Roots of a Social Justice Movement (1970-75)


The Sixties were an important time in the history of American politics. The decade witnessed struggles for freedom for low-income people and minorities across the nation as well as a war that deeply divided all Americans. Amid the confusion and conflict, some important lessons were learned by those who cared deeply about America and her people - lessons that would endure and make a lasting impact on the nation. 

One of the groups that took risks, explored new ideas and developed a unique formula for a politics of justice in America was the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), led by George Wiley. Wiley developed and led the National Welfare Rights Organization in the mid-sixties to become a national force for the needs and rights of low-income people. By 1966, the NWRO had 170 groups in sixty cities across the nation. Despite the very real needs of its members, the NWRO was destined to remain a small minority with limited power in American politics unless it could build a network of friends and allies. When this reality became clear, Wiley began an experiment that would explore the possibilities of a larger constituency for economic justice. He sent Wade Rathke, his young and highly talented organizer, to Little Rock, Arkansas to apply his creativity to the problem. 

Rathke's task in Little Rock was monumental. He had to create a movement that would bring NWRO organizing to groups that should support it yet had little sympathy for its cause, such as conservative, low- and moderate-income Southern whites. Even worse, he had to do this in a state that was deeply racially divided, fundamentally conservative and run by a wealthy political elite.

But, because Wiley, Rathke and the NWRO took the cause of economic justice seriously and studied and respected the traditions of social justice movements in American history, they saw possibilities and opportunities where others did not. They founded a movement that would unite races, join neighborhoods and unify the interests and efforts of low- and moderate- income people wherever they lived or worked.

When Rathke arrived in Little Rock in 1970, he began a campaign to help welfare recipients attain their basic needs - clothing and furniture. This drive, inspired by a clause in the Arkansas welfare laws, began the effort to create and sustain a social justice movement that would grow to become the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now - ACORN.

The goal was to unite welfare recipients with working people in need around issues of free school lunches for schoolchildren, unemployed workers' concerns, Vietnam Veterans' rights and hospital emergency room care. Thus, an idea was born that would grow and adapt, thrive and flourish, and become a powerful movement from coast to coast. 


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