Beulah Sanders: She Occupied Before You Were Born

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“Everybody from President Nixon on down is talking about us. Everyone has their own plan on what to do with welfare recipients. Well the only thing you can really do is get up off your 17th century attitudes, give poor people enough money to live decently, and let us decide how to live our lives.” (Image courtesy of the Washington Star photographic archives, copyright Washington Post, reprinted with permission of District of Columbia Public Library; image from The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Felicia Kornbluh.)

Beulah Sanders, a working class black woman with strong ties to labor, tenants unions, and the anti-war movement, was instrumental in the welfare rights movement of the middle 1960s through the early 1970s. As white middle class women fought for the right to leave the home and enter the workforce, predominately black and Puerto Rican women, in the words of historian Felicia Kornbluh “fought for a privilege that had traditionally been granted to respectable white women—to remove themselves from the workforce while raising children if they so chose.“

In other words, these women demanded that the predominately white male power brokers extend to them the form of citizenship to which white middle-class women were entitled.

When, in 1970, Senator Abraham Ribicoff proposed that the mayor of New York City cut the welfare rolls by putting women to work cleaning the streets of New York, Sanders said “I would be the first welfare recipient to volunteer to clean up New York’s streets if your mother and your wife were beside me.”

Though Sanders (and the Welfare Rights Movement) accomplished much more than I discuss here, I focus on her fight against the imposition mandatory work programs—“workfare”—in the place of traditional welfare. Workfare programs funnel public assistance recipients into low-paid menial labor and work “training programs,” severely curtailing their abilities to arrange for the care of their children. Sanders and her associates viewed workfare as an oppressive restriction on their right to self-determination.

Sanders began to organize welfare recipients in 1964. By 1966 she led the largest welfare coalition in the nation. In 1967 she was appointed as vice-chair of the National Welfare Rights Organization (the NWRO), a body formed by George Wiley two years earlier which focused on such daily concerns as, in Sander’s words, “How do you get the money to live next week? How do you get clothing to send your kids back to school? How do you get them into a school lunch program? How do you get back on welfare if your check is cut off?”

Sanders testified before Congress as a leader of the NWRO for the first time in 1967 as Congress tried to push through a series of amendments to the Social Security Act which would institute rapid workfare provisions. Sanders expressed to the committee (after forcing them to listen to her via an impromptu sit-in) that “one of the things we are concerned about is being forced into these non-existing positions which might be going out and cleaning Mrs. A’s kitchen. I am not going to do that because I feel I am more valuable and can do something else.” The amendments passed, but it wasn’t the last Congress would hear of Sanders.

In 1968, she was included in the US delegation to the Paris peace talks, she ran for the New York State senate in the Freedom and Peace Party, was a frequent speaker in the anti-war circuit, and was the only black speaker at the first national rally following the Kent State and Jackson State shootings. For Sanders, her anti-war action was directly tied to her welfare activism: how could a country spend so much money on—in her eyes—unjust wars overseas when American people were living in poverty?

Her real triumph came during the campaign against President Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP). This legislation continued the imposition of mandatory workfare—with few exemptions—onto poor women. It also set a national minimum income of $1600 for a four person family with children; a minimum which the NWRO worried would become the new maximum. Sanders, who viewed the FAP as the work of predatory capitalists, expressed that “This country is too rich for…saying rather than give [welfare recipients] more money they should be going and get a job when you know for a fact that this country has failed to provide the jobs that poor people need.” To build on this, she called out the Department of Agriculture for granting hundreds of thousands of dollars to the enhancement of Mississippi Senator James Eastland’s cotton crop, and the national government on the money it put towards its interventions in Cambodia and Vietnam while remaining unwilling to put significant amounts of money towards helping its poor.

FAP was approved in April, 1970, and two weeks later Sanders scolded the nation’s power brokers as she testified before the US House Ways and Means Committee. She warned that the poor would “disrupt this state, this country, this capital” if they were not given a share of the nation’s wealth, and a voice in the political process. “We are saying that we want to participate. Are you prepared to let us sit down and help make some laws? The last time we tried to present our views to Congress, some people told us that we were wasting our time, that we should go home and kill the rats and roaches we were complaining about or, instead of coming here, we should take jobs even if it was just picking up dead dogs off the streets.” As Democrats and Republicans rose to condemn Sanders for threatening the committee with violence, she cut them off. “The poor have brains,” she said, “they’re not all dumb like you think they are. This country has failed to provide the jobs. That’s the trouble.”

As the Senate Finance Committee remained in talks about proposed changes to the FAP, Sanders made good on her threat. On May 13, 1970, she and 150 women—nearly all black female welfare recipients—occupied the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education).

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NWRO women occupying the Federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. (Image courtesy of the Washington Star photographic archives, copyright Washington Post, reprinted with permission of District of Columbia Public Library; image from The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Felicia Kornbluh.)

Sanders took her seat at the desk of the Department Secretary, Robert Finch. The women occupied the building for nine hours before being carried out by the police; Sanders described this as “two cops to every woman.”

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Sanders and her colleague (and force to be reckoned with in her own right) Johnnie Tillmon during the takeover of the HEW. Secretary Finch may be seen in the background. (Image courtesy of the Washington Star photographic archives, copyright Washington Post, reprinted with permission of District of Columbia Public Library; image from The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Felicia Kornbluh.)

Sanders was appointed to the position of vice-president of the NWRO after the sit-in, and was elected Chair at its 1971 convention. The organization continued to demonstrate and testify against FAP, until it was defeated.

Though their action helped to defeat FAP, they could not defeat the manner in which politicians insisted upon viewing impoverished women and children on public aid. By the early 70s, the organization could not ignore the anti-welfare mood of the nation as punitive workfare policies were passed in a majority of states. As the Civil Rights Movement fell into disarray, and as the US government lost the War on Poverty to Vietnam spending, the NWRO lost its foothold in the national conversation, and closed its headquarters in 1974 as it ran out of funding (though local affiliates carried on).

Ultimately, Sanders lost the battle against workfare. It became the de facto mode of public assistance in 1996 with the passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act. However, at its peak the NWRO was the largest organization of poor people in the history of the United States, and Sanders was instrumental in bringing these people together. The NWRO attracted thousands of black women, along with Puerto Rican women, white women, Native American women, and low-income men. It dramatically unsettled the power relationships between gender, class, race, and citizenship, in the United States, and it and changed the national discourse forever. We are still experiencing the repercussions of the power relationships Sanders sought to disrupt as the US is once again embroiled in a national debate and divide over military and domestic spending.

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