Portions of this essay were originally delivered in “Poverty, Power, and Place in Metropolitan Atlanta,” Atlanta Studies Symposium keynote address, 4 April 2014, Atlanta, Georgia.
“I’m Mrs. Ethel M. Mathews,” penned the woman who would come to be considered the matriarch of Atlanta’s welfare rights movement in 1967.
“I first heard of the [National] Welfare Rights Organization through Rev. Austin Ford, who stopped me on the street and explained welfare rights to me.” 1 Ford had recently launched Emmaus House, a mission of Atlanta’s Episcopal Diocese, in Peoplestown, a neighborhood just south of today’s Turner Field. Ford eventually persuaded Mathews to attend a welfare rights meeting, and Mathews and her neighborhoods kick-started the Emmaus National Welfare Rights Organization. 2 Over the next few years, Emmaus House worked with residents to cultivate the organizing and political capacity of Atlanta’s poor and helped to form such organizations as Tenants United for Fairness and the Georgia Poverty Rights Organization. In many ways, Emmaus House was typical of the offices and movements that emerged to counter poverty in the years encompassing the civil rights revolution and the federal War on Poverty. It responded to individual and family needs by providing no-cost afterschool and tutoring programs and facilitating access to food and housing. But Emmaus House was unique in Atlanta and unusual in the urban South in that it provided a sustained foundation from which residents could challenge unresponsive state and federal bureaucrats and landlords, and incubated and supported affinity groups that, while adopting different organizing strategies, worked collectively to influence antipoverty policy. 3
Atlanta’s poorest residents had plenty to complain about in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Similar to cities throughout the U.S., Atlanta had spent the post-World War II years implementing programs intended to foster economic development, improve downtown infrastructure, and eliminate ageing housing. But those initiatives often came at high costs to the city’s black and poor, most of whom were concentrated in the oldest housing stock surrounding the central business district—Peoplestown, Summerhill, Pittsburgh, Mechanicsville, Bedford-Pine, and Vine City. Expressway and stadium building displaced renters and homeowners alike; just over 40 percent of housing stock in Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods was torn down in the 1960s. Slum clearance programs promised to eliminate the most blighted and dangerous housing stock, but cleared land was frequently sold to business ventures and low-income housing was rarely rebuilt. As a result, slum clearance increased crowding in adjacent neighborhoods as residents sought other low-cost housing options. Still, the amount of deteriorated housing was on the rise; while the city had destroyed 22,000 units of low-income housing considered unrepairable between 1960 and 1970, the number of dilapidated units increased by 23 percent. And despite crackdowns on building code violations, residents continued to fall prey to exploitative landlords. As Emmaus House staff member David Morath explained in a letter to his parents the fall of 1970, “A lot of the damn landlords around here are tricky. They fix up the outside a little while the inside is terrible.” He concluded with the housing activists’ dilemma: “The buildings are too worthless to be fixed but if they’re condemned—well it’s just that much more crowding.” 4
New public housing, when it was built, was increasingly sited to the city’s outskirts, far from jobs, kinship networks, and public transportation. While the poor complained and organized through local civic organizations, they were frequently ignored. And, as was the case in many cities, the poor were rarely consulted on urban planning efforts that affected their neighborhoods. 5
By the 1960s, Atlanta’s poor had grown tired of the city’s careless disregard. Buoyed by the black freedom movement and building on civic league traditions in Atlanta neighborhoods, many of Atlanta’s poor – and advocates for the poor – organized to counter the worst effects of poverty and urban redevelopment. In 1963, for example, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee augmented the work of the South Atlanta Civic League, and residents demanded more streetlights and better city services. In 1965, Vine City residents formed the Vine City Improvement Association, and shortly thereafter the Vine City Council, which organized to face down exploitative slumlords and garner more parks and improved infrastructure. When Emmaus House formed in 1967, it joined an emerging, if scattered, movement of poor people who insisted on fair treatment, economic justice, and a voice in matters that affected them. 6
Father Austin Ford was no stranger to progressive causes. He had been actively involved in the Georgia Council on Human Relations, and he regularly promoted civil rights issues within Atlanta’s Episcopal diocese. After the Lovett School—a highly regarded private school with connections to the Episcopal church—denied admission to Martin Luther King III, and subsequently passed resolutions denying entry to any African American applicants, Atlanta’s diocese struggled to confront its own racialized practices, past and present. According to Ford, it was this atmosphere and internal struggle that gave birth to Emmaus House. Since Ford had already evidenced interest in civil rights, the bishop asked Ford if he would take on a project serving Atlanta’s “inner-city community.” Ford agreed. 7
In March 1967, the Episcopal diocese acquired the lot and two dilapidated houses on the northwest corner of Capitol Avenue and Haygood. Situated in the Peoplestown neighborhood just 1-1/2 miles south of the Georgia Capitol, the lot was a stone’s throw from all that post-World War II urban redevelopment had visited upon the city. Peoplestown suffered highly concentrated poverty, though a number of working class and a few middle class families were scattered throughout the area. The neighborhood sat east of the expressway, which had taken homes from Peoplestown’s western edge. It was just south of the recently cleared Rawson-Washington urban renewal site, on which Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was built in 1964 and 1965, and was the recipient of numerous families displaced by the project. It would be part of the area proposed and accepted for support from the federal Model Cities program, an initiative intended to calm and revitalize troubled central cities. In Atlanta’s case, Model Cities eliminated deteriorated housing, but it was slow to provide relocation funding for displaced families and even slower to provide replacement housing. Facing Capitol Avenue (now Hank Aaron Drive), Emmaus House was also on a direct route to Georgia’s Gold Dome. Staff and residents would come to know that path well as they marched and caravanned to the Governor’s office, the Georgia General Assembly, and the Department of Human Resources. In 1967, the house that would become Emmaus House’s main office was a wreck. “It had been a sort of flophouse for alcoholics,” Ford recalled. “There were signs on the doors saying ‘two dollars a night.'” 8
Sister Marie, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur working at Decatur’s St. Thomas Moore convent, joined Ford soon after the diocese acquired the property. Together they worked with volunteers from St. Pius X Catholic High School to shovel debris from and clean up the two houses. After making the properties habitable, Ford moved in. 9
Emmaus House was intended to “bring people together,” explained Gene Ferguson, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) field organizer who joined the Emmaus House staff in fall 1968. “We always felt that if you bring people together for whatever reason across all lines of color, class, race or whatever, that we will recognize that which we all have in common.” 10 Sister Marie summarized, “the idea was to be a neighbor, to see what the spirit did, to see what evolved.” 11 As such, Emmaus House served Peoplestown and the surrounding neighborhoods by holding children’s afterschool and summer programs, providing transportation to Atlantans visiting family members at Reidsville Prison, and eventually opening a chapel. But a central focus was on working with poor people – and particularly the black poor – to mitigate inequality and face the range of economic injustices that poor and marginalized residents dealt with on a daily basis.
Emmaus House served “as a change agent,” Sister Marie explained. It was “as an opportunity for the people in the neighborhood to empower themselves, to meet and to decide what they wanted to do together, and to talk about what was important to them.” 12
Recognizing that poor families were under-informed about their rights and entitlements and the objects of ill-will when it came to policy-making and implementation, Emmaus House staff and volunteers opened the Poverty Rights Office (PRO) in 1973. The PRO supported poor families suffering discrimination or who were unable to secure basic resources for their families. Three full-time workers and other volunteers helped clients understand welfare and disability calculations, complete disability and other applications, request appointments, and (once the program became available in Georgia) secure food stamps. They alerted clients to changes in welfare regulations and allocations (which occurred with alarming frequency) as well as residents’ rights to relocation assistance if they lost their home to redevelopment initiatives. They helped mediate disputes with landlords, and—if necessary—secured legal assistance. 13
Thus, central to the early work of Emmaus House and PRO was the development and dissemination of knowledge and means by which residents could gain access to and manage federal and state entitlements (such as commodity surplus programs or Aid for Families with Dependent Children allocations), ensure housing justice (e.g., timely maintenance, pest control, notification of and the right to appeal an eviction), or secure health care. One-on-one meetings between PRO staff and clients, pamphlets, and newsletters armed families with the information necessary to apply for program benefits or to challenge unfair treatment. Pamphlets on housing ordinances and state laws gave tenants language to respond to landlords’ sudden and steep rent increases, illegal evictions, or lack of maintenance. Budget worksheets helped clients understand if they were receiving funds to which they were legally entitled. And the Poor People’s Newspaper helped PRO reach residents outside Peoplestown, those shunted to new public housing sites at the city’s outskirts, those who were homebound, and those who lived in the city’s other pockets of poverty. 14
Launched by the volunteers and staff at the Poverty Rights Office in Atlanta’s Peoplestown neighborhood, the Poor People’s Newspaper informed poor residents of available services, disseminated news about changes in welfare, housing, training, and employment programs, and served as a mouthpiece for the local welfare rights movement. The PPN provided housing-related information and support by outlining, in plain language, housing laws relevant to tenants. In the newspaper’s inaugural issue, for example, Emmaus House staff deciphered the new state eviction law, which provided a court hearing for tenants who thought an eviction warrant was assigned unfairly. In an article a few months later, the PPN explained that laws required that landlords make certain repairs to homes, and that homes must meet certain standards. PPN articles also sought to ensure that public housing residents were aware of the grievance procedure available. As the PPN explained, “First you write a complaint, then the manager and you have an informal conference. After that, if you are not satisfied, the manager must answer your complaint in writing. Then you may ask for a hearing before the Tenant’s Grievance Committee.” 15 In this way, the PPN offered methods to manage bureaucracies, updates on new or revised local, state, and national legislation, and tools and methods for holding officials and other entities accountable. Free of charge and produced almost entirely by volunteer labor, the PRO distributed the newspaper throughout public housing and Atlanta’s inner city neighborhoods and made it available at social service agencies. 16
The Poor People’s Newspaper became an important tool for circulating effective community organizing practices and language across the city. The PPN revealed, for example, that tenant organizations within public housing typically adopted a progressive escalation of actions: requesting increased services by formal letter, initiating meetings between tenant organizations and landlords, then moving on to public protests and eventually strikes if demands were not met. As explained by the PPN, beginning in November 1971 tenants at the Atlanta Housing Authority’s East Lake Meadows community had formally requested grass, laundry facilities, and more street lights at the complex—to no avail. Led by tenant Eva B. Davis, who headed the neighborhood’s combined Welfare Rights Organization and United Concerned Citizens, residents picketed the East Lake Meadows management offices and requested an audience with director Lester Purcells. When management ignored those requests for services and meetings, 285 tenants declared a rent strike on February 1, 1972. Three days later, Purcells met with the tenants and acceded to a gradual implementation of most of the 26 demands put forward by the tenants. In covering the steps taken in confronting a recalcitrant Atlanta Housing Authority, celebrating the victory of poor people against “the system,” and reasserting the value of collective action, PRO and the PPN provided a template and stimulus for other tenants to take similar actions to address their own particular concerns. In disseminating strategies and tactics to poor people in blocks and neighborhoods that overstretched organizations and organizers could not always reach face to face, the PPN extended Emmaus House’s geographic reach. Emmaus House’s sustained presence also proved advantageous. 17
Whereas many neighborhood-based and volunteer-led organizations fizzled out as energy waned or challenges mounted, as a staffed organization, Emmaus House was able to apply pressure for extended periods and launch projects that might take years to realize success. After some residents of the Model Cities area lost their homes to redevelopment, for example, Emmaus House designed, implemented, and provided on-going oversight of a process ensuring resident compensation. In that case, a 1972 court ruling required that all people relocated by the Model Cities program since 1971 be informed of their rights and provided relocation aid. According to the PRO, at least 500 people were eligible for relocation assistance. Knowing that the Atlanta Housing Authority had historically failed to put sufficient effort into locating and compensating eligible families, Emmaus House and the PRO took on the task of finding those who qualified for assistance. “Attention, Model Cities residents!” one PPN ad read. “If you had to move in the last few years because the government took your house or condemned it, call us. . . . You may be eligible for some financial aid from the government, even now.” 18 A January 1975 PPN listed 24 former residents by name and address.
By March 1975—three years after the ruling—all but five of those listed had been located. “Model Cities had said these people couldn’t be found,” the PPN reported, “but working together, we found them. Now the people who are entitled to it will get their money.” 19 Challenges to urban redevelopment schemes, legal actions, and policy-making were long, slow, and frustrating processes. With infrastructure and staffing to mount an extended search for displaced families, Emmaus House staff and the organization could follow through on issues not quickly resolved. Emmaus House’s sustained presence and ability to connect poor people across the city allowed the Episcopal mission to support many and varied anti-poverty efforts over time. 20
Emmaus House anchored Atlanta’s anti-poverty movements in that it supported and incubated pressure groups that would operate independently but could work collectively to mitigate poverty. This is particularly evident in the organization’s support for welfare rights organizing. Within a few months of acquiring the Emmaus House site and buildings, Ford hosted a meeting for area welfare recipients to discuss how Atlanta might get involved in the nation’s emerging welfare rights movement. At the 1967 meeting, organizers from the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) explained welfare rights and recruited local residents to form the Atlanta chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization. Ethel Mae Mathews was elected president of what became a thriving and active organization. Comprised of welfare recipients, Atlanta’s NWRO organized around issues related to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) specifically and poverty in general. They launched direct action campaigns throughout the late 1960s as welfare payment structures changed or the Georgia legislature threatened to cut programs. They sent representatives to national NWRO convenings, which enlarged their network and improved their organizing skills. Emmaus House provided the chapter meeting space, transportation, and a larger information network.
Emmaus House staff shuttled NWRO members to and from chapter meetings using their own vehicles or the Emmaus House bus, participated in protests alongside NWRO members, and printed and distributed flyers. Mathews contributed a regular column in both the Emmaus House Newsletter and the Poor People’s Newspaper. When Atlanta NWRO decided that it needed to form separate chapters at outlying public housing complexes, Emmaus House staff and volunteers helped make the flyers and did the canvassing. In these ways, Emmaus House provided the infrastructure and nominal financial support that kept the welfare organization functioning well into the 1980s. 21
Similarly, Emmaus House fostered the development of the Georgia Poverty Rights Organization (GPRO), one of the few groups that consistently lobbied Georgia’s elected officials on poverty-related policies. The GPRO provided legislators with fact sheets about poverty in Georgia and debunked myths about Aid to Families with Dependent Children. They recommended specific changes to AFDC-related legislation (including making requests for increased welfare allocations) and worked to improve welfare services. Emmaus House supported GPRO by helping to organize statewide meetings, providing meeting space, and assisting with flyer development and communications. And they provided their robust network of like-minded advocates and activists. 22
Importantly, the three groups—Emmaus House, Atlanta NWRO, and GPRO—focused on different but related aspects of the anti-poverty cause. GPRO—with its connections to lawyers and policy specialists—provided technical expertise, lobbying, and specific policy proposals. The women of the Atlanta NWRO brought authentic experiences and utilized direct action—persistently, loudly, and forcefully. Emmaus House provided office space, meeting space, labor, leadership, a sustained and reliable base from which to operate, and (through its own local and national network) technical expertise. In coalition, the organizations attacked the conditions and structures of poverty through a variety of means.
Organizing among the poor was a challenge in Atlanta, as elsewhere. Work and family obligations prevented full participation of the poor in building a movement. Tenant movements tended to peter out once demands were met. And the assumption that poverty was a temporary condition kept many from collectively organizing. In this period, lack of electricity and phones among the city’s poorest residents hampered information exchange, and access to transportation was an on-going challenge. Moreover, railways and expressways cut through sections of central Atlanta, creating physical hazards and barriers for those attempting to traverse the city. And new public housing relocated poor families to the city’s perimeter, creating a challenging geography across which to organize. Despite these obstacles, Emmaus House staff and volunteers devised an infrastructure that moved beyond connecting poor residents to resources; they enhanced residents’ understanding of and abilities to engage with bureaucratic infrastructure that affected their entitlements and lives. Through the Poor People’s Newspaper, the Emmaus House news, pamphlets, and meetings, Emmaus House broadcast “how to’s,” distilled and translated complex laws into plain language, and coached residents on how to secure services and manage local bureaucracies. Staff and volunteers proactively fostered local organizing by hosting movement leaders (such as national leaders of the NWRO) and disseminating success stories and tools. To be sure, the anti-poverty movements birthed and supported by Emmaus House weren’t the first in the city. But Emmaus House contributed methods by which individuals could challenge entrenched structures, persistent staffing, the ability connect and network across space, and the willingness and know-how to incubate groups that brought different organizing approaches to anti-poverty work. In these ways, Emmaus House provided an on-going, sustained foundation for the growth and development of a larger, multi-faceted antipoverty movement.
LeeAnn Lands is Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Kennesaw State University and the author of The Culture of Property: Race, Class, and Housing Landscapes in Atlanta, 1880-1950 (University of Georgia Press, 2009). She is completing a book on anti-poverty movements in the urban South. Funding for research on Emmaus House and community organizing in Peoplestown was funded by the KSU College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Department of History and Philosophy, and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
Poor People’s Newspaper, no date, folder 4, box 1, Muriel Lokey Papers, Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center (hereafter referred to as the Lokey Papers).[↩]
The welfare rights chapter was referred to by different names over time, including the Atlanta National Welfare Rights Organization and the Emmaus National Welfare Rights Organization.[↩]
A number of recent historical works have examined the War on Poverty and Equal Opportunity Act as they were instituted in the South. See, in particular, Susan Youngblood Ashmore, Carry It On: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, 1964–1972 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008); Kent B. Germany, New Orleans after the Promises : Poverty, Citizenship, and the Search for the Great Society (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007); Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, “Combating NEED: Urban Conflict and the Transformations of the War on Poverty and the African American Freedom Struggle in Rocky Mount, North Carolina,” Journal of Urban History 34, no. 4 (2008): 639–664; Wesley G. Phelps, A People’s War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014). Also see the valuable collection Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).[↩]
David Morath to “mom and dad,” 12 October 1970. The Morath letters will be deposited with the Auburn Avenue Research Library as part of the Emmaus House/Peoplestown Documentation Project.[↩]
Atlanta’s Fight against Substandard Housing: Is It Working? (Atlanta: Research Atlanta, 1972): ii-iii, 26; Robert D. Bullard, In Search of the New South: The Black Urban Experience in the 1970s and 1980s (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989): ii-iii, 26. On urban renewal and other redevelopment projects’ impact on Atlanta, see Ronald H. Bayor, Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), chapter 3; Irene V. Holliman, “From Crackertown to Model City?,” Journal of Urban History 35, no. 3 (2009): 369-86; Larry Keating, Atlanta: Race, Class, and Urban Expansion (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001); Clarence Nelson Stone, Economic Growth and Neighborhood Discontent: System Bias in the Urban Renewal Program of Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976).[↩]
Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 266–72; Winston A. Grady-Willis, Challenging U.S. Apartheid: Atlanta and Black Struggles for Human Rights, 1960–1977 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), chapter 4; David Andrew Harmon, Beneath the Image of the Civil Rights Movement and Race Relations: Atlanta, Georgia, 1946–1981 (New York: Garland, 1996): 192–203; LeeAnn Lands, “Poor People’s Campaigns in the Deep South,” paper presented at the Association of American Geographers, New York, NY, February 2012; Kathryn L. Nasstrom, “‘This Joint Effort’: Women and Community Organizing in Vine City in the 1960s,” Atlanta History 48, no. 1 (2006): 28–44; Jason Micah Perkins, The Atlanta Vine City Project, SNCC, and Black Power, 1965–1967 (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2008) 29. SNCC’s Atlanta Project also organized in Vine City, particularly in 1965 and 1966.[↩]
“The People Carry Out Successful Rent Strike,” Poor People’s Newspaper II (May 1972), folder 4, box 1, Lokey Papers; “Ms. Eva Belle Davis,” Poor People’s Newspaper II (June 1972), folder 4, box 1, Lokey Papers.[↩]
“Attention, Model Cities Residents!” Poor People’s Newspaper IV (October 1974), folder 4, box 1, Lokey Papers.[↩]
“Relocation Effort a Success,” Poor People’s Newspaper V (January 1975), folder 4, box 1, Lokey Papers.[↩]
“Sugar Hill Group Wins Settlement Against AHA,” Poor People’s Newspaper IV (November 1974), folder 4, box 1, Lokey Papers; “Help Us find These People!” Poor People’s Newspaper V (January 1975), folder 4, box 1, Lokey Papers.[↩]
On Atlanta’s chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization, see Daniel Horowitz, It Came From Somewhere and It Hasn’t Gone Away: Black Women’s Anti-Poverty Organizing in Atlanta, 1966–1996, M.A. thesis, Georgia State University, 2014, particularly p. 32–37. A number of recent scholarly works examine welfare rights organizing. A useful overview of this literature is contained in Premilla Nadasen, Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement (New York: Routledge, 2012). [↩]
On the Georgia Poverty Rights Organization, see LeeAnn Lands, “Lobbying for the Poor in the 1970s Deep South,” paper presented at the Association of American Geographers, Tampa, FL, April 2014; Kathryn L. Nasstrom, Everybody’s Grandmother and Nobody’s Fool: Frances Freeborn Pauley and the Struggle for Social Justice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), chapter 6.[↩]