Remembering an Early Giant in the Fight for Social Justice

A newly published book has reminded those who care about social justice in America about one of its strongest and most effective advocates, the late James Dumpson. The book is Reflections on the American Social Welfare State by Alma Carten, and it sheds new light on the life and career of this courageous, lifelong crusader for human rights.

Jim Dumpson set out in the early 1930s as a social worker, and although he took on many other assignments during the next six decades, that remained his real vocation. His timing was perfect because it was the era of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the transformation of government's role in social and economic affairs.

Dumpson became one of the most vigorous proponents of the compassionate policies Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt stood for, and a national leader in designing and administering programs to ease the lives of the nation's poorest citizens.

He was the first black welfare commissioner in U.S. history and the first social worker to hold that title in New York City's history. He was, moreover, an outstanding educator and scholar, an administrator of hospitals and health services, and a consultant on social welfare for the United Nations.

Among the qualities that made him such an outstanding leader was his unwavering courage. Soon after Mayor Robert Wagner named him welfare commissioner, the editorial page of the New York Daily News - which in those days was staunchly conservative - scoffed at his job, saying, "Ladies have babies by assorted gentlemen so as to keep the relief checks growing fatter each year."

Dumpson was not about to be cowed, not even by the newspaper with what was at the time the largest circulation in America. "There's no comfort in living on a subsistence level," he fired back. "No comfort in the necessary intrusions into your private life to find out if you qualify for assistance."

And in 1964 when Barry Goldwater, on his way to the Republican Party's presidential nomination, called welfare recipients lazy, Dumpson dismissed him as "the wealthy cowboy."

His determined bravery became especially important to New York and the nation during the years of backlash against FDR's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Throughout it all Dumpson remained a powerful counterforce - an unswerving defender of the simple principle he held most dear, "We are all our brother's keepers." One of his proudest memories was when a minister told him, "You sound more like a clergyman than I do."

We know Eleanor Roosevelt met Dumpson at least once, because she wrote about it in 1960 in her syndicated newspaper column, My Day, only months after he became New York's welfare commissioner. Eleanor described a fundraising luncheon for UNICEF she attended and added that Dumpson was there. Then in her characteristically gentle yet insightful style, she said, "I am sure [he] is trying to do a very good job, but he must have many frustrating experiences in this city."
Frustrated in New York? She got that right!

All of us at Hunter College are proud of our own connections with Jim Dumpson. He was associate dean of our renowned school of social welfare during the '60s. He was an inspirational commencement speaker in 1992. And in 2005, when he was a still-active 96-year-old, I presented him, on behalf of Hunter's Brookdale Center on Aging, with a "New Yorker Forever" award.

It was an especially fitting honor, for the arc of his career spanned 60 years, five New York mayors, and a complete change in the definition of government's responsibility to help those in need.

The last of the mayors he served was David Dinkins. When Dumpson died in 2012 at the age of 103, the New York Times asked Dinkins to comment for the obituary, and with characteristic New York flair, the mayor summed up this great but unassuming man's monumental record: "We look back on it now and say, 'Damn, he was a hell of a cat' -- and indeed he was."