No political movement in America can be considered complete unless it is capable of mounting a significant election campaign. In 1972, ACORN made its first entry into electoral politics. ACORN's first effort was a "Save the City Rally," which all the candidates for Little Rock City Board of Directors were invited to attend. Next, ACORN's Political Action Committee decided to back two candidates for Little Rock School Board, Doug Stevens and Bill Hamilton. Stevens then did something no citywide candidate had ever done: he lost the wealthy 5th Ward but still won election to the Board. Buoyed by their success, ACORN members decided to go one step further and run for office themselves.
In 1974, ACORN members, joined by a group of International Ladies' Garment Workers Union members, ran for seats on the Pulaski County Quorum Court. The Quorum Court, a legislature for the county that had 467 members and a few budget responsibilities, was not a well-known institution. Partially because few people were aware of its potential for promoting the interest and needs of low- and moderate-income citizens of Pulaski County, ACORN leaders seized the opportunity and ran a slate of candidates for the court. 250 candidates ran and 195 won. It was a clear victory, but, as often happens, political power holders resisted mightily.
Judge Mackey, County Judge and chair of the Quorum Court, fought ACORN's efforts to exert citizen control of Pulaski County's budget. First, he ruled that a dozen or so of the ACORN members were not qualified to serve. Then, when ACORN members tried to postpone full approval of the budget for two months, he miscounted votes, manipulated the meeting and short circuited the democratic process. ACORN members responded by walking out in protest to deprive the body of a quorum. Nevertheless, Judge Mackey ignored the loss of a quorum and passed the budget. The budget skirmish was lost, but a valuable battle was won. For several years thereafter, the budget became a real working document and the Quorum Court was a genuine democratic body. Issues important to low- and moderate-income people could be heard in Pulaski County politics. ACORN had earned its wings in democratic electoral politics.
The Growth of the Movement (1975-1980)
In 1975, ACORN became a multi-state organization with new branches in Texas and South Dakota. On December 13, sixty leaders from the three ACORN states elected the first associate Executive Board and the first ACORN president, Steve McDonald, to deal with matters beyond the scope of the individual city and state boards. Each year thereafter saw three or more states join ACORN with a total in 1980 of twenty states. The great expansion of the organization led to multi-state campaigns beginning with a mass meeting of 1,000 members in Memphis in 1978.
ACORN national conventions and actions in 1978, 1979 and 1980 led to an entry into national politics through participation in the 1980 Presidential campaign. ACORN used the campaign to apply pressure to presidential candidates during the nomination campaign when they were in most need of grassroots support - a specialty of ACORN's. They also created the opportunity for the members and leaders to develop their ideas on a national agenda for the organization.
In December, 1978, ACORN held its first national convention in Memphis, Tennessee to discuss and initiate a national platform for low- and moderate- income people. The convention was planned to coincide with the National Democratic Party conference or "miniconvention", which was conducting hearings to develop issues for the upcoming Democratic National Convention. At the end of the platform-drafting conference, ACORN convention delegates marched on the Democratic Party conference with the basics of a nine-point "People's Platform." They demanded a meeting with President Carter but were only allowed to demonstrate in the street. ACORN, however, had created a permanent presence in national politics, that reached the highest levels of power.
The following summer, July 1, 1979, ACORN's second National Convention and Platform Conference was held in St. Louis. The purpose of the action was to refine the People's Platform and to complete six-months of discussions in ACORN organizations around the country about their visions for the future of the nation. The planks included positions on energy, health care, taxes, housing, community development, banking, jobs and income, rural issues, and representation. The issues addressed in the planks were all issues that local and state chapters of ACORN had addressed at one time or another in their communities.
After the convention passed the People's Platform two hundred of the 1,500 ACORN delegates marched to the suburban home of S. Lee Kling, the chair of President Carter's campaign finance committee. They planted nine boards in Kling's lawn labeled with the categories of the planks in the platform. This was followed by repeated and often successful attempts to present the People's Platform to campaign aides and candidates from both parties, including Rosalynn Carter, Hamilton Jordan and Ted Kennedy. ACORN also presented their positions to the Republican Platform Committee in Detroit and to delegates individually and assembled in the state party conventions in ACORN states.
The outcome of the 20/80 campaign was rather mixed. The ACORN Commission was chaired by Mickey Leland, Congressional Representative of Houston, and included ACORN members Elizabeth Martinez of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Charles Crews of Jacksonville, Florida. The commission held hearings on the proposals for increased participation and representation for low- and moderate-income people in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chattanooga, Houston, Los Angeles, and Little Rock. These meetings gave ACORN members opportunities to be a part of the decision making process and to express their views on the Democratic Party's inclusion of low- and moderate-income people in its organization.
However, the outcome of the commission's recommendations was disappointing. When the commission presented its recommendations to the Democratic National Committee in Philadelphia in 1982, they were merely recommendations for greater inclusion of low- and moderate-income people. This was a far cry from ACORN's recommended quotas on low- and moderate-income representation, Party Organizing Councils to directly represent organized groups of low- and moderate-income people, and removal of all barriers to low- and moderate-income representation in Democratic Party activities.
Nevertheless, the campaign had won some valuable victories for ACORN and its members. First, it made ACORN a truly national organization of some 30,000 ACORN families in every section of the country. The 20/80 Campaign provided a specific and meaningful goal for expansion and helped to unify an organization that had grown from three states to twenty in only five years. Most importantly, it brought together different groups of people from a far-flung constituency of Westerners, rural Southerners, big-city Northerners and so on, into a unified group with a shared set of goals. Their ability to work together and have an impact on an institution as large as the National Democratic Party demonstrated the value of a tightly knit national organization.
THE REAGAN YEARS (1980-1985)
This period witnessed dramatic changes in American politics and social life. ACORN also had its own concerns, especially the consolidation of its growth of the previous five years. For ACORN, this period would be one of adaptation, survival, internal consolidation and, surprisingly, growth.
By the end of the 20/80 Campaign, ACORN's staff was stretched thin by the demands of meeting the goal of expanding to twenty states by 1980. Much of its resources and energy had been dedicated to participating in the presidential primaries and national conventions of the Republican and Democratic Parties. ACORN now had to return to the work it had done to organize and cope with the changes occurring in American life with the election of Ronald Reagan.
The 80's proved to be a time when the political elite in America was less concerned with the needs of low- and moderate-income people than ever. The goal of the Reagan Administration was to redistribute wealth upward, away from those with little and toward those with lots. It emphasized "looking out for Number One" and ignored the concerns of the needy or the long-term general welfare of the American people. The immediate impact of Reagan's presidency was a severe recession with increased unemployment, a rapid increase in the cost of necessities and serious economic hardship for the lower end of the income scale.
Reagan also set about changing the shape of American politics by taking important responsibilities away from national control and placing them at state and local levels. Tax cuts, vastly increased defense spending and dramatic cuts in social spending saddled state and local governments with severe social problems. Meanwhile the federal government piled up unheard-of budget deficits.
ACORN was not about to fold up its tents and go home in the face of such an assault. Rather, it was uniquely prepared and positioned to deal with it. It had the hearts and ears of low- and moderate-income people in twenty states, understood the problems of grassroots political activism, and had solid roots at the local level.
Turning adversity into opportunity, ACORN launched a campaign to obtain affordable housing. Long before it became fashionable to be concerned about the homeless, ACORN was fighting for homes for low- and moderate-income people. Noting that economic upheaval had forced many people to default on mortgages, ACORN sought to place needy people in the resulting vacant homes. This required the forceful and illegal (though logical and moral) seizing of the properties - squatting.
The squatting campaigns involved personal, community and political dimensions. The personal needs of people without homes attracted many to advertisements ACORN placed in papers asking "Do you need a home?" The squatting campaign required a personal commitment to move into a vacant, usually poorly kept house and refit it for comfortable living. It also involved the risk of arrest if local authorities refused them the legal occupation of the home. Nevertheless, the response was great.
The community response was strong as well. Vacant houses meant opportunities for rape, drug-dealing and arson. Residents of communities in which houses stood vacant wanted responsible neighbors to inhabit and maintain the homes. Before squatting sites were approved, neighborhood approval was obtained. Moreover, neighbors frequently participated in the entry and refitting of the houses.
Squatting did not occur under cover of darkness. It was well publicized. This was a part of the political dimension of squatting. First, local officials had to agree not to evict or prosecute squatters. Second, ACORN attempted to legalize the act. Then, local officials were asked to subsidize the costs of squatting in an effort to improve the quality of life of the squatters and their neighbors. Through these campaigns ACORN gained national exposure on housing issues and cemented its reputation as the leading authority on low-income community development.
Squatting was not ACORN's only response to the Reagan assault on low- and moderate-income Americans. Fifteen thousand ACORN members and their allies established "Reagan Ranches" in over 35 cities to protest Reagan policies of massive military spending and meager social spending. Tent cities symbolizing the homelessness Reagan's policies created sprang up in city after city, including Washington, DC., in June of 1982 in the shadow of the White House. The national action, lasting two days, met serious resistance from the National Parks Service who tried time and again to run ACORN tenters off the grounds. Despite harassment and intimidation, ACORN protesters held their ground, marched on the White House and testified before a Congressional committee about the housing crisis in America. The Republican Convention in Dallas in 1984 was the culminating Reagan Ranch. This protest and voter registration drive, despite extremely hot weather, involved 15,000 Dallas voters.