood earlier investigations into corruption by Governors Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller, and by 1960 was at the height of its power. Author Paul Grondahl noted that in Albany "the machine was a seamless apparatus of raw political power because it reached down through past generation of machine families." (5) During Governor Dewey's investigation of O'Connell and the Albany Democrats, journalist I.F. Stone referred to "Albanians as having the civic patriotism of a Greek city-state." (6)
Albany experienced little of the political violence that swept through similarly sized cities such as Rochester and Newark. But after clashes between community organizers and Albany's political elite over community action, activists took to the streets and submitted legal challenges to the power and legitimacy of the Albany Democratic Party. Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy, born in Albany, is best known for his "Albany Cycle" of novels that capture the colorful nature of local Albany politics. Early in his career, Kennedy worked as a journalist for the Albany Times-Union and during the 1960s spent time covering the civil rights movement in Albany. Kennedy wrote that by the 1960s, all of the "Tammany Hall tricks and traits were adapted to Albany" and quotes O'Connell saying that the community action programs as "being a lot of horseshit." (7)
Seeds of Discontent
Soon after World War II, many American cities endured significant demographic changes that ultimately affected employment opportunities, the availability of housing, and the role of government in urban administration. During this period, African Americans commenced a significant migration from rural areas to cities. Albany was no stranger to this population shift as meaningful numbers of African Americans came to Albany from Mississippi, Georgia and other areas of the South searching for better employment, housing, education and an end to racial discrimination. Consequently, a new Black political class emerged and cities across the nation experienced different levels of conflict. In Albany, a struggle ensued between an aging and entrenched Democratic political machine and Black activists from an emerging political constituency.
Thomas Sugrue and Arnold Hirsch critically examined the dynamics of postwar race relations in Detroit and Chicago. (8) Both authors illustrate the central themes in post-war urban history such as deteriorating race relations, the creation of a legal framework for housing segregation, redlining by banks, and the decline of manufacturing jobs. They argue that the tensions in the 1940s and 1950s over housing and employment presaged the War on Poverty, the turbulence of the 1960s, and the eventual dismantling of the New Deal coalition. Richard Thomas argued that in the post-war era "patterns of class and racial segregation in large northern cities have persisted and hardened" and that development of urban areas should be examined in the context of struggle, empowerment, and a "community building process. Thomas defines the community building process in the urban areas of this period as the efforts of Black individuals, institutions, and organizations as agents of change and through coalitions among clergy, civic organizations, social welfare groups, and other community institutions in Detroit's African American community. (9)
In a critical examination of War on Poverty programs, Charles Matusow observed that further research is necessary to understand local experiences with the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, specifically programs such as the Community Action Program. He states that further examination of the varied experience with CAP on the local level is needed, as "remarkably little is known about Community Action Agencies in the great majority of communities and no final judgment will be possible until an army of local historians recover the program's lost fragments." (10) There is some evidence that CAP did bring about change in large urban areas. For example, Noel Cazenave looked at two community action projects in New York City to determine if there was an increase in political empowerment of low income people. Cazenave concluded that limited gains were made in increasing political participation and change, but the legacy of community action is …