I found myself glued to the television last week as Fox broadcast its special investigation of ACORN. It was a terrific piece of journalism — something worthy of 60 Minutes in its heyday.
But the real fascination for me was personal. Wade Rathke, the 61-year-old founder of ACORN, is exactly my age and vintage (he went to Williams, I went to Amherst). He even looks like me. Moreover, he started the organization after going South to work in the Welfare Rights Movement in 1970. I was working for Welfare Rights in Clark County, Alabama in 1970. (I remember noticing there were a lot of redheads in the movement at the time.)
But that’s where the similarity ends. I ended up feeling a little ambivalent about “The Movement” and came back and started a newspaper career. Rathke says he liked community organizing so much he started his own group in Little Rock after Welfare Rights ran out of steam. He built the organization into an incredible, multi-million-dollar octopus with tentacles almost everywhere. He finally had to resign when it was discovered he covered up his brother’s million-dollar embezzlement from the organization. The interview with Fox was the first he has ever granted.
Welfare Rights at the time was a second generation of the Civil Rights Movement. I was in Mississippi in 1964 and that was the first generation. We were in danger of our lives — and of course three volunteers, Michael Schwerner, James Cheney and Andrew Goodman, were murdered.
It was also an effort of which any American should be proud. When we started about 1 percent of the African-American population was registered to vote. Today Mississippi has the highest number of black elected officials in the nation.
In Holly Springs, the town where I worked, there was a bright 16-year-old named Roy DeBerry who became the subject of many accounts of Freedom Summer. A couple of the volunteers got him into Brandeis and he was later featured on the cover of a book called Don’t Shoot, We Are Your Children, by Anthony Lukas, who was chronicling the stories of 1960s rebels. Roy went on to become Secretary of Education of Mississippi, county executive of Hinds County (Jackson) and is now vice president of Jackson State University. My son visited Holly Springs a year ago (he’s trying to make a movie of the era) and Roy’s brother is now the mayor! My son got a kind of hero’s welcome.
About that much I feel proud. When I went back in 1970, “The Movement” had pretty much achieved its political goals and Welfare Rights had taken its place. Things had changed completely. The threat of extreme violence was gone, although there were still little incidents. Things weren’t friendly but civilized. The old Southern caste system that had kept blacks bowing and scraping before white overlords had been overthrown in a way no one had ever thought possible.
And so we set to work trying to get single mothers and older people on welfare. The mothers were not hard to find. In almost every household, there was a daughter in her late teens who was raising a baby. It was the way of the world — and in fact the local people refused to believe that the young white women in our group didn’t have babies waiting for them back home as well.
We had varying success. At the county offices, the women welfare workers sat in stony silence while we went through the interviews. One woman finally exploded in a tirade about “having illegitimate children and expecting the state to take care of them,” but to me that was just bad form. The law was on our side, plain as day. We were helping unfortunates and bringing money into the community.
It was later, when welfare became a national issue in the 1980s, that the pieces began to fall in place. The debate was between liberals who argued welfare mothers were merely unfortunates abandoned by their boyfriends and conservatives who argued that welfare was encouraging teenagers to have illegitimate children. I realized the truth fell about halfway in between. Among the African-American I had met, it was a social custom for girls to have one or two children before getting married. Their parents would support them. Then by the time the third child came along their parents would be too old and tired and the young woman would get married. Most marriages in the community had been formed that way.
I read Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom and found the pattern stretched back into slavery. In fact you could trace it all the way to Africa, where men have much weaker paternal rights and women commonly have one or two “children of fortune” before choosing a husband. This produced a kind of lottery, where men surrendered some paternal claims for the chance to sow their own “children of fortune.” It also allowed girls to prove their fertility, an important thing in a fairly monogamous society.
All this made it clear why the American welfare system had had such a disastrous effect on black family formation. Traditionally, women had had one or two children and then married. The welfare system intervened precisely at the point where they married. Instead of marrying the father of their child, they married the state. The result was something unprecedented in human history — a culture in which single motherhood became the norm
I wrote this up several times for The American Spectator, particularly in a review of Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, published in 1991. Lemann had gone down to the same Alabama neighborhood I had been in to find out what was causing single parenthood. He met some people in the towns who informed him that single motherhood had always been the norm “in the rural,” meaning the tenant farms outside of town. The rural migrants had carried the custom north, he posited, from whence it spread across America. Welfare had nothing to do with it. The book won several prizes.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t my experience with single mothers that made me begin to doubt the virtue of my efforts. It was a visit I made one day to an elderly couple. I’ve told this story many times but still consider it the starting point of my migration over to conservatism.
The elderly couple owned a small property near the edge of town where they had farmed for many years. They were in their 80s but still working the land. Some people in town had told me about them and I went out to make my pitch. I met them working in their fields. They stood listening for a few minutes in that way Southern blacks had, politely nodding their heads while I told them about the wonders of the welfare system. They were old enough, they were sure to qualify, it would be a nice check every month.
As I carried on I suddenly realized the man had tears in his eyes. It came across me in a rush. They had worked on this land all their lives, feeding themselves, raising children, fending off god knows what kind of adversity — and now I was telling them they could become dependent on the government. I finally apologized and left. I left that field thinking, “I wonder if I’m doing the right thing down here.”
Eventually I soured on welfare in a number of ways. Even with the women it was doing no good. They had no sense of self-sufficiency. It was just a sophisticated form of begging. They would develop a sense of entitlement so that “getting ahead” simply meant making more and more strident demands on more and more people.
And that’s what Wade Rathke seems to have picked up on. He said on the Fox show that when funding ran out for welfare rights he moved to Little Rock to start his own community organizing effort, based on that same sense of endless grievance. ACORN became skilled at moral gangsterism, shaking down governments and corporations for larger and larger amounts, making ever more ridiculous demands. (A former worker said on the show she became disillusioned when she realized ACORN was asking Sherwin-Williams for $1 billion as reparations for having manufactured lead-based paint. The money, of course, would go into ACORN’s coffers.)
And that’s where ACORN did itself in. It wasn’t just an accident that the women in ACORN offices were willing to hand out advice on how to set up a brothel and dodge income taxes by claiming underage Central American prostitutes as dependents. ACORN simply doesn’t produced good citizens. The organization is saturated with the sense that the world is one big shakedown and that anything you do to increase your share is justified.
At the end of the show, Rathke said he isn’t discouraged. He’s gone abroad to found ACORN chapters in Latin America, the Philippines and India. I hope the rest of the world is ready for this kind of gangster politics. And I hope Rathke is prepared to discover that in the big wide world out there he may not have the monopoly on moral cynicism.