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SDS in a classroom in the 1960s.

SDS in a classroom in the 1960s.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Students for a Democratic Society’s decision to devote energy and resources to community organizing in the urban North. Over the next few years, they established some 16 projects in low-income, racially-diverse neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and Newark.

The ultimate, indeed lofty aim was to build “an interracial movement of the poor” to end poverty, advance racial equality, and extend democracy in America. Although this December 1963 decision came only 18 months after SDS adopted the Port Huron Statement, it will garner far less recognition and celebration than that famous document did at its fiftieth. Yet, there are good reasons to pay attention to SDS’s community organizing.

Community organizing represented a direct attempt on SDS’s part to respond and contribute to the civil rights movement, to extend the labor movement to poor and unemployed Americans, to formulate a strategy and goals for social change, and to put the principle of participatory democracy into action. The vehicle for SDS’s community organizing was the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). Activists envisioned organizing around shared economic inequality as a way to bring poor black and white Americans together across differences of race, providing a strategic complement to the work of civil rights activists. The ERAP projects were a major focus of SDS between 1963 and 1965, until the anti-Vietnam War movement began, and won the organization members, funding, and media coverage. When the projects disbanded in 1967 and 1968, many New Left and community activists continued targeting economic inequality through the welfare rights and poor people’s movements.

Alongside these historical reasons is the relevance of SDS’s community organizing today, specifically the analysis and activism around poverty that emerged in the ERAP projects. New Left organizers brought an understanding of the causes of and solutions to poverty rooted in a critique of capitalist political economy and the welfare state. But interactions with community residents led to a revised strategy and redefined goals for organizing. Through a process of conflict and negotiation, the campaigns in the various projects integrated the agendas of both the SDS and community activists. In contrast to the view that the New Left, in seeing the state as co-optive at best, eschewed engagement with the state, this SDS-community alliance sought an expanded and more participatory welfare state, one that offered jobs and income, new rights to state services, and new means of political participation.

In December 1963, SDS’s decision to transform a campus-based, student organization into a sponsor of full-time grassroots, community activists was a contested one. Opponents raised important concerns about limited resources, losing SDS’s focus on students, and a lack of knowledge and preparation for community organizing. But the historical moment propelled those members favoring the move.

For New Left activists, the year just ending had been a time of “vital politics,” when a mood of possibility and urgency pervaded the nation. That year, the civil rights movement won victory in Birmingham in May and held the historic March on Washington in August. Yet, the tragic Birmingham church bombing occurred the very next month and the long-awaited civil rights bill languished in Congress. Similarly, the hopes inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s reexamination of the tenets of the Cold War and signing of a nuclear test ban treaty during the summer of 1963 were dashed with his assassination in November.

Among SDS members, this mix of progress and reaction fostered a sense that significant social change was achievable, tempered that optimism, and confirmed they had a role to play in future political developments. For a cohort of SDS members and like-minded New Left activists, that role was as a community organizer in poor neighborhoods. Inspiration and support came from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, then in the midst of planning for Freedom Summer in 1964, and from the labor movement, which provided funding. SDS’s community organizing also paralleled President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty,” which organizers anticipated would be inadequate to solving the problem of poverty. Instead, they would be “frontline soldiers in a real war on poverty.”

Their initial strategy and goals focused on realizing the principle of participatory democracy and organizing a constituency of jobless men around the issue of unemployment to demand full employment or a guaranteed income from the state, or, as they put it, “jobs or income now.” SDS organizers believed participation in an interracial movement of the poor to achieve these goals would reverse the political powerlessness and social marginalization poor Americans felt and lived.

Economic questions could not be separated from political ones, nor economic justice, from democratic participation. The expansion of public authority to resolve the problem of poverty thus needed to be accompanied by the extension of political participation to the poor themselves.

As they entered communities, whether mostly black, white, or racially diverse, they soon made two findings.

  • First, from the start, the ERAP community organizing projects attracted more women than men from the communities, and women, in the end, provided the most consistent membership and leadership for the projects.
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  • Second, in conversations with SDS organizers, community residents raised problems with welfare, housing conditions, urban renewal, children’s welfare, and police brutality, and indicated that the lack of jobs or income were only two of a constellation of concerns related to poverty.

In response and with the slogan “Let the People Decide,” organizers committed themselves to “organizing from the bottom up.” They revised their strategy to mobilize a constituency of women as well as men and to broaden their goals to incorporate the multiplicity of needs and concerns articulated by community residents.

Out of these developments, SDS organizers and community members together launched numerous campaigns between 1964 and 1968, using a range of strategies including direct action, electoral politics, and legislative change. And their goals incorporated both substantive and participatory aims. As ERAP activists, they sought both tangible goods and benefits from welfare state institutions and an open, decentralized welfare state. Their War on Poverty campaigns exemplified most clearly these goals. Activists first set out to ensure that local poverty programs adhered to the federal provision mandating the “maximum feasible participation of the poor.” They demanded, and with some success enlarged, openings in the state for greater citizen involvement in the War on Poverty.

They also put forth their own proposals for solving the problem of poverty. They called for jobs, job training, and daycare options for those women and men who could work, and a guaranteed income for those who could not. They demanded improved housing, welfare, medical, education, and recreation programs in their neighborhoods to allow “people [to] have interesting, happy lives here.” By advancing their own proposals for the War on Poverty based on the needs and concerns of residents, ERAP activists revealed the limitations and inadequacies of state-initiated solutions to the problems of poverty in the United States and challenged dominant definitions of precisely who was qualified to make decisions in the society.

By 1967 and 1968, however, these poverty campaigns had met with few successes. The Vietnam War took resources away from domestic programs, and, in fact, with the slogan “Welfare not Warfare,” ERAP activists drew explicit connections between domestic and foreign concerns at antiwar protests.

The War on Poverty also became a target for conservative backlash. These developments eroded the mood of possibility and optimism that had fueled SDS’s move into community organizing in 1963. With little of hope winning any further gains from the state, demoralization set in among participants. Contributing to this situation were conflicts and pressures inside the projects, such as heightened tensions around class and race differences and the growing feminism of New Left women.

In the end, a combination of internal and external forces led to the disbanding of the projects and ended this attempt to build an interracial movement of the poor. Yet, both community residents and New Left organizers continued their social and political activism. As they went on to take part in the welfare rights, labor, women’s liberation, and antiwar movements, they took with them important lessons and commitments from their ERAP experience.

So what does this historical example of large defeats and small victories from community organizing around poverty mean today? As the Occupy Wall Street movement has transformed into, and built alliances with, a multiplicity of community-based organizations, the issues of cross-class, interracial organizing around economic inequality remain relevant. The commitment to participatory democracy and “bottom-up organizing” cannot be compromised.

As organizers such as Camilo Viveiros and Greg Basta stress, it is important that “collaboration, not co-optation” occur in these alliances. The strategic flexibility to engage in community organizing, direct action, electoral politics, or legislative change as the issue demands is also key, reminding us that there is no one way to achieve change.

Finally, the vision of transforming the American welfare state through expansion and participation is one that is still needed today. It is well understood that poverty reaches into and undermines all areas of the lives of poor and working-class Americans, and that the response must be multi-pronged.

Jennifer Frost

Calls for change around jobs, income, housing, education, health care, and police brutality are all still heard today, echoing the political commitment and lessons learned from SDS’s community organizing 50 years ago.

Jennifer Frost
History News Network