Henry Hampton and “America’s War on Poverty”

7 Feb
Henry Hampton - Photo by Dave Henderson

Henry Hampton – Photo by Dave Henderson

This year marks the 5oth anniversary of the War on Poverty. In the 1964 State of the Union address President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a series of new programs and initiatives designed to alleviate inequalities and end poverty in America.

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, State of the Union Address, Jan. 8, 1964

This extremely ambitious effort combined many programs including the Social Security Amendments of 1965 which created Medicare and Medicaid, the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which encompassed the Job Corps, the VISTA program and many others initiatives, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which created the Title I program to subsidize school districts with many impoverished students.

Henry Hampton, after tackling The Great Depression in 1993, began work on his series America’s War on Poverty. The program aired in 1995 and continued Blackside’s tradition of in-depth, innovative filmmaking. In an article published around the debut on PBS stations, Hampton said,

The war on poverty was a time when poor Americans were given weapons and resources to change their own lives,” Hampton said in a phone interview last week. “In watching this series, I think people will come to understand that most people want to work and thrive. I think people will also come to understand the enormous reservoir of human potential in this country.

A recent article by Eric Mink, who knew Hampton and worked with him on the  jury of the duPont-Columbia Awards in the 1980s, described Hampton’s method and documentary style,

Henry’s documentary — he served as executive producer; Terry Kay Rockefeller was the series producer — examines the planning, operation, problems and achievements of key programs that flowed from President Johnson’s initiative and the support of the American people generally. Its sources include official and unofficial records, personal notes and memoirs, in-depth interviews with direct participants (opponents and supporters alike), archival news footage, academic studies and a treasury of vintage still photos and relevant period music.

Hampton’s work looked into chapters of American history where he felt the full story had not been told, or had been reported in a one-sided manner. In addition to interviewing officials including  Sargent Shriver , known as the “architect” of the War on Poverty, Hampton sought out people who while not well-known had participated in the War on Poverty programs, such as Head Start. The range of interviewees he chose created a diverse portrait of this ambitious movement.


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