January marked the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty,” declared by President Lyndon Johnson.
The late Mark Battle, who led NASW as executive director from 1984 to 1992, played a pivotal role when federal initiatives to address the needs of the underprivileged were enacted.
Battle was working as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Labor when the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 was passed into law. In his retirement, Battle taught at the University of Maryland. In an undated interview published online by the University of Maryland at Baltimore County School of Social Work, Battle said, “I would say that the Economic Opportunity Act initiative gave everybody the chance to and the right to be employed, or be prepared to undertake their own work.”
The law led to the creation of the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Job Corps and the New Careers Program. Battle was named the first national director of field operations for the Neighborhood Youth Corps, according to an article published online by the Carol Cole Center for Advanced Living.
Within two years, Johnson appointed Battle as the administrator of the Bureau of Work Training Programs in the Department of Labor, the article says. In this role, Battle helped promote civil service appointments for professionals of color and women.
“In addition, Mark quietly fought for and succeeded in getting the acceptance of a social work degree as a qualification for two positions by the Civil Service Commission and the Dept. of Labor … , Social Science Analyst and Employment Development Specialist,” the article says.
In the University of Maryland interview, Battle said he had fond memories of working in the Department of Labor, pursuing methods that were not status quo at the time and promoting the value of social work.
“It was a hell of a team,” he said, “but I got a lot of satisfaction out of helping explain and interpret what social work was and watch the light bulb go on for those who had no idea what social work was.”
Evelyn Kays-Battle, Battle’s widow and an NASW Social Work Pioneer®, said her husband “believed deeply that government should play a role in addressing social injustices and economic inequality.”
“He was very honored to have a major role in the War on Poverty,” she said, “which gave him a unique and pivotal opportunity to contribute to a broad-based and unparalleled government initiative to address deeply rooted injustices in our society.”
Social Work Pioneer Bernice Catherine Harper was the Medical Care Adviser to the Health Care Financing Administration in the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.
She noted that Battle used his social work skills and expertise to help implement initiatives that came after the War on Poverty declaration.
“He understood the importance of a national program to fight the War on Poverty through the creation of jobs, education and training, and career development,” Harper said. “Mark Battle used each day of his federal political appointment to make a lasting and memorable difference in working for and on behalf of the American people.”
Ruby Gourdine, professor and chairwoman of Direct Practice Sequence in the School of Social Work at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said she worked closely with Battle as his graduate assistant when he taught social work at Howard.
Gourdine, also an NASW Social Work Pioneer®, said Battle was proud of helping advance the value of employing social workers within the Labor Department.
“He helped articulate the social work role more clearly,” she said. “He developed field placements (at the department) at a time when there were not many field placements in the federal government, period.”
She said Battle took the knowledge he gained during his Labor Department appointment to new avenues in social work, including leading NASW.
The experience, “gave him a broader perspective of how programs could universally impact communities,” Gourdine said.
In addition, Battle became a great mentor to her.
“He was a person who contributed very mindfully to the profession,” Gourdine said.