Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Citizen Soldiers: The North Carolina Volunteers and the War on Poverty

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Citizen Soldiers: The North Carolina Volunteers and the War on Poverty

Article excerpt





During the summers of 1964 and 1965, more than 300 college students--black and white, men and women--fanned out across the state of North Carolina in a bold campaign to defeat poverty and, as they saw it, to uplift the poor. They were the foot soldiers of the North Carolina Fund ("Fund"), a pacesetting antipoverty program of the 1960s. The story of those students and their summers of service is important to recount for many reasons, but most especially because it highlights the potential of volunteerism for expanding the boundaries of democratic participation. That point was driven home for us several years ago when we were approached by a number of young people who were active in the community service movement, that broad-based volunteer effort initiated during the 1980s by college and high school students who were eager to develop modes of social action appropriate to the challenges of their own time and generation. The young people who came to us all had demonstrated a remarkable capacity for leadership--t hey included the founders of such groups as the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, [1] Public Allies, [2] and Empty the Shelters [3]--but they also complained of feeling they were laboring in isolation. How, they wondered, might the past inform contemporary efforts to take their work beyond the walls of the university, to move students from service to broader civic engagement, and to build new alliances to address enduring social problems: poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, and racial inequality?

Since that encounter, much of our research on the North Carolina Fund and its student volunteers has focused on trying to answer that question. In this article, we trace the history of the Fund's Volunteers program, provide an analysis of the contribution that those students made to fighting poverty in North Carolina, and evaluate the impact of that experience on the lives of the Volunteers themselves. We also consider more broadly the role that the North Carolina Fund played in shaping national antipoverty policy.



The Fund was established in 1963 by Governor Terry Sanford, who had been elected with President John F. Kennedy. When Sanford took office in 1961, North Carolina's factory workers earned some of the lowest industrial wages in the nation; thirty-seven percent of the state's residents had incomes below the federal poverty line; half of all students dropped out of school before obtaining a high school diploma; and one-fourth of adults twenty-five years of age and older had less than a sixth-grade education and were, for all practical purposes, illiterate. [4] Although shocking, those conditions had long been a part of everyday life in the state. Since the turn of the century, North Carolina's political and business leaders had underfunded human capital development for vast sectors of the population. Public policies such as segregation, disenfranchisement, anti-unionism, and miserly expenditures on public education effectively maintained a racially divided and low-wage labor force. By the early 1960s, however, p overty was moving from the shadow of neglect to the forefront of public policy agendas. The civil rights movement, now at high tide, was challenging the nation to fulfill its promise of equality and opportunity. Not since the Civil War and Reconstruction had so many citizens demanded so clearly the full implementation of equal rights before the law. At the same time, technological innovation was revolutionizing both the agricultural and manufacturing sectors of North Carolina's economy. Automation in the textile and tobacco industries and the mechanization of agriculture meant that employers' profits no longer depended so heavily on access to a large pool of unskilled labor. Displaced by these processes, thousands of men and women lacked steady employment, and many were migrating out of the state. …

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