Head Start, the innovative preschool education program created as part of Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, had substantial success and also generated controversy in Mississippi between 1965 and the early 1970s. Serving six thousand impoverished children in the summer of 1965, Head Start centers became an immediate target of the state’s white segregationist politicians. Many Mississippi whites objected to the civil-rights-movement-based identity of local Head Start centers, fearing that the program’s largely African American students were receiving a “radical” education in the preschool classes. White elites also opposed Head Start because the program employed large numbers of African American movement activists as teachers’ aides, outreach workers, bus drivers, cooks, and janitors. In Mississippi the War on Poverty’s goal of “maximum feasible participation” of the poor came close to reality in Head Start projects because of the extensive involvement of parents and community members.
The grassroots movement that had fueled the direct-action civil rights demonstrations and the voter registration campaigns provided an initial model for Head Start educational programs through the freedom schools organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Federated Organizations in the summer of 1964. Committed white activists were among the creators of the federal program, and movement-related organizations such as the Delta Ministry were heavily involved in training community members to organize and staff the first Head Start programs. These networks of movement activists became the direct beneficiaries of federal funds granted to the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) in 1965. Because federal salaries of between sixty and one hundred dollars a week far exceeded the prevailing wage rates of three dollars a day, especially in Delta counties, demand was high for jobs in Head Start programs and other programs funded by the War on Poverty.
By late 1966 a sustained power struggle developed among white segregationist elites, CDGM activists and their allies, and a new coalition of “Loyal Democrats” that consisted of middle-class African American activists and white liberals who supported Johnson. In 1966 Mississippi Action for Progress, a hastily organized coalition of agencies, competed directly with CDGM for federal funding and control of local programs. Between 1966 and 1968 CDGM organizations were forced to join programs administered by the Mississippi Action for Progress, and federal pressures tightened educational requirements and regulations for Head Start employees. The resulting programs became more bureaucratic and less innovative.
Mississippi’s Head Start history illustrates the conflicts that arose when state and federal authorities took control of programs and agencies begun by activists. War on Poverty programs disrupted established power relationships in communities across the United States. In a poor state such as Mississippi, federal funds constituted a highly contested source of local and state political power. Head Start teachers’ aides and outreach workers increased their skill levels and education and consequently better educated their own children. Roles as students and leaders conferred increased status within their communities and became a prized source of empowerment.
Head Start has remained a subject of debate and occasional controversy. Nevertheless, in 2013–14, Mississippi’s more than three hundred Head Start Centers received just over $185 million to serve twenty-seven thousand children.
- James F. Findlay Jr., Church History (June 1995)
- James F. Findlay Jr., Church People in the Struggle: The National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement, 1950–1970 (1993)
- Mark Newman, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (2004)
- Kim Lacy Rogers, Life and Death in the Delta: African American Narratives of Violence, Resilience, and Social Change (2006)
- Crystal Sanders, A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle (2016)
- US Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start Program Facts, Fiscal Year 2014 (April 2015)