Raleigh News and Observer, April 6, 2008: King’s hope for poor stalled

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Kristin Collins, Staff Writer

Martin Luther King Jr. saw entrenched poverty as a barrier to equal opportunity. Forty years after King’s death, a woman who shared his vision looks back on what became of the once-urgent commitment to ending poverty.

DURHAM — A weathered sign reads “McDougald Terrace Community Garden,” but the planting beds are barren.

“This used to be our garden; people got killed out here,” says Ann Atwater, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “And this is the park; lot of people got killed out here.”

In the 1960s, the heyday of the anti-poverty movement, Atwater had big hopes for McDougald Terrace, one of Durham’s 13 public housing projects. Back then, she was organizing public housing residents to march in the streets and protest at city council meetings. She imagined Durham’s poor climbing out of poverty together, leaving behind the hopelessness that had taken root during nearly a century of legal segregation.

She was among many who believed that North Carolina, and the nation, were on the verge of a revolution, that poverty could be not only lessened but eradicated. The movement had gained a pivotal advocate. In the months before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder on April 4, 1968, King vowed to create “a multiracial army of the poor” that would upend the economic system promising jobs to the poor, incomes to those unable to work and an end to housing disparities.

“If something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed,” King said in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on the day before his death.

His was far from a lone voice.

Fighting poverty was the Johnson administration’s No. 1 domestic priority, and North Carolina was a national leader in the fight to end it. A corps of volunteers was working in impoverished communities across the state, helping people with basic needs and organizing them to push for social change.

The work bore tangible results.

By the mid-1970s, the number of Americans living in poverty shrank to half of what it had been 15 years earlier. In North Carolina, where more than a third of families lived in poverty in 1960, the poverty rate for families dipped below 12 percent by 1979.

But in retrospect, King’s death tolled the end of the national interest in curing the ills of poverty. The most recent attempt to return it to the national agenda, John Edwards’ campaign for president, didn’t resonate with middle-class voters focused instead on the war in Iraq, immigration, rising gas prices and a looming recession.

Today, after three decades of stagnation, poverty rates are creeping upward. Nationwide, the federal poverty rate in 2006, 13.3 percent, was slightly higher than in 1969.

In North Carolina, nearly 15 percent of the state’s residents live below the federal poverty line, the same rate as in 1979. More than a quarter of the state’s African-Americans live in poverty, compared with 10 percent of whites.

And a new group of impoverished residents is growing: A quarter of the state’s swelling Hispanic population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.

Atwater, now 72, looks at the neighborhoods where she once worked and sees the old hopelessness growing like a virulent weed. Sometimes, she thinks it’s worse now than it was then, before families splintered and the drug trade moved in.

“People got satisfied,” Atwater says. “They forgot what it took to get where we are.”

Sharecroppers’ child

Atwater was born in 1935, the ninth child of sharecroppers in Columbus County. Her mother died from heart failure when Atwater was 6 years old, and her father was often so destitute that he sent the children to pick crops at other farms. He used the money they brought home to pay for his seeds and fertilizer.

She married at 14 and had her first child at 15. The baby died shortly after birth from a heart defect.

In 1953, with an infant daughter in tow, she followed her frequently absent, alcoholic husband to Durham, where they shared a room in a boardinghouse with a man they didn’t know.

Within a few years, her husband disappeared for good. And Atwater, with two daughters and a 10th-grade education, was left to bounce from one dilapidated house to the next, moving when she got so far behind on the rent that she feared eviction.

She sewed dresses from fabric flour sacks, scrounged abandoned furniture off the streets and, many nights, relied on fatback and rice to feed her children. Unable even to afford bus fare most days, she walked to her job as a maid and cook for white families in Duke Park.

Atwater says she remembers thinking only about surviving each day. The civil rights movement and the war on poverty were foreign concepts.

Then, in the mid-1960s, Howard Fuller knocked on her door.

An activist is born

Fuller was an organizer with Operation Breakthrough, a Durham group sponsored by the North Carolina Fund, which Gov. Terry Sanford founded in the early 1960s to take on entrenched poverty. The state fund was armed with more than $700 million in federal money, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.

Fuller was recruiting the poor to come to meetings, to press the city for better housing, subsidized day care, access to jobs. He had come to Atwater’s door to ask if she had problems with her house. She took him to the bathroom, where a hole in the floor exposed the dirt below.

Fuller promised not only to get the hole fixed but also to pay her next month’s rent, $100, if she would come to a meeting. She went with him to the landlord’s office, where Fuller held up a $100 bill and told the man that he would get it when the bathroom was fixed. That day, the hole was patched with boards.

Atwater still remembers her amazement. The idea that she had the power to improve her living conditions, even in the tiniest measure, was a revolution.

“After Howard did that for me,” Atwater says, “I was ready to run and do anything anybody asked me to do.”

In the next few years, Atwater became a prominent organizer in Durham, first as a volunteer and then as an employee of two anti-poverty organizations.

She helped set up 23 neighborhood councils in poor areas. She organized marches that, by 1968, occurred almost daily on Durham’s streets. She railed before the city council, even when they turned their backs to her. And she stood up to the Klansmen who challenged her at City Hall and who, one night, stood silently outside her apartment wearing white hoods and robes.

She began to feel that her new role as activist was a calling from God. She was so convinced of her power that, when she heard of King’s murder, her first thought was to go to Memphis, track down the killer and “choke his neck.”

Limited progress

Today, Atwater and her fellow warriors say it proved easier to break down racial barriers than to take on the class system.

The poverty movement won some victories. The federal government expanded a host of programs that help the poor with child care, food, medical care and job training. And on a local level, roads were paved, libraries were built, public housing residents were guaranteed better treatment.

But most agree that they failed to achieve the systemic changes they hoped would end poverty. And it’s impossible to measure where the movement would have gone if King had survived and used his clout to press it forward.

Fuller said the movement achieved enough to make many blacks feel that their work was done. “You got these black millionaires; you got these athletes making millions; you got black CEOs,” Fuller said. “People became apathetic.”

Now a professor of education at Marquette University in Wisconsin, Fuller sees a landscape in which young blacks are failing in school, killing each other, lost.

“I don’t know where we go from here,” said Joyce Nichols, a Durham activist who worked alongside Atwater. “I have no idea.”

Hollow prophecy

Atwater is best remembered for her role in a 1971 community workshop, held to defuse racial tensions as Durham prepared to desegregate its schools. She and C.P. Ellis, the head of the Durham Ku Klux Klan, were appointed the leaders.

During 10 days of meetings, the two overcame their mutual animosity and, on the last day, Ellis tore up his Klan membership card in front of the crowd. He and Atwater remained friends until his death in 2005.

But that story, with its fairy-tale ending, is hardly the summation of Atwater’s life.

Even Atwater herself, disabled from an injury and suffering from diabetes and heart problems, hasn’t escaped poverty and its ills.

She raised two grandchildren after her eldest daughter became addicted to drugs. Another grandson died in his early 20s from complications of obesity.

The most she ever earned, working for the Durham Housing Authority, was $23,000 a year. She owns a home but is saddled by debt. She survives on Social Security and rent payments from her adult grandchildren, who still live with her.

Many months, she says, she relies on donations of food and money to cover her bills.

Driving through Durham now, she sees the remnants of her work in some of Durham’s poorest neighborhoods — the parks she pushed the city to build, the dirt roads that are now paved. But the neighborhoods are still poor, and now, they are scarred by drugs and violence.

She takes comfort in having touched the lives of people who might otherwise have been forgotten. She delivered them groceries and trucks full of donated furniture, paid their rent when they couldn’t, advocated for them before the housing authority, schooled them in everything from housecleaning to child care to budgeting.

But the words King spoke on the day before his death sound hollow now.

“I’ve seen the promised land,” King told the Memphis crowd. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

(Staff writer Paulette Stiles contributed to this report.)



Poverty threshold for a single person younger than 65 in 2007


Poverty threshold for a family of four with two children in 2007

1.26 million

Number of people living in poverty in North Carolina in 2006


Percentage of people living in poverty in Wake, Durham, and Orange counties combined in 2006

BUREAU OF THE CENSU or 919-829-4881

Staff writer Paulette Stiles contributed to this report.

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