We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Karen Hawkins discusses her book Everybody’s Problem: The War on Poverty in Eastern North Carolina.
Read Thomas Saylor’s review here and in issue 47.2 of OHR.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
Everybody’s Problem details the bold and largely successful efforts of white and Black leaders in predominately rural Eastern North Carolina to work together for the first time to address the main causes of poverty in their community during the 1960s and 1970s. Despite early resistance from local conservatives (including the KKK) as well as increasingly restrictive federal guidelines, their efforts spanned the period before, during, and after President Johnson’s national War on Poverty. Centered in Craven County, few antipoverty programs in the nation lasted so long or witnessed the level of local cooperation as seen there. I argue that this was made possible by the large presence and influence of moderates in the community to keep the program alive out of a shared commitment to provide more economic opportunity (namely well-paying jobs) for the most disadvantaged residents, which they saw as improving the area’s economic strength for all. By the early 1980s, Craven County was described as the “jewel of the East” in part due to the growth of high-skilled jobs that employed historic numbers of whites and Blacks alike. Although this is a mostly local history, Craven County’s size, demographics and preference for local control were then and now far from unique in the nation and, therefore, can add much to our understanding of how local people of different backgrounds and even preferred methods can meet and cooperate to help address issues of poverty and inequity in their communities out of a shared interest. Arguably, the lessons of the book have only become more relevant today as both local communities and the nation as a whole have experienced growing and never-before-seen divides, mistrust, and isolation that tend to hamstring discussion, cooperation, and solutions to social and economic issues.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
The book relies on several oral history collections including the New Bern Oral History Project (catalogued by UNC-Chapel Hill), interviews of local people and federal officials (from the Office of Economic Opportunity) conducted by North Carolina Fund staff who provided more hands-on guidance and private funding to the Craven County anti-poverty program (catalogued by UNC-Chapel Hill), and the Duke University Behind the Veil Oral History Project. I also conducted oral history interviews with eleven members of the Craven County community with regard to their involvement in the local anti-poverty program and/or the concurrent local civil rights movement.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
Above all, I really appreciated how the oral history interviews allowed me to understand and have access to the personal feelings and relationships between so many local community members (from businessmen to civil rights leaders to housewives) as well to see how one’s view could change from one interview to a subsequent one a few months later based on the context. The North Carolina Fund was perhaps most helpful in that its staff conducted multiple interviews with individuals both for and against the anti-poverty program during the War on Poverty. With all the oral history collections, I was also able to learn and understand more about the day-to-day challenges and inner-workings of the local anti-poverty program and the general culture and philosophy of leadership in Craven County that could not be found in any other sources including local newspaper articles.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
They may be interested in how the interviews were used in the book as well as the location of a wide number of oral histories among a diverse group of white and Black North Carolinians who share their personal views on and experiences with race, poverty, and politics during the highly contentious and changing 1960s and 1970s.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
Positive and lasting change, whether to address the causes of poverty or another issue, occurs most successfully when individuals of goodwill from a representative variety of backgrounds, views, experiences, and status are invited to participate and can see the benefits that change will have for themselves and their fellow citizens.