Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974

By Gordon K. Mantler | Go to book overview

1 The “Rediscovery” of Poverty

“Poverty can now be abolished. How long shall we ignore this underdeveloped nation in our midst? How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer? How long?”1 These words from The Other America, written by Michael Harrington in 1962, became one of the era’s most eloquent calls to action to address the plight of wrenching poverty amid plenty. An estimated fifty million souls, or roughly 27 percent of the population with an even higher percentage of children, lived in destitution compared to their fellow Americans, wrote Harrington. And unlike past eras, “the other America, the America of poverty, is hidden.… Its millions are socially invisible to the rest of us.”2

Harrington, a one-time member of the Catholic Worker movement in New York City before converting to socialism in the 1950s, became “the man who discovered poverty” in what is one of the most enduring creation myths in modern American history.3 A poignant piece of social criticism that became a bestseller and political and cultural touchstone, The Other America was read by some of the most powerful people in the nation, even President John F. Kennedy, the story goes. Believing that poverty indeed could be eliminated, federal officials and liberal economists then set forth with what would become the War on Poverty, conceived under Kennedy’s administration in 1963 and pursued, although never fully, by President Lyndon Johnson. While economists such as John Kenneth Galbraith had written about the deceptive and changing nature of the nation’s postwar economy, it was Harrington’s slim volume of less than two hundred pages that crystallized the thinking of the policy-making intelligentsia around poverty. It later would be called one of the “ten most important nonfiction books” in the twentieth century.4

Yet, as appealing as this narrative might be—especially to writers, scholars, and social critics—it distorts the context from which The Other America was born. “That book belonged to the movement,” wrote Harrington in his memoirs a decade later, “which contributed so much more

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