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Est. April 5, 2002
March 22, 2018 - Issue 734

Civilian Conservation Corps


"A new CCC would have to be different, of course, including
both young men and women, but the idea would be the same:
Lifting those who have been left behind intentionally or as
part of the process of marginalization, a very real, but
unspoken part of a corrupt and ailing system of government."

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established in a time of great economic and social stress in the U.S. and, on April 10, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the CCC, to help the millions who were out of work and their families back home. For the millions of Americans who are in economic distress, a CCC-like program is needed today.

The nation was in the depths of the Great Depression and the Roosevelt Administration saw that putting thousands of young men to work on meaningful and long-lasting conservation (or today, environmental projects). Evidence of the work of the CCC can be found today in most regions of the country. That’s how prophetic and useful the work was. It is now perceived as the beginning of the environmental movement in the U.S.

The corps did many kinds of work: mitigating erosion in the parts of the country that were damaged by wind and water; they built bridges and trails, planted more that two billion trees, strung 89,000 miles of telephone lines, spent 6 million work days fighting forest fires, built more than six million erosion control structures, cleared and maintained access roads, built flood control projects, re-seeded grazing lands and implemented soil-erosion controls, built wildlife refuges, fish-rearing facilities, water storage basins, and animal shelters. To encourage citizens to get out and enjoy America’s natural resources, FDR authorized the CCC to build bridges and campground facilities. and, perhaps most important of all, according to Neil M. Maher, author of Natures New Deal, the CCC “basically built the infrastructure of our National Park system. According to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social Welfare History Project, 3.5 million men took part during the program’s nine years of existence, including about 250,000 “colored youth” (this is from archived material and was written in 1941, a time of Jim Crow and segregation everywhere). noted that FDR created the corps about a month into his first term as president, declaring that “the forests are the lungs of our land [which] purify our air and give fresh strength to our people.” Known by many as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” the CCC was open to unemployed, unmarried U.S. male citizens between the ages of 18 and 26. All recruits had to be healthy and were expected to perform hard physical labor. Blacks were placed in de-facto segregated camps, although administrators denied the practice of discrimination. Enlistment in the program was for a minimum of 6 months; many re-enlisted after their first term. Participants were paid $30 a month (the bulk of this was sent to the family) and often given supplemental basic and vocational education while they served. That money was a godsend to the families back home. To so many, it was the difference between hunger and a sustainable life.

About 5,000 different courses in 116 different subjects were being given under Forest Service auspices each month, according to a Government Printing Offices publication of 1941. The GPO added that, in all camps, “including National Park Service camps, probably 11,500 courses in 150 different subjects are being taught.” In addition, there were recreational and cultural opportunities for the enlistees, wherever they were assigned. Educational programs were voluntary, but according to the GPO publication, 90 percent of the black enlistees attended. Educational programs offered instruction in carpentry, shorthand, forestry, auto mechanics, landscaping and numerous other vocational subjects.

The CCC was a uniquely American solution, albeit a small one, to an immense problem (economic and social) and the New Deal approached it in a hands-on way. That, in addition to the members’ feeling that they were doing vital work for themselves and their country. Despite the racial disparities that existed then and, to a great extent, exist relatively unchanged, the CCC was a place where young black men could do work that was equal to anything that could be done by anyone. Often, it is pointed out that slaves constructed the White House and built significant other structures, but it should be pointed out that the 250,000 young black men who volunteered for the CCC had an important part in creating the nation’s national park system and so many other projects that can be seen and visited today.

The fresh air, three nutritious meals, health care, education, and recreational opportunities were all pluses. Most enlistees had not had the opportunity to see other parts of the country or associated with others who were from different backgrounds. It was similar to the way thousands in the military have been required to work with and support others who had different habits, customs, and spoke differently. Still, the black enlistees did not have the full opportunity to engage with their fellow white enlistees because of the segregation that held full sway in the U.S. at the time.

Integration of the military in the President Harry Truman era was the first big move to integrate American society and it was primarily because of the government action that integration took its first small steps. Since then, public service (government work) has been one of the most important ways that black workers have been integrated into American life, agencies such as the U.S. Postal Service, all branches of the military, and all manner of municipal services at all levels of government.

The investment in the CCC at the time of great upheaval in the U.S. was modest by today’s standards, but by some estimates, it would be $53 billion in today’s dollars. There are pockets of economic and social distress (think lack of access to health care for millions) in nearly every part of the country and the needs there are not being addressed in any meaningful way. Both inner city and rural poor daily face the prospect of food insecurity, if not hunger, as well as the fear of eviction or an unexpected health emergency, and as always, they face the lack of employment that would improve their lives.

As the current administration forges ahead, diminishing or destroying the possibility of many of the work that the CCC did, it cannot be expected that the Republicans in charge of all parts of the government will consider reinstituting some programs of such value as a CCC-like agency that would both provide education and training for enlistees, not to mention money for the family back home. Impetus for it will have to come from politicians at the highest level and from advocacy groups that address the problems of poor communities directly, especially those fighting the school-to-prison syndrome, which is destroying families and communities.

A new CCC would have to be different, of course, including both young men and women, but the idea would be the same: Lifting those who have been left behind intentionally or as part of the process of marginalization, a very real, but unspoken part of a corrupt and ailing system of government. It would not be the sole answer to the problems of those left behind, but it would be a start. There is precedent in things like the Peace Corps (in which a small number of minorities participated), AmeriCorps, and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), so it will take an invigorated segment of the political class to pursue such a program. If that can be accomplished, the struggle begins to allocate the funds out of a federal budget that seems concentrated on expanding military and weapons programs and giving money away to the corporations which hold sway in an increasingly corrupt system. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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