The Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) was a statewide Head Start program begun during the summer of 1965 with a $1.5 million War on Poverty grant to provide poor children with school readiness, two nutritious meals each day, and basic medical services. It was the largest inaugural program in the nation, and during its first summer it employed eleven hundred working-class individuals in eighty-four centers spanning twenty-four counties and serving six thousand children. CDGM’s founders included Tom Levin, a psychoanalyst from New York; Arthur Thomas, director of the Delta Ministry; and Polly Greenberg, a US Office of Economic Opportunity employee and early childhood education specialist. Board members included former Tougaloo College president Adam Beittel, Glen Allan civil rights leader Jake Ayers, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Victoria Gray Adams, and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.
CDGM was unique in that from its inception it was overwhelmingly black and was closely allied with civil rights organizations. Its employees included civil rights veteran Unita Blackwell and Roxy Meredith, the mother of James Meredith. For Meredith and many others, CDGM employment was the only option as a consequence of white reprisals for earlier civil rights participation. Because of the connection between the freedom struggle and CDGM employees, the program faced significant opposition and criticism from Mississippi’s political leaders and members of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, who alleged that federal dollars were subsidizing civil rights activity. In addition to the political scrutiny, CDGM employees and their supporters faced constant harassment and violence from whites who shot into and burned down Head Start centers.
Head Start was a part of Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty authorized by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and administered by the Office of Economic Opportunity. The War on Poverty was largely a response to the demands of civil rights workers for programs that fought poverty and disadvantage, so its authorizing legislation included language calling for the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor. This stipulation meant that parents and other poor members of the community such as Blackwell and Meredith would play roles in creating and administering local Head Start centers. In Mississippi, which had few public kindergartens and severely underfunded black schools, Head Start sought to provide black youngsters with the skills they needed to do well in school and to provide much-needed jobs and income for their parents.
After the summer of 1965 Head Start became a year-round program, and CDGM applied for new funds. The grant was delayed for more than five months, in large part because Sen. John C. Stennis charged the CDGM with fiscal mismanagement. During the unfunded period, more than fifty centers remained open and operated by volunteers. In February 1966 the preschool program finally received six months’ worth of new funding on the condition that CDGM relocate from Mount Beulah, its headquarters since 1965, which also served as the headquarters of the Delta Ministry and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. At the end of the 1966 grant, CDGM officials learned that moderate forces had created a rival Head Start program, Mississippi Action for Progress. Following a very public nationwide battle to save CDGM, the program received a third round of funding, but in January 1968 CDGM essentially dissolved. During Head Start’s celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary in Mississippi, twenty-one of the state’s Head Start programs traced their existence to CDGM.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Polly Greenberg, The Devil Has Slippery Shoes: A Biased Biography of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (1969)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Crystal R. Sanders, A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle (2016)