Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM)


The Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) was unquestionably the most famous Head Start program in Project Head Start’s early years. It was created in the spring of 1965, the first season of the national Head Start program’s existence, when, in every state and hundreds of localities, centers were being hastily developed. CDGM is still referenced and written about four decades later. It provides an excellent model for those wishing to reach and inspire very low-income parents of young children, particularly in areas here and abroad where there is an extreme shortage of professionals.

R. Sargent Shriver has often said, at the time and ever since, that CDGM was the most important Head Start in the country. Frequently called the Poverty Tsar, Shriver was the Director of the nation’s entire poverty program, which emanated from The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the newly established federal agency called the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Sargent Shriver proposed Head Start to President Lyndon B. Johnson, although it was not mandated in the law, as one of OEO’s many antipoverty programs. Shriver approved and signed every Head Start grant given in the United States during his tenure (1965-1970), Head Start’s first five years.

CDGM was a visible federal investment because it was the epitome of what Shriver and OEO’s Community Action staff wanted Head Start to be for children and families living in poverty, and because it represented traditional democratic values: human rights, health care, education, opportunity, jobs, and adequate wages for everyone. The segregationist wing of the Democratic Party (the Dixiecrats), which had controlled the state for many decades, did not share these values. For these reasons, CDGM was funded as the second biggest Head Start program in the country. For its first summer alone, CDGM was given a $1.3 million grant (in 2006 dollars, this equals about $5 million) to serve 12,000 children. Shriver considered CDGM so exceptional because it represented “maximum feasible participation of the poor.” Although those not directly involved were proclaiming CDGM dead by the end of its first year, it has survived to the present under names such as Mary Holmes College Community Extension and Friends of the Children of Mississippi. CDGM and its descendents have served hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of children and had, by 1990, already received a billion federal dollars.

The CDGM was conceptualized and actualized by founding director Dr. Tom Levin, a New York psychoanalyst; the Reverend Arthur Thomas, who lived in Mississippi as Director of the Delta Ministry; and Polly Greenberg, Shriver’s Senior Program Analyst for Head Start in the Southeast Region. Greenberg knew of Shriver’s dream for the true community action program that Head Start could be and she urged Levin and Thomas to apply for a Head Start grant. The Delta Ministry was the National Council of Churches’ Mississippi ministry and for two years had been doing voter registration; supporting race-related demonstrations; supplying legal advice and bail for jailed rights workers; operating a freedom information service; distributing tons of food, clothing, and books collected by church groups in the North; and other projects. Poor people knew and had faith in Tom and Art. Without the Delta Ministry’s trusted community organizers, CDGM could not have happened. Trusted community organizers are essential to the replication of this Head Start model.

The thousands of children and families who participated in CDGM’s Head Start program were black. Most lived in shacks and shanties in a desolate part of the state known as the Delta; most were the grandchildren or great grandchildren of field slaves. White families were too terrified of Ku Klux Klan reprisals even to talk to CDGM’s organizers. There are many books about the reign of terror in this regrettable period of Mississippi’s history. The documentary “Emmett Till” and two Hollywood films—“Color Purple” and “Mississippi Burning”—illustrate the context in which CDGM was launched. Historians point out that in 1965 Mississippi was the most racially violent, fiercely segregated, and poorest state in the union; it was a caricature of the South.

The Delta covers more than 7,000 square miles, and includes many counties from which no one had applied for a Head Start grant. The most minimal health care, such as immunizations, was not available within sixty miles of many families, most of whom had no transportation. At that time, there were no public kindergartens in the state, not to mention the Delta. Many families lived in Delta communities of ten or fifteen cabins (without plumbing). Obviously, there were no preschools, day-care centers, or early childhood professionals! Most CDGM children were destined to attend some of the worst public schools in the United States, where many of their future elementary teachers could read only at the third-grade level and there was sometimes only one copy of one book in the classroom—a basal reader. Facts about this widely reported phase of the state’s history can be obtained from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, numerous articles, books, and documentary films. National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting System websites are also good sources.

Those who became CDGM families lacked just about everything except generosity and courage. Their level of poverty was extreme—many families’ incomes averaged $400 annually. Yet they organized sixty-four CDGM Head Start centers and opened the doors to 12,000 children in dozens of counties, all in eight weeks. To underscore the dangerous context of this astonishing feat, it took place one year after three young people who were helping black residents in Philadelphia, Mississippi register to vote were beaten to death with chains.

In most ways, CDGM centers were like all other Head Start centers in Head Start’s earliest years. As guidelines explained, the focus was on children learning to play together, eating nutritious food, and enjoying broadly educational experiences at “school.” Health care, social services, and parent participation were as valued as was early childhood education. However, in what many regard as the most important ways, CDGM was eye openingly different. The chief difference was CDGM’s three originators’ philosophy and the confluence of resources they brought together to implement it.

First, Tom Levin understood how permanently crippling disempowerment of parents is to their children. CDGM’s three architects further believed that what happens in the classroom in a brief preschool program, regardless of how good the curriculum, has far less impact upon a child’s lifelong trajectory than does what happens in his spirit and sense of possibilities when he watches the enormously disempowered parents with whom he is profoundly identified become competent and confident in bringing him happy days, and in initiating fundamental change in the community and greater society in which he is growing up. They knew that a livable income helps parents do better by their children—jobs would be at the core of this project. Crucial in CDGM’s creation and character was that literally thousands of local, very low-income black leaders and parents in Mississippi, such as the famed freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer, passionately shared the philosophy, and quickly became forceful CDGM advocates. Dr. Levin, a specialist in psychological dynamics, considered a major role for poor parents such an overwhelming priority in helping their children that he structured the entire project to implement this principle.

As a result of this fundamental orientation to parents, there were no centers unless parents and their peers organized them. Through Delta Ministry and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers, most of the latter local black Mississippians, the word was spread across dozens of counties. They explained Head Start guidelines, and that each group of extremely poor residents would need to form a committee to act as the tiny cross-roads community’s “school board,” find and fix a facility, sign up eligible children by name and address, and hire potential staff if the locality chose to be part of CDGM’s grant application. No grant was guaranteed. As just stated, the people’s response was immediate and overwhelming. Even the overall Governing Board was two-thirds very poor people. There were four other members, one of whom was CDGM’s eloquent spokeswoman and lawyer, the remarkable Marian Wright (Edelman), who had been living in the state in considerable jeopardy for several years handling school desegregation cases for NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund.

Secondly, CDGM differed from other Head Start programs because, at great personal risk, participants attempted to implement one of the early national Head Start program’s greatest emphases—motivating communities to activate local public health and social services departments and public schools; and to energize volunteers from the most and least powerful sectors, certainly from among the poor themselves, on behalf of low-income families and their children. This was Sargent Shriver’s definition of “community action.” His mantra was “What if all segments of each community mobilized to reduce poverty?”

Three weeks after CDGM Head Start centers opened, the white power structure at Mississippi’s highest levels attacked it as “Communist” and “fiscally irresponsible.” In response, poor people and the handful of professionals employed (at $50 a week) on their central staff and Governing Board members lobbied national leaders of the freedom movement such as Martin Luther King, the National Council of Churches, and the AFL-CIO’s Citizen’s Crusade Against Poverty. They also sought support from other liberal politicians and leading early childhood educators from many states, the northern press, and sympathetic OEO officials. They advocated so successfully that CDGM received many more Head Start grants. This was the kind of mobilization of middle class and professional communities that Shriver sought.

A third difference between CDGM and other Head Start programs was that it pushed to the limit the emphasis on “new careers for the poor” (especially for mothers), always one of Head Start’s extraordinary features nationwide. In most Head Start centers some people learn their jobs as they go along, but key positions in each staff—teachers and directors—are held by individuals with some degree of postsecondary education and/or specialized training. There was no dispute about the value of training, but in CDGM it was believed to be of utmost importance for all children to participate in Head Start along with parents, relatives, and neighbors who were also learning. With only two exceptions statewide, no center staff members, including teachers, started out trained. The week before centers opened, Polly Greenberg left the federal government to work for CDGM in Mississippi. She designed a teacher development and training of trainers program, which she conducted across the state for two years to ensure that the program for children met Head Start requirements.

As a result of this emphasis on careers for the poor, every child saw one or more of her close relatives and well-known neighbors becoming cooks, drivers, social service workers, health workers, teachers, administrators, or members of a hiring and firing committee. They had seen nothing like this before! Children were not the only ones who were motivated. Several times during its first two years when between grants, poor people continued to operate their full scale Head Start programs for as much as six months without any funding. Within national guidelines, Head Start centers are almost always controlled by members of the middleclass and professionals. Within national guidelines, CDGM centers were controlled by the poor. This distinction was missed by no parent, although it has proven difficult for those lacking direct experience with CDGM to grasp.

The fourth difference between CDGM and most Head Starts was the role of professionals. There were none working directly within the centers. Instead, the handful of central staff professionals in each dimension of the program (administration, health services, early childhood education) provided technical assistance through an each-one-teach-one approach, aiming at enabling indigenous people to replace them within a year or less. Typically, CDGM had two or three professionals per 1,100 job holders and 12,000 children. The role of professionals included helping poor people organize, discuss, discover, and connect to sources and resources of all kinds, from learning to write grant applications to contacting influential people. It included being allies and advocates to the people’s grassroots “movement” for children.

CDGM represents one of two very different streams of thought about the purposes of Head Start, the role of parents, and the role of professionals. For CDGM, the focus was not on every “student’s” academic progress, or even on the child’s social development, though certainly no one would have assailed these goals. CDGM’s focus was on actualizing the belief that every human being, including children’s parents, matters; and not just during the Head Start year, but throughout their lives. CDGM advocates and other like-minded people believe that substantial social change is required if our wish to help poor children “succeed” is authentic. They believe, further, that if activists don’t work for it while developing educational programs, their motives can be considered disingenuous at best and possibly unconsciously protective of class privilege. CDGM’s greatest lesson is that poor people, with allies, have great potential to press for change so that they find fewer obstacles and more opportunities to help themselves and their children move out of poverty.

Further Readings: Gillette, M. L. (1996). Launching the war on poverty: An oral history. Twayne, NY: An imprint of Simon & Schuster Macmillan; Greenberg, P. (1969/1990). The devil has slippery shoes: A biased biography of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM)—A story of maximum feasible poor parent participation. Washington, DC: Youth Policy Institute (originally MacMillan); Greenberg, P. (1990). Head Start—Part of a multi-pronged anti-poverty effort for children and their families. Before the beginning: A participant’s view. Young Children 45(6), 40-52; Greenberg, P. (2004). Three core concepts of the War on Poverty: Their origins and significance in Head Start. In E. Zigler and S. Styfco, eds. The Head Start debates. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes; Harrington, M. (1962). The other America. New York: MacMillan; Matusow, A. J. (1984). The unraveling of America: A history of liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Harper and Row; Valentine, C. A. (1968). Culture and poverty: Critique and counter proposals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Zigler, E, and Valentine, J., eds. (1979). Project Head Start: A legacy of the war on poverty. New York: Free Press, pp. 61-83.

Polly Greenberg