Politics as Usual or Political Change: The War on Poverty's Community Action Program in Albany, New York 1959-1967

Article excerpt

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. …