The League in the 1960s: Building momentum as “Keeper of the Public Conscience”
The 1960s marked a period of great energy and change, both for the Michigan Welfare League (the precursor to the Michigan League for Human Services) and at the state and national level.
The League marked its 50th anniversary in 1962, and its annual conference that year focused on past accomplishments and a new direction that would eventually include a greater focus on research, advocacy, and collaboration with newly elected Gov. George W. Romney to help vulnerable individuals and families.
Robert H. MacRae, a speaker at the 50th anniversary conference, referred to the League as “Keeper of the Public Conscience,” which applied just as much to the League’s work in the ’60s as it does today.
This decade brought the auto industry back to prosperity after a nationwide recession in the late ’50s and a period of high unemployment. Labor unions grew strong, Motown put Detroit on the map, and the Civil Rights Movement had many Michiganders heading south to register black voters, participating in nonviolent protests, and attending the March on Washington in support of President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill.
This period included a constitutional convention in Michigan from 1961-1962, the establishment of Head Start in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the planting of the American flag on the moon in 1969.
The ’60s were also a time of great turmoil, as many Americans lost their lives in the Vietnam War and the assassinations of both President John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1963 and then Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 rocked the nation. A riot that broke out in Detroit in 1967 lasted five days and killed 43 people, bringing to light social and racial tensions in Michigan. That same year a flat-rate income tax was enacted to help pay for the state’s increasing public needs.
The League held its first legislative forum in 1961. It was so well-received that it became an annual event, growing in attendance and attracting the governor and civic leaders from around the state to discuss how Michigan should best handle human services.
The forums helped build a relationship with Gov. Romney and his administration, to which the League served as a resource for policy decisions regarding children, families, and those affected by poverty. In fact, Romney indicated his thanks for “valuable assistance for which the Michigan Welfare League has extended to state government and to me as Governor.” Lt. Gov. William G. Milliken cited the League as an example of an organization that has been willing to “take on the tough public problems.”
The League participated in many important policy initiatives under the Romney administration. In 1963, it led the creation of the Citizens Council on Agricultural Labor, which addressed the conditions of migrant workers. It helped staff the governor’s Migrant Commission and an anti-poverty program for migrant workers.
In working with the governor and other social welfare agencies across the country, the League pushed for the establishment of the federal Aid to Dependent Children with an Unemployed Father (ADC-U) program. In 1964, Gov. Romney authorized the formation of a State Human Resources Council, previously recommended by a League study, to address anti-poverty efforts and reorganization of state agencies under the new constitution.
In the same year, the League organized a Public Assistance Study Committee to address persistent problems in the welfare system. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act, which prevents discrimination and helps provide fair and equal housing to all Michigan residents, was signed after the League played a strong role in its creation.
In addition to taking on a greater advocacy role at the state level, the League received national recognition for a statewide welfare visitation project it created. Local leaders and citizens joined welfare caseworkers on visits to public assistance clients in their homes, learning not only about the job of the caseworker but about the individuals and families who rely on government help to survive. The United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was so impressed that it distributed publications on Michigan’s program as guides to agencies in other states wishing to start their own visitation projects.
The League gained a lot of momentum as a nonpartisan advocate for human services in the ’60s, and set the stage for the type of accomplishments that would be made over the next 50 years. McRae understood this when he closed his 50th anniversary speech with these remarks:
“It is the League which must be the voice of the voiceless in Michigan. It is to this task it is called by its charter and, I hope, by its conscience as well. It must not falter. Neither must it fail in the task to which it has set its hand.
It will be caught up in controversy and turmoil, but it must learn how to make constructive use of controversy. It must remember the injunction Justice (Oliver Wendell) Holmes has given in these words: ‘As life in action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at the peril of being judged not to have lived.’”
— Sara Metz