We welcome a guest post by Crystal R. Sanders, author of A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle. In this innovative study, Sanders explores how working-class black women, in collaboration with the federal government, created the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) in 1965, a Head Start program that not only gave poor black children access to early childhood education but also provided black women with greater opportunities for political activism during a crucial time in the unfolding of the civil rights movement.
Today, February 11, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the CDGM Head Start program’s march on Capitol Hill. Sanders details the history here.
Fifty years ago today, 48 preschoolers from Mississippi and their chaperones took over the ornate United States House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee hearing room in Washington, D.C. The youngsters came to Capitol Hill seeking refunding of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) Head Start program. Head Start began in 1965 as a War on Poverty initiative that provided low-income children and their families with early childhood education, nutritious meals, healthcare, and social services. CDGM stood out because it was one of the largest inaugural Head Start programs nationwide and because it was so closely aligned with Mississippi’s civil rights movement. Many of the Magnolia State’s black citizens who had lost their jobs because of their proximity to the movement, including Pap Hamer (husband of Fannie Lou Hamer) and Roxie Meredith (mother of James Meredith), secured CDGM employment. These well-paying jobs outside of the local white power structure disrupted the state’s racial and political status quo and provoked the ire of segregationists including United States Senator John C. Stennis (D-MS).
Black children as young as four and five years of age journeyed to the nation’s capitol to defend the merits of their Head Start program against allegations of fiscal mismanagement and black militancy. The preschoolers serenaded members of Congress with a rendition of “Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?” They also demonstrated their arts-and-crafts skills with paintings and drawings created while sitting on the hearing room floor. The simulated Head Start classroom offered lawmakers a glimpse into the everyday instruction and importance of CDGM’s program.
Not one single member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation met with the group, but representatives from other states, including New York and Hawaii, did. Representative Joseph Resnick (D-NY) promised to get to the bottom of why CDGM had been without federal funds for five months. Two weeks after the preschool March on Washington, CDGM received a grant for $5.6 million to continue its statewide program. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the federal agency that oversaw War on Poverty programs, approved the funds after finding no major problems in CDGM’s operation.
CDGM was about much more than cookies and crayons. The program gave black Mississippians the opportunity to control something other than their churches at a time when there was very little enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Mississippi. Moreover, the Head Start program provided black youth with an educational experience void of notions of black inferiority. While the 1966 fight for refunding led by a romper lobby was a success, OEO permanently defunded CDGM in 1968 because the program’s continued close alliance with movement activists and its emphasis on participatory democratic governance precipitated great political pressure at the local, state, and national level. Despite CDGM’s short three-year tenure, Head Start remains a vibrant educational institution in Mississippi today with many of the current programs having direct ties to the now defunct CDGM program.
Crystal R. Sanders is assistant professor of history and African American studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her book A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle will be published in April 2016.