Black History Month: A Reflection on Head Start History

The Child Development Group of Mississippi, Head Start, 1965. Photographer: Bob Fletcher

Often when we think about Head Start’s early history, we recall the White House Rose Garden Ceremony on May 18, 1965 in which President Johnson announced Project Head Start. But this was only the beginning. Following that historic day, it took the work of determined community leaders, many of them Civil Rights advocates ready to challenge the status quo, to build Head Start into the life-changing force we know. This was no easy feat. Launching an integrated, anti-poverty program at the peak of the Modern Civil Rights Movement was met with resistance in some communities, and we owe the leaders, teachers, and parents who persisted in overcoming that resistance a wealth of gratitude. This Black History Month, we will take a deeper look and reflect on just how deeply intertwined Head Start’s history is with that of the Civil Rights Movement.

In her book, A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle, historian Crystal Sanders explores the history of the Child Development Group of Mississippi’s (CDGM) Head Start program. A community action program that was part of the new Economic Opportunity Office — Head Start’s original home office in the federal government — CDGM brought together many SNCC and NAACP activists in its leadership. These leaders had the experience and the desire to put the goals of the Civil Rights Movement into action through this new early childhood program. “They translated a grassroots educational endeavor into an opportunity to better themselves, their communities, and their children’s futures,” Sanders writes.

Urban League Head Start, Los Angeles, 1991. Photographer: Guy Crowder

“Black parents in Mississippi wielded authority in the education of their children, an opportunity denied to them in the public school system that was under white supervision,” Sanders writes. Not only were parents able and encouraged to play a role in their children’s education through CDGM, but many also gained employment as administrators, teachers, and cooks, which they saw as an extension of their earlier Civil Rights Movement work.

Of course, there were also obstacles to be overcome at every turn. In that first year, for example, not one school superintendent rented out school buildings or buses to CDGM, leaving them to source resources elsewhere in the community and build from scratch. And if that message wasn’t clear enough, the largest local newspaper printed an editorial saying that, “on the face of this undertaking … it appears to be the most wholesome and humane.” But, it went on, “Here is one of the most subtle mediums for instilling the acceptance of racial integration and ultimate mongrelization ever perpetrated in this country.” Despite these institutions’ unwillingness to embrace integration and progress, Head Start persisted.

Cape Girardeau’s Head Start program, 1967. Photographer: Unknown

A couple of states away, Darren Walker, now President of the Ford Foundation, was a student in another Head Start program in its inaugural year. “I was raised by a single mother, and I and my sister lived in the early 1960s in a small town in East Texas called Ames — what one in those days called the colored community,” Walker recalls. “The scene is a little dirt road with a modest shotgun shack, and a woman approached my mother and me on the porch and told my mother about a new government program called Head Start.” More than five decades later, Mr. Walker believes his own work aligns with that of the Head Start program that gave him his start — both in the business of hope and of opportunity.

Darren Walker is a prominent example, but just one of many examples of Head Start’s impact for low-income Black children who grew up in the 1960s. We know that the work of Civil Rights leaders running CDGM, the work of women like the one who approached Darren Walker’s mother, the work of countless others has made an impact because we see Head Start alumni leading in every field, in every community today.

Head Start owes its birth and early development deeply to the determination and tenacity of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Throughout Black History Month, we invite you to follow along as NHSA continues to reflect on the relationship between Head Start and the Civil Rights Movement, and how this legacy lives on today.

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.