From Community Action to Community Policing: The Ford Foundation and the Urban Crisis, 1960-1975

By Sam Collings-Wells

On July 16, 1970, McGeorge Bundy circulated a letter to various US Senators informing them of the Ford Foundation’s “major new program to help strengthen and modernize the exercise of police function in urban areas.”[i] He was referring to the establishment of the Police Foundation, an independent organization which was allocated an enormous $30 million for action-orientated research into new policing strategies and technologies.[ii] Internal program documents repeatedly stressed that the principal purpose of this new entity was to stimulate “change in police function,” not by funding the purchase of additional hardware but instead by “bringing the police closer to the community” and fostering “mutual cooperation between police officers and community residents.”[iii]

The Ford Foundation’s leap into the realm of community policing during the early 1970s has largely been neglected by historians. This is surprising, particularly given that the organization’s role in pioneering the community-based antipoverty strategies of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has been well documented. Scholars from Alice O’Connor to Joshua Zeitz have demonstrated how the urban community action experiments pioneered by Ford during the early 1960s formed the basis of the “maximum feasible participation” clause of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act.[iv] Yet in these works the Ford Foundation appears only briefly, surfacing as the progenitor of the controversial Community Action Agencies before largely disappearing from view.

This lack of attention to the Ford Foundation’s later efforts in the realm of law enforcement has obscured its role in fraught city politics of the 1960s. Keeping our focus on the organization throughout the decade allows us to track the evolution of its urban policies, which shifted from an antipoverty strategy of “community action” to a law-and-order based program of “community policing.” Despite their obvious differences, these two projects shared a core belief in the efficacy of operating at the level of the “community.” In fact, the Police Foundation’s attempts to better integrate law enforcement into the fabric of local neighborhoods drew on the antipoverty strategies Ford had pioneered earlier in the decade. And crucially, uncovering these connective tissues serves to buttress Elizabeth Hinton’s recent thesis that the transition from War on Poverty to the War on Crime was less a decisive rupture than an organic evolution.[v]

New Haven Government Center, New Haven, Connecticut. Model A. Façades facing New Haven Green. Street level view, Rudolph Paul, 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Tackling the urban crisis at the level of the community was central to the Ford Foundation’s antipoverty efforts early in the decade. Beginning in 1960, the Foundation’s “Gray Areas” program initiated a series of grants to community corporations in five cities—Boston, Philadelphia, Oakland, New Haven and Washington D.C—which were tasked with formulating an integrated response to inner-city deprivation.[vi] What distinguished this approach from previous antipoverty efforts was its emphasis on engaging poor residents in the formulation of solutions. While in practice the program achieved differing levels of participation, leveraging community associations to democratize the planning and provision of social services remained its core innovation. Local schools often served as the locus of this activity, keeping open their doors after-hours and on weekends for adult education, remedial reading, and various “community building” exercises.[vii]

Other Ford Foundation grants also sought to mobilize the community in the service of urban renewal. The most notable of these was that made to Mobilization for Youth (MFY), an agency located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side which had begun as a traditional anti-delinquency program carried out by a local settlement house tackling gang violence. After receiving Foundation funding in 1960—and under the influence of sociologists such as Leonard Cottrell, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin—MFY was gradually nudged in the direction of greater local participation; by 1963 it had stopped working with existing neighborhood organizations and begun recruiting unaffiliated poor individuals from the Lower East Side.[viii] It was this aspect of the program which would be imported into Lyndon Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act the following year, Title II of which mandated the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor.

War on Poverty Baltimore Community Action Agency, Thomas J. O’Halloran, May 28, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Yet as both the MFY experiment and LBJ’s War on Poverty demonstrated, mobilising the poor in this way could hardly occur without generating controversy—particularly when the fraught issues of housing, jobs, and poverty interacted with the cresting civil rights movement in the North. By the middle of the decade MFY’s organizers were coordinating a series of rent strikes, boycotts, and protests, none of which endeared the organisation to established local power structures. Soon MFY found itself fighting off charges of communist infiltration and inciting riots.[ix] Similar tensions arose within the Gray Areas program, with communities of color utilizing the new structures it had put in place to press their complaints against city hall. This mirrored the arc of Johnson’s War on Poverty, where local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) clashed with mayors and local police departments. As maximum feasible participation soured into “maximum feasible misunderstanding,” many at the Ford Foundation became embarrassed by their trail-blazing role in the most contentious aspect of Johnson’s War on Poverty.[x]

This backlash to Johnson’s Community Action Agencies ensured that by the time McGeorge Bundy arrived at the Ford Foundation as president in 1966, the organization was already quietly abandoning the more radical aspects of the “community action” approach. As signaled by its pioneering use of Community Development Corporations (CDCs) in Robert Kennedy’s Bedford-Stuyvesant regeneration project, the Foundation began to focus less on the process of community participation and more on the end-goal of attracting business, capital and middle-class residents back to deprived neighborhoods—a precursor to the neoliberalization of urban governance during the late-1970s and 80s.[xi] Despite this shift, however, the Foundation did not banish the participatory impulse of the earlier community action approach altogether. Instead, by the late 1960s it had migrated into the Ford Foundation’s new emphasis on law enforcement—an emphasis which by this time was dovetailing with broader national political shifts.

Nixon’s the one!“, poster, 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With Richard Nixon elected in 1968 by capitalizing on widespread concerns over “law and order,” policing appeared to offer the Foundation a powerful, non-controversial avenue for involvement in the urban crisis.[xii] Instead of tackling the root of unrest through community-based antipoverty programs, the Foundation would now focus on controlling the symptom of urban malaise through improved policing strategies. Yet in making this transition the Ford Foundation hardly acted as the President’s cheerleader. Rather, it sought to inject what they saw as a much-needed grassroots emphasis into Nixon’s “top-down” war on crime. This was reflected in the stated ambition of the Police Foundation, which hoped to “[c]ontribute significantly to the movement away from the centralized and quasi-military models of patrol operations to more flexible neighbourhood based patrol operations which are more responsive to varying community needs and values.”[xiii]

The main function of the Police Foundation was to provide financial assistance for a number of (primarily urban) police departments to initiate local experiments and demonstration projects. These were aimed at redefining law enforcement functions, altering the way in which effective policing was assessed by focusing more closely on police-community relations.[xiv] In Cincinnati, for instance, a major impact grant funded an experiment that placed small police teams permanently in specific neighborhoods. Known as community sector team policing (or ComSec), this approach sought to encourage “mutual cooperation between police officers and residents,” with the ultimate aim of “controlling crime by increasing community cooperation.” Similar experiments were undertaken in New York City, Dallas, Kansas City and Sacramento.[xv]

Community action had thus evolved into a form of community policing, which sought to control urban unrest by stitching structures of surveillance into the social life of the neighborhood itself. The ComSec program not only encouraged private citizens to involve themselves in crime prevention by reporting it to trusted officers, but actually sought to blur the distinction between police and community by instructing officers to work in plain clothes and interact regularly with the neighborhood. And as a report on the Dallas Police Department’s program noted, this would help identify the “basic needs of the community” through “restructuring police services to respond to those needs.”[xvi] This reached its apotheosis in Dayton, Ohio, where the Foundation funded the establishment of a Joint Task Force which paired both citizens and police officers together to work towards to tackling civil disorders, prostitution, and drug abuse. Its explicit purpose was “to involve citizens in police policymaking.”[xvii]

Ford Foundation Headquarters atrium, New York, New York, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Ford Foundation was still seeking to develop communities, then, but the focus of this effort shifted. Rather than building a community around the school-house—as had occurred during the Gray Areas program—the Foundation now sought to construct one around the police station. The rhetoric and practices of “community self-help” and “grassroots empowerment” were co-opted to accommodate shifting political currents, inflecting these shifts in turn with its own peculiar emphasis on local participation. By the 1970s, one strand of this had led to the market-orientated emphasis of Community Development Corporations; the other to the law-enforcement community work of the Police Foundation.

Together, these two strands worked reciprocally to pave the way for the neoliberalization of urban governance during the 1980s. They did so by helping to replace a liberal strategy of federal spending linked to community mobilisation with one focused on attracting business investment–and more effectively policing disordered urban spaces that remained. A constant throughout these shifts was the analytical base-unit of the urban “community.” The difference was that these communities were not only starved of external assistance by the retrenchment of the welfare state, but also found themselves subject to efforts to direct their own internal resources towards surveillance and coercion rather than empowerment and mobilization.

ProfileSam Collings-Wells is a first year PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. His research examines the historical intersections between community development, modernization, and policing in cities around the world. Twitter: @Sam_cw_

Featured image (at top): Woolworth store on 14th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., an area affected by the 1968 riots, November 6, 1972, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[i] Letter from McGeorge Bundy to Mike Mansfield, (July 16, 1970), Ford Foundation Archives (FF), Office Files of McGeorge Bundy [OFMB], Series II: Subject Files, FA617, Box 17, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), Sleepy Hollow, New York, p. 1.

[ii] Ford Foundation, Annual Report 1970, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1970), pp. 8-9.

[iii] National Affairs, “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” (1973), Catalogued Reports, Reports 1-3254 (FA739A), Box 105, Report no. 002445, p. 6.

[iv] Robert Halpern, Rebuilding the Inner City: A History of Neighborhood Initiatives to Address Poverty in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Joshua Zeitz, Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House (New York: Viking, 2018). See also Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012).

[v] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[vi] Ananya Roy, Emma Shaw Crane, and Stuart Schrader, “Gray Areas: The War on Poverty at Home and Abroad,” in Roy and Crane, eds., Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

[vii] Alice O’Connor, “Community Action, Urban Reform, and the Fight against Poverty: The Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas Program,” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 22, No. 5 (July 1996), pp. 586-625.

[viii] Goldstein, Poverty in Common, pp. 123-124.

[ix] Tamar W. Carroll, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[x] Daniel P. Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: The Free Press, 1969).

[xi] Ferguson, Top-Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Tom Adam Davies, “Black Power in Action: The Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Politics of the Urban Crisis,” Journal of American History, Vol. 100, No. 3, (December 2013), pp. 736-760.

[xii] Lawrence O’Donnell, Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).

[xiii] “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” p.16.

[xiv] The Ford Foundation, A More Effective Arm: A Report on a Police Development Fund, Newly Established by the Ford Foundation (New York: The Ford Foundation, 1970).

[xv] “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” pp. 6-8.

[xvi] The Ford Foundation Information Paper, Appendix B: “Summary of Grants, Foundation-Administered Projects and Publications,” (1973), Catalogued Reports, Reports 1-3254 (FA739A), Box 105, Report no. 002445, p. 1.

[xvii] The Ford Foundation Information Paper, Appendix B, p. 3.


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