By Rena Malai, News staff
Mel Wilson, manager of the NASW Department of Social Justice and Human Rights, was a teenager when President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his first State of the Union Address.
Johnson announced a War on Poverty, and the Civil Rights Act was signed into law a few months later — in July 1964.
“It was an exciting period of time that changed America,” Wilson said.
It wasn’t a coincidence that these two events happened so close together, he said. President John F. Kennedy advocated for civil rights during his presidency and Johnson continued the legacy while starting the War on Poverty initiative.
“The country was a place of such inequality, and for the first time there were federal protections for nonwhite people to have equal access to education and jobs, as well as addressing health disparities and other poverty conditions related to racial discrimination,” Wilson said. “Some of the most important legislation in U.S. history was passed due to the War on Poverty, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps) and Medicaid.”
The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is recognized this month, and NASW has long played a part in this important piece of history.
Robert Schachter, executive director of the NASW New York City Chapter, said a noteworthy event took place when the NASW national office was headquartered in Manhattan in 1964.
“NASW’s national office held a lobby day in 1964 in support of the Civil Rights Act,” he said. “The event was written about in The New York Times, which demonstrated how significant it was.”
He said NASW-New York City created a civil rights committee in 1962. Social worker Aminda Wilkins was chairwoman of the committee, and was married to Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP. The NAACP was a major player in the civil rights movement, and Schachter said the committee worked on several things to support the organization.
“The committee wrote a resolution in support of the civil rights act being passed, which was brought to the attention of the New York City Council, and they advocated with the (NASW) national office to hold a lobby day in Washington,” he said.
One of the committee’s achievements was arranging to meet with Johnson at the White House Rose Garden. On the same day of this meeting, Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., met with the NASW-Georgia Chapter (then called the Georgia Delegation).
Russell’s meeting with NASW was significant, Schachter said. Russell had a powerful position in the Senate and had led a filibuster — an action to delay or prevent voting — which kept the Civil Rights Act from reaching the Senate floor.
“This is a major part of history,” Schachter said. “Russell was a descendent of southern plantation owners, he was the leader of the filibuster, and he opposed the Civil Rights movement. But he said at the NASW meeting that he saw the Civil Rights Act passing.”
The Civil Rights Act and the Civil Rights movement itself held out promises of equal opportunity that were only partially fulfilled, according to Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, a nonprofit civil-rights organization. But he said civil rights became the marching cry of the War on Poverty, and the social work profession is important in maintaining what was put in place.
“The Civil Rights Act and those who enforce these laws provide overarching protection,” Dees said. “Social workers provide day-to-day guidance and support for the most vulnerable citizens, who, without this help, would fall through the community’s cracks.”
For more information, click here.
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories about the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.
From the July 2014 NASW News. NASW members can read the full story after logging in.