five questions

James T. Patterson

Professor of History Emeritus

The Moynihan Report at 45: Questions for James T. Patterson

Award-winning historian James T. Patterson, professor of history emeritus, has written a book on the Moynihan Report, its creation, publication, and long-term impact on America’s struggle with race.

By Anne Coyle  |  June 28, 2010  |  Email to a friend

Forty-five years ago, a report compiled by then assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan described a frightening deterioration of lower-class black families in the cities. The controversy surrounding the report’s contents was so intense that it essentially sidelined discussion of the issues raised. James T. Patterson, award-winning historian and professor of history emeritus has written a book, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle Over Black Family Life From LBJ to Obama, published by Basic Books and chronicling the report and its aftermath through the Obama administration. Today at Brown posed five questions to him on the report and its arguments, which have proven startlingly prophetic.

Can you provide some background on the report and the U.S. national situation at the time of its release?

The report came at a time when the United States, in particular the Johnson administration, was pressing for civil rights and equal justice for black Americans. In June 1965, President Johnson gave a speech, co-written by Moynihan, at Howard University outlining the most far-reaching civil rights agenda in U.S. history. In the speech, Johnson emphasized the breakdown in the black family, stemming in part from centuries of oppression and persecution of the black man. His speech was enthusiastically received, and the Moynihan report, which was actually titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, was meant to highlight the issues that Johnson hoped to address.

The report was leaked to the media in July 1965, one month before the devastating riots in Watts. The riots took most of America, including Johnson and civil rights leaders, by surprise. What had been thought to be an issue of discriminatory problems stemming from segregation and voting rights in the South was manifesting itself as injustices in economic and political power and representation. Many reporters used the content of the report in their analysis of the causes of black urban unrest. For example, on August 9, Newsweek published a four-page story that offered a fairly full summary of the report but did so in an alarmist fashion. This type of journalism, combined with the social unrest of the time, made it difficult for politicians, civil rights leaders, and others to view the report’s findings in a measured way.

What about the report made it so controversial?

What is important to remember is that Moynihan intended this report to be a starting point for discussions that would ideally lead to policy and legislative programs and interventions. In a memo to another Johnson administration member, sent while the report was being compiled, Moynihan described “major and sometimes wrenching changes that will be required to bring [blacks] in as full-fledged members of the larger community.” The report’s language was deliberately frank to show the immediacy of the problem.

Specifically, many civil rights militants saw the report, which described a “tangle of pathology” in the ghettos, as insulting to lower-class black people. Moynihan cited the breakdown of the black family as a key reason why black Americans were not getting ahead in the United States. He identified matriarchal-headed households and high numbers of out of wedlock births as factors that were contributing to the instability and holding the lower-class black community back. To quote Moynihan, “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.”

Moynihan’s treatment of out-of-wedlock births in the black community was seen to be moralistic in tone by critics. His purpose, however, was to demonstrate the outcome of larger numbers of out-of-wedlock births among blacks, including a higher number of female-headed households, in which children suffered from poverty and a host of behavioral problems that damaged their lives.

What was also overlooked in the report was Moynihan’s citing of white racism as well as three centuries of unimaginable treatment as taking its toll on the black community. In fact, Moynihan noted that a lesser people might have simply died out.

What did Moynihan recommend to change the situation described in the report?

Moynihan meant for the report to serve as a call to action for a larger discussion and planned social and political intervention. He deliberately did not offer solutions, and he was criticized for this perceived oversight.

The reality is that Moynihan did have recommendations in mind, and these included guaranteed full employment, birth control, adoption services and, most importantly, a family allowance.

With all of the enthusiasm for Lyndon Johnson’s speech at Howard University and strides that had been made in civil rights legislation, why did this report not serve as a catalyst for change?

The report was leaked before the Watts riots, which proved to be detrimental for race relations. Many whites could not understand the anger driving the destruction and lost empathy for the situations that led to the riots. Civil rights leaders were also surprised by the riots, and Martin Luther King was heckled when he toured Watts afterwards. One spectator yelled to King that they needed jobs not dreams. Johnson, in particular, was confused and hurt by the rioting. He was simultaneously accelerating America’s involvement in Vietnam, and this program soon overshadowed race relations on his agenda.

There was also skepticism because Moynihan was white. At the time, many Americans did not know that Moynihan had come from a broken family. After his father left, his mother raised the children in a series of New York tenements. Moynihan had a middle-class background, however, so he had the influences and tools to lead him to higher education. I believe these early childhood years helped to make Moynihan passionate in his stand for lower-class black children and the need for more opportunities for them.

We are now in the historic era of the first African-American President. What lessons, if any, does Moynihan’s report hold for us today?

Unfortunately, many of the predictions in Moynihan’s report — including a huge increase in the proportion of out-of-wedlock black births (over 72 percent today) — have come true. What has emerged is a situation in which many low-income white as well as black families are broken.

Barack Obama cited Moynihan in his book, The Audacity of Hope, and reminded people of the prescient warnings of Moynihan’s report. Obama complained that Moynihan had been wrongly accused of racism and of blaming the victim.