Civil Rights Tour: Protest - Poverty Rights Action Center, Welfare Rights

1713 R Street NW

“There are more poor than rich people in this country, but Congress doesn’t seem to know it. If we organize, they’ll have to listen.” (Catherine Jermany, welfare rights organizer)

Poverty/Rights Action Center (P/RAC) opened its offices at 1713 R Street in April 1966 as an organizing base for grassroots activists across the country—mostly poor, Black women determined to ensure that they had a voice in President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

Founder George T. Wiley, a former national leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), worked alongside his wife Wretha Wiley and welfare rights organizers in Ohio, New York, DC, and elsewhere, cofounding the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in August 1966. P/RAC served as the national headquarters for the NWRO, which coordinated direct-action campaigns and legal efforts challenging punitive and racist welfare policies.

Wiley and his colleagues, including NWRO chair Johnnie Tillmon of Los Angeles, engaged federal policymakers and national leaders such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in recognizing welfare recipients as a potent political force in advancing African American civil rights. The group organized marches and sit-ins on Capitol Hill and coordinated local groups throughout the US to lobby Congress, with the fundamental mission of establishing the right to a guaranteed minimum income.

In September 1966, the NWRO brought to DC some 2,000 people, members of 31 delegations from throughout the US, to a Poor People's March on Washington, a precursor to the Southern Christian Leadership's convergence on the National Mall two years later. Several months after that, in February 1967, NWRO brought 375 activists to DC for three days of seminars on welfare rights and lobbying on the Hill.

The group staged its first national convention that August, at Trinity College. Etta Horn, a tenant leader at Barry Farm Dwellings, was the NWRO's vice-chair and frequently testified before Congressional subcommittees to protest cuts to public assistance and the constant surveillance of welfare recipients. Families could be disqualified from receiving funds if a man—presumed to be capable of supporting the household—appeared to be living in the home.

The NWRO is credited with helping turn Dr. King's attention toward Black economic advancement, a goal of his 1968 Poor People's Campaign. In the last address he gave in DC, King vowed that the campaign would "establish that the real issue is not violence or nonviolence but poverty and neglect.