Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Leap Into the Racially Charged 1960s

Daniel Patrick Moynihan - Report
US Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan (left) speaks with NBC News reporter Edwin Newman in 1975 for the TV special Hard Choices: American Foreign Policy, 1976 © NBC News

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was a United States Senator from New York in the 1980s and ‘90s, is regarded as one of the more brilliant and colorful intellectuals to work on Capitol Hill during those years. He was a lifelong Democrat but tough to pigeonhole as either a conservative or liberal, and he had worked in both Johnson and Nixon administrations.

In 1965, he was a then-unknown official in the Labor Department with a professorial demeanor and a curiosity about the causes of African-American unemployment that he suspected went well beyond racism and education. He wrote a report called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action -- which came to be known as the Moynihan Report -- that suggested the family structure in the African-American community was partly to blame for income inequality.

Liberals argued that the report showed the need for jobs programs and welfare support, and conservatives argued that it proved how important marriage and two-parent households are to rise out of poverty. Some civil-rights leaders criticized Moynihan as blaming African-Americans for income inequality.

In Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy, historian Daniel Geary takes a fresh look at Moynihan and his role in the discussion of race in the 1960s. Signature caught up with Geary earlier this week to talk about the book.

Signature: What was Moynihan doing before 1965?

Daniel Geary: He was the Assistant Secretary of Labor and was a pretty unlikely figure to write a report on the nuclear family. He had a Ph.D. in political science and had a political career in New York and a scholarly career but didn’t have a background, really, in the issues he dealt with in the Moynihan Report.

SIG: What’s the thumbnail version of the Moynihan Report?

DG: It’s officially called The Negro Family. He’s worried that attempts to achieve racial equality will be derailed by what he sees as the weak family structure in African Americans reflected in female-headed households and what he calls a matriarchy.

SIG: What was he hoping to find?

DG: I think it's very curious. Moynihan wasn't entirely clear himself what he was doing. On one level, he was trying to make a case to the Johnson administration that he had to do more than civil rights. Moynihan focused on African-American male unemployment and the need to provide them with jobs.

As he went into the report, he starts to see the family structure as a cause of inequality, which creates a tension in the report. Did he want to emphasize that family instability was an effect of male unemployment, in which case jobs programs would make sense. Or did he want to suggest that because of family instability African Americans couldn’t compete along with other ethnic groups, in which case it was a much thornier problem with no clear solution.

SIG: Did he have a basket of solutions in the report?

DG: No, he didn’t include policies in the report. He followed up with a memo to Johnson where he suggests some policies. I think what Moynihan wanted was some kind of direct jobs program, but Johnson was never going to go for that.

SIG: So this didn’t come to Moynihan to support some particular program that Johnson wanted?

DG: It was Moynihan’s own initiative to write this report. No one assigned it to him. He’s got a position in the Department of Labor where he had a lot of autonomy, and he uses this report to highlight unemployment.

SIG: Was Moynihan very well-known at the time? Somebody who went on talk shows and that people would have recognized?

DG: No, this is what makes Moynihan famous.

SIG: The administration had the report for several months before it became public.

DG: That’s right. In the summer of 1965 -- in August, which was the same month as the Watts riots -- the report started to leak out to the press. Moynihan gave the report to the New York Times.

SIG: Did the Johnson administration think it was going to be received as racially charged?

DG: I think they actually did. They talked about what to do with the report, and one of the advisers says segregationists are going to jump on this data and make use of it.

SIG: Which the segregationists did.

DG: Right, they did.

SIG: When the report came out, did people accuse Moynihan of being racially motivated? An Irish pol grinding an axe?

DG: To some extent, it depended on what people thought about the Johnson administration. People understood that Moynihan was a liberal, but on the other hand people -- black nationalists -- say, "Who is this guy to be writing about black families. He doesn’t know anything about black families. He doesn’t have any training in this area. He’s not black."

SIG: Plus, the environment is pretty charged. This is 1965 -- the Voting Rights Act, Watts riots, Detroit riots -- and this report comes out right in the middle of all of that.

DG: Absolutely. The report was an attempt to insert itself into that context. He thought this was a way to redirect the public discussion and the administration’s thinking.

SIG: You wrote in the book that one of the things Moynihan advocated for was African-American men to join the military, which wasn’t popular with anybody.

DG: No, the escalation of the Vietnam War was going on, and it was an explosive suggestion to make. African-Americans were already being sent into combat in disproportionate rates and dying in disproportionate rates.

SIG: He’s coming from a place of trying to re-establish the working male.

DG: He knows that public works are not on the table and that recruiting more African-Americans is a way to provide more jobs. He’s also coming at it from his own angle. He fought in World War II, and it provided class mobility for him. He benefited from the G.I. Bill like a lot of veterans of World War II. He wanted to provide the same opportunity to African-Americans, but it was perceived in a different context -- Vietnam was not World War II.

SIG: Moynihan was a very bright guy and would later write tons of books. Even at this fairly early point in his career, he seems to be an ideas person.

DG: There’s no question about that. One of the things that's going on in the Moynihan Report is that he's already got connections to a lot of liberal intellectuals. He understands the discourse and understands what they’re talking about. He's worried about African-American families, and he knows that civil-rights reforms are not going to address the economic disparities.

SIG: Do you consider him among the big thinkers of the 1960s?

DG: Absolutely. He’s one of the major public intellectuals of that period. After he writes the report, he goes to Harvard to teach for a while, and then he goes to work in the Nixon administration. If you look at him in the mid-1960s, you would see him more as a public intellectual than as a politician. He didn’t know at that point that he was going to wind up back as an advisor in the White House or get elected to the Senate.

SIG: I can’t really think of anything else that fits into the same kind of space as the Moynihan Report.

DG: It's almost a one-of-a-kind. Government documents are usually requested and follow a political process. This is just Moynihan, on his own, wanting to influence the White House's thinking.

SIG: Moynihan would come to be known later as mercurial, witty guy. Did you see glimpses of that in the Moynihan Report?

DG: Definitely -- especially for a government report that you would expect to be pretty dry. That’s part of the reason why the report got so much attention. There’s one passage where he talks about the nature of the male animal from the rooster to the five-star general to strut. It’s kind of an absurd generalization, but it’s certainly colorful.