A Documentary Review of PBS: America’s War on Poverty

Paul Fischer
Felicia Kornbluh


A Documentary Review of PBS: America’s War on Poverty


               The Public Broadcasting Service takes on the War Against Poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s brainchild in a television series. The series shows how poverty touches the entire American political and economic system. As racial divides are thickly drawn with a black marker, a massive redistribution of wealth is found to be necessary. This is in contrast to the prosperity victory in World War II brought to the United States.
               The director uses political footage, interviews from authors, citizens, and politicians alike to show the dramatic widespread effect of poverty, as well as the machinations that made change possible and the vehicles for effecting that change in operation. Combining black and white footage, with modern colour film drives home that this film is part of American history, as much as it is the present. Sadly, the American history of poverty, and Native American struggles are ignored. Racial divides are not absent, but are set aside to the second half of the film, as the film has a dialectic focus on the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Civil Rights Act. However, this is appropriate because the War Against Poverty is a specific time-place referring to the 1960’s, though those unacquainted with this, will be confused by the title and content.
             “The very things that made America great its inventions… were causing some Americans to be left behind.” The joint continuous miner brought the story of John Henry, in which a man labours to death against a machine, to reality on a societal level. Coal miners found steady work and good wages evaporating to the hypnotizing diligence of the mechanical workers. By 1960 nearly half of residents in some counties in coal-mining Virginia relied on government aid. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “automation did it.” An exodus of former coal miners seeking work and african-americans fleeing racism arrived in the North and changed the country. In the capital as well, a march on Washington signalled a substantive movement towards change in the country. Poverty was geographical, and with the help of unions and politicians like Kennedy, racial lines became shattered.
             Violence broke out. Homes and bridges were bombed. A decade before the race riots became bloody, and years before the Vietnam war, destitution was driving Americans to fight for their right to live, or death by starvation. Before the political promises of Kennedy could be carried out, he was assassinated. Carrying out his promises was a medical necessity. In states such as Mississippi, poverty and lack of healthcare caused parasites, lethargy, and severe anemia in children. Nowhere was poverty greater.
But all was not lost. There was no initial confidence in Lyndon B. Johnson, but using a variety of political and legislative means, he was able to “continue” both domestically and abroad, the goals of the administration and American people. The African-American movement was growing in the public conscious, but the backlash against it would have killed what chances there were had it not been for Head Start and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By ensuring the poor could vote, and that race did not factor into this, the end of segregation was in sight. More importantly, this minority, which had a lower population growth than the Jewish population in Germany due to economic impoverishment, was given opportunity to become full partners in the make-up of this nation.
            Surviving the depression, Johnson made significant inroads to Americans, enacting the first anti-poverty legislation since the Great Depression giving needed alleviation to Americans, to “replace their despair with opportunity.” He created a task force, and began a movement to change the country. In some states, it was a matter of saving lives. The idea that black Mississippians could control anything was considered to be ludicrous, and this was seen in their oppression, and reversed by their first true liberation, with economic and political equality. Before they could lose their job, their welfare when they voted.
Sargent Shriver was appointed head of the War Against Poverty, and with what some would call blind optimism, energetically took on the job. He had expertise setting up the Peace Corp, and was able to use this domestically with efficiency. Unable to levy higher taxes, and without a comprehensive job program the questions existing are problematic. Investigating voting problems made enemies, but it was a political sacrifice that had to be made. As workers protested discrimination and were incarcerated, the CDGP made allocations of federal money to post bail for these workers under the auspices of work salary advances.
The mixing of the Civil Rights movement with the War Against Poverty created humiliation for Shriver, and was seized upon. Yet these were two movements intertwined, and impossible to separate. As the opposition insisted “don’t you ever give up that gun, that is all you’ve got to protect that little baby in that crib” the documentary shows the backlash was not one which could be stood up against without great courage. Klansmen were marching unhooded and unafraid of retribution, despite their violent message, and African-American protestors needed the same protection, though without the threat of violence.
As planes began to fly in the South Asian peninsula, Johnson signed the Equal Employment Opportunity Bill into law. Suddenly the education programs and hand-up (not hand out) the federal government had offered America’s poor looked smart; the country was going to send a conscript army into war. Racial equality would also figure in importantly towards preventing this war from tearing the nation apart at the seams. This would seem to be an appropriate direction for the documentary, but for better or for worse the film begins discussion in the last section of reorganization and scandal in anti-poverty movements.

US History Essay

Paul Fischer
US History to 1865
December 4, 2010


For early colonists in America, the Atlantic and the distracted British Empire insulated and protected them from British prejudices and governance. At the end of the Seven Years War, the imperialistic ambitions of the recently victorious British sought to extend control through the colonies. The colonies were unable to swallow the existence of an enforced British rule, which manifested itself both indirectly and directly. While pointing to a single act or event that triggered the imperial antagonism necessary to unite on a platform of independence cannot fully describe the unique phenomenon that occurred, the Continental Congress of 1774 represents the both the first contact between many colonial leaders and the culmination of escalating republican colonial conflict with British attempts to reassert control over its citizens. For the first time, the colonies were united and, while they appealed to the same constitution as Parliament, agreeing on a set of rights, against the monarchy, laid the foundation for how independent colonial government could operate. While this seven week meeting was just the beginning of the road to independence, it was the culmination of decades of escalating conflict between the British and their colonies in America. The Continental Congress was also the first time that the colonies united officially, which separates it distinctly from the localized events leading up to it.
The British had some reason to be assertive in their relations with their North American colonies: the massive debts incurred by war with the French, which occupied a quarter of the eighteenth century, created an economic nightmare on a scale practically unimaginable. Britain tried to thwart American smuggling operations through the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, in which taxes were generally lowered but far better enforced by numbers of British regulators who were granted rights to operate in colonial America. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Charles Townshend apparently underestimated the influence of both smugglers and the colonial political system who had been long united in opposing British economic rulings.
The use of colonial assemblies to let off smugglers in a political statement of solidarity to the crown developed as a result of the stricter shipping laws. As both a smuggler and an elite patriot, John Hancock, who was said to have employed most of Boston at various points, realized the economic potential of adopting a patriotic stance. When British customs officials seized his ship, Liberty, and threatened him with harsh fines, Hancock rallied thousands of boys in his employ for a mob to drive off the British. The commitment of merchantmen smugglers and politicians to opposing Britain allowed colonial patriots to begin organizing, for some time, effective boycotts and propaganda programs, which over the period of time the duties remained in effect cost the British over 75-fold the tea of the Boston Tea Party. Yet still the patriots were relatively radical and most colonists were afraid of republican ideals that were to support the drive for independence; it was not until later that the problems of New England merchants were truly felt to reverberate throughout the colonies.
Following the ineffectiveness of their attempts to tax the colonies, the British government let up for some time, and by 1772 imports into the colonies had doubled. This was due in part to the efforts of a fiery politician and cartoonist named Samuel Adams. His portrayal of the Boston massacre, in a simple but incriminating cartoon, became among the most widely reproduced in the British Empire. Horrified citizens even in Britain questioned the moral legitimacy of British rule in America and authorities repealed nearly all of the duties, with the exception of tea. The lull from the Boston massacre until the Tea Act of 1773 and the subsequent tea party, resulted in the near total dismemberment of the nonimportation movement.
The Tea Act was meant to be a win-win: British East India Company is able to cut out middle men, and sell cheaper tea to colonists thus defusing rebellious sentiment. This satisfied, perhaps, the economic basis of patriot complaints, but ignored the political issues that went along with republican ideals that were fanned across the colonies by early patriot leaders. These patriot leaders were a new sort of elite, with strong connections and access to the mechanisms of populism. By provoking British retaliation at more and more drastic levels, they were able to engage more of the country with talk of British oppression. With the British fury that accompanied the Boston Tea Party, several acts were passed with the explicit intention of punishment. Boston, as the center of the resistance, was also hit the hardest, and was turned into an island of rebels locked away from the mainland by a drunken, uncontrollable army let loose on the streets of Boston. The tensions between appointed governors and their population from before the Boston massacre returned with full, if not greater force in Massachusetts.
All of the events leading up to this point had been local in nature, even movements such as Sons of Liberty were qualified by region or locality. What united them was the hundreds of printing presses operated by men such as Ben Franklin or Sam Adams. These resistance leaders, along with fifty-four other delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies, met in 1774, many for the first time, and unified in opposition to the British government’s policies. According to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the blockade ordered by the Continental Congress eliminated 97 percent of British-American trade in the next year.
This resolved some of the economic issues Americans had with England, but the problems over Boston and Massachusetts remained. The Suffolk resolves represented a recognition of the plight of Massachusetts and a political sense of solidarity as a united colonial assembly voted to passively defy the intolerable acts, actually resulting in British regulars dieing outside of Charleston from disease because they were not allowed to quarter in private residence.
Far more important is the declaration of rights insisted upon by the Continental Congress. These rights are similar to those expounded by the declaration of Independence two years later, though not quite as openly defiant yet. The Continental Congress is significant not in the direct or immediate impact, but in that it is representative of the decades of conflict preceding it. With the Suffolk resolves, the Declaration of Rights and embargo on Britain, the Continental Congress addressed the humanitarian, political, and economic aspects of the crisis that occurred in America before the Revolution. After declaring such solidarity in opposition to England, without government permission, the Continental Congress delivered the unwelcome message to the British: leave us alone, or go home.

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