In 1963, Malcolm X accused philanthropist Stephen Currier of emasculating the revolutionary impulse of grassroots forces in the civil rights movement. Working with the major leaders of the movement and the Kennedy White House, Currier’s five-year-old Taconic Foundation had played a leading role in the development and deployment of a massive voter registration initiative across the American South. White House officials hoped this effort would shift the movement’s focus from direct action to the ballot box. Civil rights leaders hoped it would help to empower African Americans in the South.
In the histories of the civil rights movement and of philanthropy, the Taconic Foundation’s story, following Malcolm X’s argument, has often been depicted as an example of the insidious role of philanthropy in tempering social movements to preserve institutionalized social and economic power. But the history of the Taconic Foundation, created by Stephen and Audrey Currier—Andrew Mellon’s granddaughter—offers a far more complex and nuanced portrayal of the role of philanthropy in the movement and in the effort to address the crisis of the cities in America in the 1960s and 70s. It also provides a fascinating case study in the development and management of smaller family foundations and their potential to impact society far beyond their apparent resources.
Vantage Point historian Eric John Abrahamson, who is completing a book on the history of the Taconic Foundation, will talk about philanthropy and social movements at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indianapolis on Tuesday, February 16 at the Workshop in Multidisciplinary Philanthropic Studies.