The War on Poverty Changed a Young George Foreman’s Life
How the Iconic Boxer's Future Was Tied Up with LBJ's Great Society
The dish pit is not exactly a cauldron where self-confidence is forged. While the slugger in Sugar Land kept his head high, George Foreman’s nose was down in the sink. But since he was not going to school, he needed a job, and the easiest entry to the working world was by washing dishes at the same restaurant where his mom cooked. There, the 15-year-old could earn a little cash by scrubbing during the day. Just not as much as he could make at night by assaulting people on Lyons Ave. and stealing their money.
For a junior high school dropout, there did not seem to be much opportunity other than low-paying work or outright thievery, either menial jobs or midnight fistfights. Like his aunts working the farm in Marshall decades earlier, Foreman was impressive to look at—well over six feet tall, his shoe size running neck and neck with his age—but that did not change his bleak circumstances.
Unlike Lester Hayes, Foreman did not stay in school long enough to have a chance to excel in team sports. Despite his recent fascination with a boxer in jail, none of the punches that Foreman threw on Lyons Ave. were gloved. The fact that he might take someone’s wallet after knocking him out did not exactly qualify him as a prizefighter when he gathered with Sonny and coworkers from Walds one night to hear some boxing on the radio.
There was not a lot of sympathy for underdogs in the Bloody Fifth because they usually didn’t last long. So when an Olympic light heavyweight challenged a true heavyweight, the “baddest” champion in a long time, the gang from Walds was probably not pulling very hard for Cassius Clay. Their coworker, on the other hand, shared a nickname with the reigning champ, Sonny Liston.
And since Clay’s political views had not yet become public information, no extraneous considerations distracted from the pure physicality of the contest. This was going to be a fight, though not likely a good one, but they would be listening to it anyway.
For weeks the “Louisville Lip” had been poking the Bear—almost literally—while beating the drum for media attention on him and the upcoming bout. Sportswriters obliged, but the dominant narrative was one of Clay’s demise. If Foreman and his friends had looked through the local papers beforehand, they would have seen that the Houston Post had Liston a 7–1 favorite and predicted a third-round knockout.
The only question that remained for them was, as one headline put it, “Will Clay Still Talk On His Way Down?” In the end, it lasted more than twice as long as the Post’s prediction and resulted in a new heavyweight champion, soon to be renamed Muhammad Ali. Foreman later did not recall a clear rooting interest in the room as they listened to the blow-by-blow from Les Keiter on ABC radio, but he said, “The look on my brother’s face when Sonny Liston lost” spoke volumes.Black community activists worried that large-scale government programs would take control of already scarce resources.
A seismic shift occurred in the boxing world, shaking it out of a second “Dark Age” for heavyweight fighters, burying the International Boxing Club era in rubble, and laying a foundation for national interest, global appeal, and million-dollar purses.
Foreman cashed in, too—he got hired by Wald to move furniture with his brother, earning a little more than a dollar an hour. He was on his way—not yet out of Houston’s Fifth Ward, but at least to his own place in it, and maybe into his own car. For now, he still lived in his mom’s house. And he still had a nightlife. He continued drinking, fighting, and stealing. When a late night caused him to sleep through a shift at Walds, he was fired immediately.
There were few second chances in the Bloody Fifth. Losing that job only deepened his dangerous cycle of stealing money to buy cheap liquor to conjure up the courage to steal again. One night he stumbled in drunk and passed out on top of his bed. He woke up the next day with nothing on him except his underwear and a pamphlet titled I Am an Alcoholic.
Foreman hit rock bottom at the right time. He became a statistic just at the moment when such statistics mattered to policy makers. He factored into the 75 percent of black, Latino, and Chicano Texans who lived in urban centers like Houston, and he fell into the majority of that population living below the poverty line.
Already out of school, Foreman was part of another majority: 70 percent of African Americans in Texas did not complete high school, and more than 90 percent would never attend college. The postwar boom left a fallout of poverty as more people lived closer together with fewer resources and even less hope for the future. But this demographic shift coincided with an ideological change that had deep roots in Texas.
“Writers facing the problem of Texas find themselves foundering in generalities,” John Steinbeck observed in the early 1960s. “Texas is a state of mind, Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.” In the presidential election a couple of years later, Lyndon Johnson carried almost every county in that nation within a nation, even though New Dealers like him did not typically fare well in the Lone Star State. The same election witnessed another liberal Democrat, Ralph Yarborough, narrowly retain a crucial Senate seat from a challenge by a political novice, George H. W. Bush.
In both cases, the Texan nationalism that Steinbeck identified seems to have played a significant role. Johnson rode home-state support to a margin of victory that no Democrat has achieved since the birth of modern conservatism, which Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, helped kick-start. Meanwhile, Yarborough framed his challenger as a “carpetbagging” northeastern émigré to Houston’s oil industry. It remained uncertain, however, what this sudden progressive swing would mean for the people represented by all those statistics—let alone the ones like Foreman, who were not eligible to vote.
In 1964, President Johnson announced his own moon shot, which, for people like Foreman, was much more down to earth. He intended to form a Great Society by waging a War on Poverty. Although Johnson’s rhetoric may have soared over the Fifth Ward, his appointed “poverty czar,” R. Sargent Shriver, clarified that the crux of this ambitious slate of programs would be subsidized job training.
Even a 16-year-old “street corner wino” heard the message and drew the connection between better work, better pay, better housing, and a better life. Foreman walked into the local employment center to claim his free training. He was told the program accepted only adults, even though he towered over most of them. But the staff told him about another initiative for young people: the Job Corps.
Johnson and Shriver considered this a domestic version of JFK’s Peace Corps and wanted it to be the flagship program of their agenda. The Job Corps took young people out of urban ghettoes or rural isolation and provided basic education and paid vocational training in one of the many rural camps or urban centers sprinkled across the country. After graduating, these new “Corpsmen” could return to their community with the requisite skills and credentials for good-paying jobs as well as a check from Uncle Sam to help them get started.
More Texans took advantage of the Job Corps than youth from any other state, and only California spent more on its Job Corps programming. And that made Texas a battleground for the War on Poverty. Republicans like Bush, who rebounded from his Senate loss to win a seat in Congress, questioned spending levels; the Yale grad accused the government of spending more than a year’s tuition at Harvard to train each Corpsman. Yarborough countered that spending on a more skilled workforce now would return the investment via greater tax revenue.“At home in Houston, I drank and fought,” Foreman said later, but in Oregon, without access to alcohol, he “just fought.”
The need for the Job Corps was even more hotly contested at a local level. Black community activists worried that large-scale government programs would take control of already scarce resources. Latino advocates feared disproportionate emphasis on ghettoes over barrios. Others, including Mrs. C. O. Wade, who wrote to both Bush and Yarborough, felt that “none of L. B. Johnson’s poverty programs . . . include help for needy white people.” The flagship struggled through choppy waters.
The complexity of these debates over who and how the Job Corps served could not be incorporated into a commercial. Celebrities—notably, the professional football superstars Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown—pitched the program on televisions across the country. Opportunity. Jobs. Free. The message permeated the rough exteriors of the Fifth Ward generally and of George Foreman specifically. He and a neighborhood friend, Roy Harrison, applied to the Job Corps together. They were both accepted, “but you gotta leave town,” they were told. “No option.”
They were not privy to the machinations behind this condition. The complaints of folks like Mrs. Wade grew louder and threatened to undermine the Job Corps, so its director, Dr. Otis A. Singletary, began compiling demographic data and implementing a secret quota system. The closest center to Houston, in San Marcos, had too many black Corpsmen. African American applicants from the Houston area, including Foreman and Harrison, were strategically deployed to centers that looked more racially balanced or simply did not get looked at.
Fort Vannoy, tucked away in the southwestern corner of Oregon, met both criteria of being integrated and invisible. It was 2,000 miles farther than either had intended to move, but they both got on the airplane. Foreman remembers his mother crying as he left, but not completely from sorrow.
Fort Vannoy was a world away from the Bloody Fifth, but there was something familiar about it. He had seen this before, just not in person. The pages from Roads to Everywhere came to life in front of him. “There were rivers!” Foreman remembered thinking as they descended into the Oregon wilderness. And more importantly, there was food: “Every problem I ever had was over. I had three meals in one day.” The camp was far from perfect. It was not even complete.
Foreman, like almost everyone else at Fort Vannoy, was there to learn carpentry and bricklaying, but soon discovered that this was a blend of general and on-the-job job training as they finished building the facility. Amenities were few; the camp lacked the recreational space and organized activities available at other, bigger, more established sites. Downtime could be rough, both figuratively and literally.
“At home in Houston, I drank and fought,” Foreman said later, but in Oregon, without access to alcohol, he “just fought.” Wrestling with change and identity in a new environment, Foreman fell back on what he knew best. But it was not the same as in the Bloody Fifth, where it could seem necessary to fight for self-defense or as his source of income. “This was the least threatening place I’d ever been,” he acknowledged, but he still manufactured reasons to start fights that he knew he could finish.
Foreman fought everywhere from the barracks to the dining hall, using a dinner tray as a weapon if he was tired of using his fists. Even his hometown friend distanced himself from someone who seemed like a soon-to-be-former Corpsman. His actions might have been better suited for Sugar Land than Fort Vannoy, and despite reprimands from Job Corps counselors or shaming from kitchen workers whom he strategically befriended, the behavior continued. As he put it, “I wasn’t fighting to live, I was living to fight.”
Excerpted from No Way but to Fight: George Foreman and the Business of Boxing, by Andrew R.M. Smith. Used with permission from the University of Texas Press, © 2020