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National Welfare Rights Organization

The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO)

The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was a U.S. activist group that advocated for welfare rights–especially the rights of women and children. Active from 1966 to 1975, it was made up of hundreds of smaller local groups. By the late 1960s, its dues-paying membership was over 20,000 persons, mostly Black women. The NWRO demanded welfare payments that provided an adequate income, dignified treatment, justice and democratic participation.

The NWRO evolved from several different advocacy efforts in the 1960s. One was the organization of welfare recipients in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1963 by Mrs. Johnnie Tilmon. The second was a strategy outlined in a May 2, 1966 article in The Nation by two Columbia University professors of social work: Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward whereby welfare recipients could demand so much from agencies as to immobilize the welfare system. The third influence was the decision of Dr. George Wiley, a civil rights activist and former Syracuse University professor, to join forces and support a group of activists who planned a 155-mile march by welfare recipients and their supporters from Cleveland, Ohio and arriving in the state capitol, Columbus, on June 30, 1966. Dr. Wiley, on hearing of the planned march, organized rallies in twenty other cities.

Buoyed by the successful demonstrations, in August 1966, one hundred representatives from seventy-five welfare rights organizations in twenty-three cities met in Chicago and created the National Coordinating Committee of Welfare Rights Groups. This group selected Dr. Wiley as its director. With the assistance of representatives from civil rights groups, labor organizations, church and social work groups, NWRO soon became the national voice for welfare clients’ rights. The NWRO used confrontational techniques, legal action, lobbying and boycotts to advance or protect welfare clients’ rights. It has been regarded by many as a Black feminist movement.

The NWRO suffered financial difficulties in the early 1970s after Dr. Wiley announced his resignation. The organization closed its office, declared bankfuptcy and was disbanded in early 1975.


For further reading:

Demby, G. (2019 June 9). The mothers who fought to radically reimagine welfare. Code Switch. National Public Radio.

Encyclopedia of African American history, 1896 to the present. From the age of segregation to the twenty-first century (2009), vol. 3., p. 459. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nadasen, P. (2005). Welfare warriors: The welfare rights movement in the United States. New York: Routledge.

Thomas, R. M., Jr. Johnnie Tillmon Blackston, Welfare Reformer, Dies at 69. The New York Times, November 27, 1995, p. 26.

Tillman, J. (1972 Spring). Welfare is a women’s issue. Ms. Magazine. Republished online “From the Vault: “Welfare is a Women’s Issue” (Spring 1972)

West, G. (1981). The National welfare rights movement: The social protest of poor women. New York: Praeger.

10 Replies to “National Welfare Rights Organization”

  1. I’m looking for information on a member of NWRO in Milwaukee, WI around 1967-68. Her name is Mary Loggins. I’m currently writing a play about her life. I found some information but not enough. Can you help me?

  2. I recall seeing Mrs. Johnnie Tilmon in Milwaukee in 1972 when Father Groppi organized a leftist conference there. Our group of NLFO Welfare mothers from Madison Wisconsin attended. After listening for two days to white men from the labor unions and white women from the feminist movement tell them what to do, took over the stage and the microphone and made their own demands.

    • Nancy: Thanks for your addition to this important entry. The NWRO movement’s history requires more attention than I have given it; however, you have fostered an incentive for me to “beef up” this group’s important history. Thanks, Jack Hansan

  3. The legacy of my civil rights involvement has been a little bit of work with ADAPT. Please look at this. It’s a group that fights for rights of the disabled to live independently. Our jails are nursing homes and institutions. Another type of jail. Ann

    • Thank you for the comment. I have reviewed the website for ADAPT and I will keep a file on the organization. The Social Welfare History Project is currently only posting entries up to the 1960s so whatever I post about disability will be older than ADAPT. Regards, Jack Hansan

  4. In the early 1970s I participated in a Nwro rally in boston, Ma. Organized by George Wiley. A number of us were rounded up and sent in paddy wagons to jail. Some of the most memorable incidents were encountering George Wiley, spending time in acell with a panicky claustrophobic cell mate. Seeing a pregnant women pushed down the capital building steps, finding out the male organizers were roughed up and had their wallets stolen. Spending a mere few hours in jail with terrified women, being given 2 cigarettes a piece. ( I saved mine to trade for what I have no idea. ). Having to use toilets in the cells while male guards patrolled .

    Dr Wiley made such an indelible impression on me that I looked up his name today, around 40 to 50 years later. when I read he had drowned along with his son I thought this was as great a loss as our other great leaders of the civil rights movement. I mourned the loss of a great man. I was delighted to discover that he was remembered by more then just me. I still mourn our tragic loss.

    Ann Millman jones

  5. There are currently no welfare rights organizations in the state of Ohio, will you please suggest some resources that make the rights for recepients available so that people will know when their rights have been violated?

    • Unfortunately, I am no longer in touch with “those in the know.” I recommend you contact the Ohio State Welfare Department’s Ombudsman’s office, the local NAACP, or the nearest Neighborhood House. Thanks, Jack Hansan

  6. Iremember well sitting in front of the welfare office being chained together with my mother (Marie Darling, President tof Utah WRO)and abou tthirty others. She along with NWRO helped to bring food stamps and school lunches with no discrimination into Utah.

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