Spotlight Exclusives

Sargent Shriver and the War on Poverty

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As one who worked for Sarge Shriver in the war on poverty, I found the documentary on his life PBS ran recently extraordinarily compelling. As I watched, I was reminded of Shriver’s incredibly bold vision and the courage and incredible political skill in fighting the odds to put his vision to work.

The bottom line is this: Sarge Shriver saw things that no one else could see and he never left an ounce of energy on the playing field. For Shriver, his vision was his mission – and no one could stop him when he set out to realize it.

I owe a personal debt to Sarge. While on an assignment in Wilcox County, Alabama – one of the poorest counties in America – I was introduced to my wife, Ginger, by one of Martin Luther King’s lieutenants, the late Reverend Tom Threadgill. At the time, Ginger was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the War on Poverty grantee in Wilcox County. She later worked as Sarge’s personal assistant when Sarge joined a Washington law firm.

My job with the Office of Economic Opportunity – the headquarters for the War on Poverty – was my first job out of graduate school, and it was quite a job. I worked directly for Edgar May, a Pulitizer Prize winning journalist and former Vermont State Senator who helped Sarge design the War on Poverty when Lyndon Johnson tapped him to run it. When Edgar recruited me, I learned that Sarge didn’t trust the bureaucrats to tell him what was going on in anti-poverty programs around the country, so he set up an office of mostly young journalists and lawyers to go out in the field and write long magazine-like articles on those programs. Just out of journalism school, I had the great fortune to be assigned the six Southern states, including Alabama and Mississippi, where the anti-poverty program worked hand-in-hand with veterans of the civil rights movement to further the work they had begun.

After watching the PBS documentary on Sarge’s life, I have four observations.

First, America has seldom had a visionary like Sarge Shriver. He’ll probably never get his due. But without Sarge there would not have been a Peace Corps or a War on Poverty. His vision, idealism, and deep commitment to the missions he undertook were the key to his success. The documentary showed that although President Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps, he began to back away from it when the professional diplomats weighed in with their opposition. But he had already asked Sarge to run it – and Sarge saw what it could be and never even broke stride in shaping his vision. The same was true with the War on Poverty. When LBJ announced that Shriver would direct the War on Poverty (after Sarge told the President that he preferred to focus entirely on the Peace Corps), Sarge designed and put into action an anti-poverty effort that affected nearly every state and community and changed our nation profoundly for the better. Without Sarge’s ability to envision what others couldn’t and without his incredible idealism, the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty may never have gotten off the drawing board.

Second, Sarge was a man of incredible political skill. It was that skill that made his success in both endeavors possible. As the documentary showed, President Kennedy told Sarge that he’d have to get Congress to create the Peace Corps on his own. Sarge never wavered. He talked to every member of Congress and enlisted Vice President Johnson in his cause. In the documentary, former Senator Harris Wofford, a Peace Corps colleague of Sarge, recounted that Shriver visited every member of Congress but one – and they finally told Sarge the remaining member had been dead for six months. Needless to say, he convinced Congress, his vision for the Peace Corps was realized, and it became both a symbolic and a very real success of the Kennedy Administration.

To create the War on Poverty, Shriver exhibited similar political skill. But because part of Sarge’s vision was to really empower the poor, time after time he had to use his political skill to save the program. OEO was always in political trouble. In Mississippi, the statewide Head Start program he funded helped reshaped the white-only politics in the Democratic Party in the state – and the old guard didn’t go easily. The Head Start program, called the Child Development Group of Mississippi, was an operational outgrowth of the Freedom Democratic Party which challenged the white-only Democratic delegation at the 1964 convention. Mississippi’s powerful Congressional delegation, led by the legendary Senator John Stennis, tried to kill the program. Sarge had to compromise, but he never backed down. He did cut the number of counties CDGM could operate in but he created a new statewide Head Start Program, Mississippi Action for Progress, with close ties to the newly formed Mississippi Young Democrats, an integrated party. Together the two groups changed Mississippi forever. I spent a lot of time in key counties in Mississippi, including Sunflower County – home of Senator Jim Eastland and Civil Rights legend Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer – so I witnessed the importance of what Sarge did first hand.

The OEO principle of empowerment – we strove for maximum feasible participation of the poor – outraged America’s mayors and created enormous political headaches for Sarge every day. The concept was simple: poor people had a right to one-third of the seats on every local poverty program board. The mayors went crazy. I was once asked by a mayor who had closed five neighborhood centers: “Why should I open five organizations to campaign against me.” Sarge never buckled. He hated welfare and believed in community action. Even when Johnson effectively pulled the plug on the War on Poverty to fund the war in Vietnam, Sarge fought on and won. We didn’t always get our paychecks on time because Congress delayed our funding – that’s why I got an American Express Card in 1967 – but in the end Sarge won the battle and the anti-poverty program went on. It’s not always appreciated today, but during the Shriver years more Americans got out of poverty than during any similar time in our history. (The Clinton years – employing the same philosophy – were the second best.)

Third, Sarge was selfless in the face of a Kennedy family that was not quite the same. As the documentary showed, time after time when it appeared Sarge had the chance to advance politically – to run for governor of Illinois or be the vice presidential candidate in 1964 or 1968 – those opportunities were cut short by the Kennedy family, who never passed up a chance to remind him he was a brother-in-law and not a brother. But Sarge just charged forward continuing his life’s vision to help those less fortunate. It was that same spirit that led Eunice and Sarge to start and build the Special Olympics – which really began when Eunice began bringing handicapped children to play sports and compete in their back yard.

Fourth, my years in the War on Poverty profoundly shaped the values I’ve brought to my own career – and they shape New Democrat politics today. Opportunity, responsibility, community and empowerment were values that became part of me when I was working for Sarge. And, they have shaped everything I’ve done since.

Finally, watching that documentary is a reminder of how far we’ve come in America in four decades. We have much still to do, but we’re a different country than we were then. And Sarge Shriver deserves a large share of the credit. On the trip on which I met my wife, I met a young man in an adjoining county named John Hulett. John Hulett was the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee leader in Lowndes County, one of the bloodiest locations in the civil rights struggle. I was sent by Shriver to Lowndes County in part because Alabama Governor Lurleen Wallace (the wife of George Wallace, who he got elected when he couldn’t succeed himself) accused Hulett of misusing federal funds. The charge was not true, but I was harassed for even dealing with Hulett. Sixteen years later, in 1983, I picked up a story in the New York Times about John Hulett. He was sheriff of Lowndes County and delivered the black vote to a reformed segregationist running for governor named George Corley Wallace.

Sarge Shriver is a special gift to America. Our country is a better place today because of his idealism and his incredible energy and talent. The PBS documentary tells that story very well.

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