This post is part of our forum on Black Intellectuals and the Crisis of Democracy.
In 1971, the Community United Front, Inc. (CUF) leased six billboards along Interstate 35 to warn motorists of “rats-roaches, and people with the lack of FOOD, CLOTHING, JOBS and the… AMERICAN DREAM” in East Austin. This brief but powerful statement initially served as a fundraising effort, according to Larry Jackson, chair of the Black Power-inspired organization. Yet the sign symbolized much more than a donation drive. It contextualized the city’s history of segregation and highlighted the Black activism central to Texas politics during the civil rights-Black Power era, and challenged white supremacist notions of ideal American values. More importantly, the CUF’s signage used a universal idea as a critical point of interrogation to indicate that the American Dream was unattainable for the Black and Latino/a/x residents of Austin’s eastside. As the sign greeted travelers, it contrasted the conditions of East Austin with the affluent neighborhoods throughout the rest of the city, particularly west of downtown.
Civil rights and Black Power activists frequently referenced the American Dream as a standard withheld from Black Americans. In his March on Washington speech in August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. claimed that his aspiration for society to judge his children by the content of their character is a “dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” In his speech, King presented the dream as an existing feature of American society and politics but just outside the reach of Black Americans. The following year, Malcolm X delivered his blistering “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, explaining that he did not believe in the American Dream, only an “American nightmare.” In 1965, James Baldwin traveled to England to argue that the American Dream “has come at the expense of the American Negro.” Two decades later, in a conversation with Audre Lorde, Baldwin again defended the American Dream and its impact on Black political thought. Lorde’s sentiments, however, mirrored Malcolm X’s views as she, too, only believed in an American nightmare. King, however, renounced his earlier statements and, in 1967, admitted that his dream “is starting to look more like a nightmare” as well. Indeed, the American Dream–as an aspiration, a myth, a tool to measure progress, and a critical point of interrogation–existed within the psyche of Black intellectuals and political figures throughout the civil rights-Black Power era.
Yet, Larry Jackson and the CUF did not have a national platform. The billboards represent the manifestation of the American Dream in local politics, multiracial activism, and community empowerment that guided grassroots organizers in their day-to-day work. In other words, the CUF not only argued that the American Dream did not exist in East Austin, but their community work allowed Black activists and organizers to re-define “the dream” as it shaped the collective lived experience of East Austinites. Polls indicated that nearly three-quarters of Black Americans living below the poverty line agreed with Jackson and the CUF–centuries of discrimination had built a dream that only white Americans, or those racialized as white, could attain. For the CUF, the American Dream begins with the material conditions of the East Austin community but also includes political participation, community control, and economic cooperation–three elements central to Black Power politics.
Austin’s history of segregation reveals how the American Dream was withheld from eastside residents.
Following abolition, Black Texans migrated to Austin to live in communities around the city. In 1928, however, the Austin City Plan forced Black residents east of downtown by closing public facilities and schools in other parts of the city. Amid the Great Depression in the late 1930s, segregated public housing reinforced the concentration of Black residents on the eastside. Then, in the 1950s, the construction of Interstate Highway 35 served as a physical barrier that separated East Austin from the rest of the city. Meanwhile, city officials constructed other parts of Austin to meet the needs of white residents. According to Andrew Busch’s history of Austin’s built landscape, officials and residents engaged in the “possessive investment of whiteness,” positioning their concerns of infrastructure and leisure as environmental–as opposed to racial–issues. Steering Black residents to the city’s eastside was only the first step in concentrating political and economic power within white communities.
As public officials stripped East Austin residents of political participation and economic opportunity, they organized a multiracial coalition in response to these conditions. Alongside the CUF, groups like the Brown Berets helped to organize a free breakfast program, daycare services, and a community grocery store. This alliance allowed Black and Latino/a/x residents to challenge Austin’s power structure through direct-action protests, community organizing, and political engagement. These activists–many of whom continue working toward racial justice today–developed their own version of the American Dream.
One of the signs located next to IH-35 was torn down during the summer of 1971 to expand the interstate. It is fitting that a physical barrier that separated East Austin from the rest of the city is responsible for the destruction of the billboard and, according to Jackson, a successful fundraising campaign. Shortly thereafter, the CUF scaled back its community organizing and, by mid-decade, lost its small amount of influence in local politics. In historical memory, the CUF name is simply encompassed in broader descriptions of Black Power organizations. In oral interviews through the Civil Rights in Black and Brown Oral History Project, Black and Latino/a/x activists alike often refer to Jackson and other CUF members as “the Panthers” – a term that has expanded to include those in organizations adjacent to the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and ’70s. Even still, the CUF is just one example of Austin’s rich history of activism and its effect on Texas politics. The CUF billboards and community organizing also indicate that conceptions of the American Dream are dependent on multiple ideological factors.
Despite the work of the CUF, their allies, and recent activist organizations, the conditions that Black and Latino/a/x Austinites experience on the city’s eastside remain unchanged. In fact, Austin’s declining Black population–a trend that began in the 1920s–is accelerating as the cost of living has forced out numerous residents. Yet, if the CUF decided to sponsor another billboard campaign, the sign might read differently, “Welcome to East Austin, You are Now Entering the American Dream.”
As Black and Latino/a/x residents leave the eastside for cheaper housing options and better quality of life outside of the city, white residents continue to flow into previously segregated neighborhoods; this includes young, white professionals buying homes for the first time. The rapid pace of gentrification resulted in home values doubling between 2018 and 2021, raising property taxes and forcing low-income and working-class residents out of the area. The influx of white residents also accompanied an increase of voting stations, updated schools, and white-owned businesses–all the public amenities withheld from Black and Latino/a/x residents throughout the twentieth century. As white residents are given access to the American Dream, Black Power organizations like the CUF created their own.permission.