In 1960, southern states were embroiled in a fight against H.R. 8601, a bill "to enforce constitutional rights and for other purposes." It was, according to Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana, a "nefarious bill" designed to make "a political whipping boy out of the South."
H.R. 8601 was, of course, civil rights legislation, prompted in part by reports from the DOJ's Civil Rights Commission. The Commission had been created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act and was charged with investigating and ameliorating the disfranchisement of black voters in the South. But between 1957 and 1960, very little changed about the racial makeup of southern voters. In Louisiana, the establishment of the commission didn't even make a dent in the Citizens' Council's voter cleanup, an effort that began with the purge of over 3000 black residents from the Ouachita Parish rolls and culminated in the purge of 1,377 black voters from the Washington Parish rolls.* Using an arsenal of literacy tests, poll taxes, and good character requirements, a few white citizens of any parish could challenge thousands of black voters.
By 1960, Louisiana politicians were ready to find a new way to discourage civil rights' agitation. The good character requirements for voter eligibility were also used in the system of social services. Welfare was an effective tool for attacking the black population. By 1960, despite white protest and a growing vilification of black single mothers, 66% of approximately 100,000 ADC recipients in Louisiana were black.
In talking about why such a vilification was possible and why the state's poorest mothers seemed a prime target for political backlash requires mention (again :-) of the construction of our system of social provision as a two-tier system with welfare relegated to the "less honorable" tier. But it also requires acknowledgement of the presumptions about single motherhood in our society. In a study about single mothers and child neglect, Linda Gordon writes
single mothers are consistently overrepresented as neglectful parents... An attempt to understand why single mothers appeared so often negligent illuminates both the historical construction of modern single motherhood and the modern concept of child neglect. In fact, these two social problems were mutually constructed. The very definition of child neglect arose as part of an ideology about proper family life that automatically conceived of single mothers as inadequate parents.There is a compulsion in American society to punish poor single mothers for their allegedly immoral behavior. According to Gwendolyn Mink, welfare served two primary functions initially: to allow poor single mothers to stay home with their children and, since their single parenthood was based on some flaw within the women themselves, to reform and instill morals in these women. Americans abandoned that first function and now seek only to reform single mothers and to either link them with a man or a job to make them more acceptable. Stringent work requirements, time limitations, and child exclusion provisions all serve to force women into more "appropriate" behavior.
This is the context in which Louisiana politicians acted. The state legislature amended Revised Statute 14:79.1 with Acts number 73 and 75. Act 73 made entering into common law marriage a crime. Act 75 prohibited "conceiving and giving birth to two or more illegitimate children." Violation of Act 75 could result in a $1000 fine and a year in jail. Both laws were specifically targeted at blacks who had higher rates of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births than whites. The legislature also amended the State Constitution, through Act 613, to strengthen the good character and literacy requirement of voting laws. These acts worked together to circumvent the repeal of poll taxes and new restrictions on white challenges of black voters.
Individuals guilty of defying Act 73 or 75, whether criminally charged or not, were considered not of good character, and thus, ineligible to vote. But Acts 73 and 75 worked in another, more immediately harmful manner. Louisiana was a strong supporter of "suitable home" guidelines for ADC recipients, rules that required caretakers to provide a home that met predetermined standards before the state would grant assistance. The passage of Acts 73 and 75 led to changes in the laws regulating welfare. Act 251 amended Louisiana Revised Statute 46:233:
In no instance shall assistance be granted to any person who is living with his or her mother if the mother has had an illegitimate child after a check has been received from the welfare department, unless and until proof satisfactory to the parish board of public welfare has been presented showing that the mother has ceased illicit relationships and is maintaining a suitable home for the child or children.In one paragraph, Louisiana had laid the groundwork to deny thousands of children aid to meet their most basic needs.
Louisiana legislators and welfare administrators went to work immediately to implement Act 251. 5,991 families were notified by letter in July that, as of August, they would no longer receive ADC because they had failed to provide a suitable home for their children. The letters failed to mention any means of appeal. Further efforts led to the termination of 290 more cases. These 6,281 families included 23,459 children. 95% of these children were black.***
To borrow an argument from Mink, the way in which Louisiana's suitable home laws were enforced further undermined political equality-guaranteed by the Constitution and legislation-because it erased social equality-afforded by some degree of economic independence.**** The state removed the only source of income from thousands of Black families, forcing their focus to shift from civil and political rights to sheer survival.
I'll rush ahead to note that Louisiana lost the battle--by October 1960, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare stepped in to effectively void suitable home laws everywhere. But, according to Levenstein, Louisiana won the "war" over how welfare and poor black mothers would be perceived, as undeserved, paltry handouts to "brood sows" and "welfare queens." The shift in public opinion led to the destruction of our safety net.
For mothers of color, beyond the violation of political and economic rights, this was an attack on more intimate rights: sexual practices, childbearing, and caring for our children. The devaluation of our motherwork is compounded by the continual need to defend ourselves as mothers.
*Adam Fairclough, Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972. The latter would result in a suit brought by the DOJ.
**Persuaded is an apt word--in its first years, the Commission had to be poked and prodded--knowing the challenge southern politicians would mount, they only wanted to accept airtight cases.
***Bell, Winifred. Aid to Dependent Children; Levenstein, Lisa. "From Innocent Children to Unwanted Migrants and Unwed Moms: Two Chapters in Public Discourse on Welfare in the United States 1960-1961;" Lindhorst, Taaryn and Leslie Leighninger. " `Ending Welfare as We Know It' in 1960: Louisiana's Suitable Home Law."
****Mink, Gwendolyn. Welfare's End.