Celebrating the North Carolina Fund

Nov. 11, 2013 @ 05:21 PM

Fifty-one years ago, Michael Harrington’s slim but powerful book, “The Other America,” challenged a nation to acknowledge that too many of its citizens lived in poverty – most of them barely noticed, if at all, by the larger society.

“Harrington wrote that the poor were invisible to most Americans because they lived in rural isolation or in urban slums,” political scientist Peter Drier wrote last year in The Huffington Post.
“Once they become aware of the situation, Americans should be ashamed to live in a rich society with so many poor people.”

Harrington’s book helped shape a political sea change that culminated in 1964 in President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.”

But before there was JFK’s war, there was the North Carolina Fund.

Terry Sanford, elected governor in 1960, was on his audacious campaign to differentiate North Carolina from its more backward, economically stagnant southern neighbors.  And in 1963, bankrolled in part by $7 million from the Ford Foundation, he launched the North Carolina Fund.

Its mission was to mount “an all-out assault on poverty.”

It was, as a “This Month in North Carolina History” article at the UNC Libraries website notes, the first project of its kind in the country. And the experience of its early days helped to shape Johnson’s widely heralded assault a year later.

This week, MDC, a Durham think-tank that was a spin-off of the fund, is spearheading a celebration of the fund’s 50th anniversary.  Today, Duke historian Robert Korstad, who with UNC’s Jim Leloudis authored the definitive history of the fund, will lead a discussion of the fund’s move toward a focus on social justice.

Sunday, the documentary “Change Comes Knocking: The N. C. Fund” screened at the Hayti Heritage Center.

The commemoration serves as a reminder not only of the pioneering and transformative work of the fund and its successors over the past half-century, but also of the task that remains – not least here in Durham, the first home of the fund’s headquarters.

Durham today is – like many urban areas – two cities. We are the affluent City of Medicine, of creative class startups and hip restaurants. We also are a city with many deep pockets of poverty.

Steven Channing, the Durham documentarian who produced “Change Comes Knocking,” noted the existence of those two Durhams Sunday.

“We cannot accept those two cities living side by side here,” Channing said. “I hope that if there’s anything that comes out of this week, it’s that we’re not powerless. We can make a difference.”

That was the message of the North Carolina Fund five decades ago, too, and words worth remembering today.

The North Carolina Fund was birthed in a time when racial segregation still was the law of the land, when many, perhaps most, Americans were content to let “the other America,” white or black, remain invisible.

This week, as we celebrate the fund’s legacy, let’s rededicate ourselves to making a difference against the poverty that remains a blight on our economy and our consciences.