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The North Carolina Fund was the model for LBJ’s War on Poverty, and its history is analyzed brilliantly in a new book, To Right These Wrongs. It is co-authored by Jim Leloudis, a history professor at Carolina, and Robert Korstad, a public policy professor at Duke.  The Fund was conceived at the Institute of Government.

Terry Sanford turned to the Institute for help in developing his anti-poverty proposal to the Ford Foundation.  On a visit by Foundation officials, “they met with [George] Esser and others at the university’s Institute of Government to brainstorm ways that North Carolina and the foundation might collaborate to develop new approaches to alleviating poverty, in the South and as a model for other communities around the nation.”

Esser had been a faculty member specializing in urban issues and municipal government since 1948.  He developed a proposal that invited Ford to fund an “‘all-out assault on poverty,’ the first of its kind in the nation.”  They agreed and the North Carolina Fund was created.  George Esser took a leave of absence to become the Fund’s executive director and never returned.

George Esser at a North Carolina Fund Staff Retreat


To Right These Wrongs begins with an important perspective on poverty by recounting the history of racial politics in North Carolina, beginning with Reconstruction and continuing through the response to Brown v. Board of Education. It shows how Terry Sanford came to understand that poverty was not caused by “individual pathologies and cultural deficiencies”, and it could not be eliminated solely by providing black children with greater access to equal education.  Instead, poverty was the “product of deliberate efforts to establish an inequitable distribution of power, wealth, and opportunity.  To fight poverty, therefore, is to take democracy seriously.”


Terry Sanford Visiting a Black Elementary School in Jacksonville (Can you imagine any other Southern governor doing this or allowing the picture?)



The North Carolina Fund was established in 1963 to provide “social venture capital” for community action programs that would get “the best minds in all local communities around the table and see what kinds of creative ideas they could come up with to solve the problems of poverty.”  It soon became obvious that the funded programs were not addressing the root causes of poverty.

As it learned more about the political and structural causes of poverty, particularly the role of institutionalized racial discrimination, the Fund shifted its focus to mobilizing the poor as ‘participating citizens,’ to make them a ‘viable, constructive, competitive’ force.”  This meant helping poor people “band together” in order to “bring pressure to bear on critical public policy decisions.”  Congress borrowed the community-participation model in creating the Equal Opportunity Act, which required “that all antipoverty efforts promote “maximum feasible participation” by the poor.

This strategy put the Fund staff and their community partners in direct conflict with local elected officials and business leaders.  Not only did many white leaders feel threatened generally by newly-empowered poor people, but they saw the Fund’s anti-poverty organizing as indistinguishable from the civil rights movement.  The opposition was fierce.  To Right These Wrongs describes what the North Carolina Fund accomplished and how it came to an end after five tumultuous years.  The federal poverty program eventually transitioned into a block grant program controlled by government officials without required participation by the poor.

According to Leloudis and Korstad, the Fund’s history reveals a number of lessons about trying to reduce poverty, including: (1) poverty is political, and “[t]o fight poverty, therefore, is to take democracy seriously;” and (2) eradicating poverty “requires activism and advocacy.”  “It requires moral courage and a willingness to confront the complicity of the affluent in unjust arrangements of privilege and power.”

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in learning more about the dynamics of race in North Carolina, especially in the context of community and economic development.  It raises uncomfortable questions about the role of government in addressing racial discrimination and poverty.  I found myself thinking constantly about the most appropriate role for the School in trying to help resolve these issues.  What are the limits on the School’s involvement in developing and promoting public policy?  How should we approach community and economic development today?  What is the role of civic education in helping people understand the importance of involvement in the political process?  The book raises many thought-provoking questions for our work and I highly recommend it.

7 thoughts on “To Right These Wrongs

  1. For further reading, I recommend a special issue of Popular Government that the School published in 2003, “Perspectives on Poverty in NC.” The lead article is about the North Carolina Fund and written by Mr. Leloudis. The issue contains other excellent articles including two by SOG alums Anita Brown-Graham and Leslie Anderson.

  2. Jim Leloudis will be a presenter at the upcoming NCACC annual conference in August in Concord, Cabarrus County. He is going to use the lessons learned from Reconstruction, the Great Depression and the War on Poverty to create a discussion on the possibilities and limits of leadership. Vaughn Upshaw, from our faculty, and Sally Greene, assistant director for the Center for the Study of the American South, will follow with a facilitated discussion on how county commissioners can apply these lessons “at home.” I hope you will join us. Jim’s session is on Friday, August 19th.

  3. Civic education is one of the primary ways in which people of all ages learn about the importance of involvement in the political process; this is what links the NC Civic Education’s work to the broader mission of the School. My colleague Christie Hinson has developed an excellent lesson plan on the NC Fund that incorporates “To Right These Wrongs.” The lesson teaches 8th grade students about the NC Fund and then engages them in an activity in which they develop their own proposal for reducing poverty in Tar Heel County, North Carolina. Through this lesson, students learn about NC history while developing the critical thinking skills they will need to address pressing community problems. While the lesson was developed for middle school students, it may also prove a useful tool for teaching some of the School’s adult clients. Here’s a link to the lesson:

  4. Thanks for this excellent, thoughtful review, Mike, and for calling attention to this important book on an amazing chapter in our state’s history. We at the Center for the Study of the American South look forward to helping you think through new ways in which the university can carry this work forward. For as Frank Porter Graham said, “The university takes no side, but democracy and justice are on the side where it belongs.”

  5. Additional information is available on the book’s web site:

    Visitors may be particularly interested in the photography of Billy Barnes, who documented the Fund’s work in communities across the state, and two short films commissioned by the Fund. “Beyond These Hills” tells the story of a water project in Avery County, visited in 1964 by Sargent Shriver, director of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity and the national war on poverty. “The First 100” documents the experiences of more than 300 student volunteers–men and women, black and white, from nearly every college in the state–who worked on antipoverty projects during the summers of 1964 and 1965. The Fund’s North Carolina Volunteers program served as a model for VISTA, the national program for community service that is known today as AmeriCorps VISTA.

    Visitors to the web site can also watch the speech that Governor Terry Sanford delivered in January, 1963, marking the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In that address, Sanford called for a second emancipation that would liberate the state’s citizens–black and white alike–from what one of his aides called the “poverty segregation complex.” Four days earlier, during his inauguration as governor of Alabama, George Wallace offered a very different view of the future. He exclaimed, “Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” In that context, Terry Sanford’s emancipation address and the work he set in motion through the North Carolina Fund provide powerful examples of the difference that enlightened leadership and political courage can make in the life of the state and nation.

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