American Legal History

The Moynihan Report: Public Reception and Legacy

Contents of Report

The Negro Family: A Case for Action, commonly known as the The Moynihan Report, was written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965. At the time, Moynihan served as the assistant secretary of labor under President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Moynihan Report was created for internal circulation and was not intended to reach the public when it was leaked ( Rainwater, Yancey 1967 155). In June of 1965, President Johnson gave a speech at Howard University where he urged the necessity for increased employment, housing and health care opportunities for blacks in the hopes of achieving “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result.” (Rainwater, Yancey 1967 126). It is believed that President Johnson relied heavily on findings from the Moynihan Report as the basis for this speech (Berger 1999 193).

The Moynihan Report attributed the stagnation in the economic and social progress of African Americans since the Civil Rights Act of 1954 to a pathologically disorganized family structure. Specifically, Moynihan identified the black matriarchy as particularly problematic and harmful to the health and development of black children. According to Moynihan, the conditions that created a so-called “fatherless matrifocal” family structure in the black community could be traced back to slavery, unemployment and urbanization. In many ways, Moynihan echoed the sentiment of historian Gunner Myrdal, that “in practically all its divergences, American Negro culture is not something independent of general American culture. It is a distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture” (Jackson 1990 225).

Although Moynihan asserts in his report that there is “no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement” he goes on to point out that the fundamental weakness of black families, above illegitimacy and low income rates, is that they are led by black women. Moynihan devotes a large portion of the fourth chapter of the report entitled “The Tangle of Pathology” to establishing the fact of black matriarchy and only at the end of the chapter draws a connection between matriarchy and other socials ills such as poverty, underemployment, crime and educational difficulties.

In his report, Moynihan relies heavily on the work of black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier to build his claim that, “three centuries of injustice have brought about deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro American. At this point, the present tangle of pathology is capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world.” In his 1950 work, Problems and Needs of Negro Children and Youth Resulting from Family Disorganization, Frazier asserted that the disorganization of the family prevented black children from being properly socialized and limited their potential for success in American society. Like Moynihan, he identified the source of the disorganization as the lack of patriarchal structure and urged “the mitigation of this problem must await those changes in the Negro and American society which will enable the Negro father to play the role required of him.” Along these lines, Moynihan’s final suggestion is that President Johnson’s War on Poverty incorporates strategies to bolster the strength and stability of the black family.

Public Reception

Criticism from Feminists and Womanists

After the Moynihan Report became public, Moynihan faced harsh criticism from a variety of different sources. Black women and white feminists criticized what they perceived as an attack on black women as usurpers of the patriarchy that rightfully belonged to the black men who had been emasculated and dominated by overbearing women (Berger 1999 193). An example of criticism in this vein comes from Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women:

“Matriarchy is not a desire of women. Rather it is a matter of being forced to become a matriarch. You need recognition of the fact that women have saved the family in the crises of three hundred year, and there would be no family at all without what they have done. There are strengths in the family which should have been brought out by Moynihan” ( Rainwater, Yancey 1967 185).

Another example of the kind of criticism the report sustained can be found in a 1965 speech by Mary Keserling, head of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor to the Conference on the Negro Women in the USA. In this speech she voiced her strong disagreement with the viewpoint that black mothers were over-employed from the perspective of black men (Rainwater, Yancey 1967 185). Famed civil rights and feminist activist Dr. Pauli Murray criticized the Report along the same lines, stating that it did:

“a great disservice to the thousands of Negro women in the United States who have struggled to prepare themselves for employment in a limited job market which is not only highly competitive but which, historically, has severely restricted economic opportunities for women as well as Negroes…Since our current emphasis is on better education to get better jobs for all Americans it is bitterly ironic that Negro women should be impliedly censured for their efforts to overcome a handicap not of their making and for trying to meet the standards of the country as a whole” (Rainwater, Yancey 1967 185).

Criticism from Civil Rights Leaders

The Moynihan Report also faced considerable criticism from civil rights leaders. A great deal of this criticism manifested a concern that the report would result in a number of programs designed to fix the “disorganized” black family without addressing pressing issues like discrimination, voting rights enforcement and economic opportunities (Rainwater, Yancey 1967 197). William Ryan from a civil rights organization called the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) objected to the report on these grounds: “The report can be read in such a way as to imply the present unequal status of the Negro in America results not from the obvious causes of discrimination and segregation, but rather from a more basic cause, the ‘instability’ of the Negro family. It is further implied that corrective measures should be focused on increasing the stability of the Negro family, rather than merely on eliminating discriminatory patterns in American life…we are in danger of being reduced inito de-emphasizing discrimination as the overriding cause of the Negroes’ current status of inequality” (Rainwater and Yancey 1967 198, 199).

Additional criticism leveled at the report challenged the cultural hegemony implicit in the report, namely that patriarchy should be recreated in poor black communities simply because most middle-class white families were structured that way. Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin:

"One important point that must be made is that what may seem to be a disease to the white middle class may be a healthy adaptation to the Negro lower class" (Rainwater, Yancey 1967 200).

Floyd McKissick? , a member of the Congress for Racial Equality stated this point more directly: “My major criticism of the report is that it assumes that middle class American values are the correct ones for everyone in America…Moynihan thinks everyone should have a family structure like his own. Moynihan also emphasizes that(sic) negative aspects of the Negroes and then seems to say that it’s the individual’s fault when it’s the damn system that really needs changing” (Rainwater, Yancey 1967 200).

Ralph Ellison wrote yet another articulation of this viewpoint: "Within the group, we act out, we make certain assertions, we make certain choices, and we have various social structures, which determine to a great extent how we act and what we desire. This is what we live. When we try to articulate it, all we have is sociology. And the sociology is loaded. The concepts which are brought to it are usually based on those of white, middle-class, Protestant values and life style" (Gutman 1978 464).

Academic Criticism

In the years following the release of the report, a number of renowned historians and sociologist writing about black American life addressed the Moynihan Report, generally to refute many of the claims made within the report.

In 1974, Marxist historian Eugene Genovese wrote Roll, Jordan, Roll, a social and historical account of slavery intended to challenge Moynihan’s characterization of the way slavery affected blacks. In particular, Genovese’s account challenges the characterization made in the Moynihan Report that slaves were passive, and infantilized by the institution of slavery. He achieves this by detailing the many ways that enslaved black Americans “courageously create[d] a ‘world of their own’” and asserted initiative and autonomy in the areas of family life, work, and religion within the confines of the institution (Davis 103). In response to the claims about black families contained in what he called “the ill-fated Moynihan Report”, Genovese argued that “slaves created impressive norms of family life, including as much of a nuclear family morn as conditions permitted, and that they entered the postwar social system with a remarkably stable base” (Genovese 1976 452).

In his book The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom: 1750-1925 historian Herbert Gutman attempted to dispel the claims made in the Moynihan Report that slavery had destroyed the fabric of black families and thus “broke the will of the Negro people” (Gutman 1978 462). By thoroughly documenting the strength and resilience of the slave family structure, Gutman showed how enslaved black Americans “adapted to enslavement by developing distinctive domestic arrangements and kin networks that nurtured a new Afro-American culture, and how these, in turn formed the social basis of developing Afro-American communities ” (Gutman 1978). Although the entirety of The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom can be read as an answer to Moynihan’s claims about black families, Gutman devotes a large portion of the Afterword of the book to directly addressing the claims made in the Moynihan Report. He cites approvingly the critiques of sociologists Hylan Lewis and Robert K. Merton, who identified the primary issue plaguing black Americans as lack of socioeconomic opportunities. In his rebuttal, Gutman suggests that Moynihan’s characterization of black families since slavery is “psuedohistory” consisting of a web of “pseudofacts” (Gutman 1978 463).

In 1970, anthropologist Carole Stack wrote All our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community, an ethnography that emphasized the strength and of African American kinship systems as exemplified by a study of Chicago housing projects (Berger 1999 197). From her findings, Stack concluded that:

“highly adaptive structural features of urban black families comprise a resilient response to the socio-economic conditions of poverty…[T]he distinctively negative features attributed to poor families, that they are fatherless, matrifocal, unstable and disorganized are not general characteristics of black families living substantially below economic subsistence in urban America. The black urban family, imbedded in cooperative domestic exchange proves to be an organized, tenacious, active, lifelong network” (Stack 1970 124).

Author James Berger characterized Stack’s findings as “a contemporary confirmation of Genovese’s and Gutman’s historical arguments of African American adaptiveness … as a powerful alternative to Moynihan’s view” (1999 197).

Although the Moynihan Report has sustained heavy criticism from a variety of sources since its release, it remains an important piece of social science research. In a speech given to the American Academy for Political and Social Science, Professor William Julius Wilson described the legacy of the report in this way: “Since Moynihan’s writings on race and ethnic relations and on poverty and family structure have been the focus of so much subsequent research—indeed the number of studies boggles the mind—I strongly feel that he ranks among some of our most important social scientists. Although many of Moynihan’s ideas represent an original synthesis of existing scholarship, his work was bold and controversial. But, the controversy was productive.”


Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-apocalypse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999. Print.
Davis, David B. "A Review of the Conflicting Theories on the Slave Family." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 16.Summer (1997): 100-03. Print.
Genovese, Eugene Dominick. Roll, Jordan, Roll the World the Slaves Made. New York: Random House, 1974. Print.
Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. New York: Pantheon, 1976. Print.
Jackson, Walter A. Gunnar Myrdal and America's Conscience: Social Engineering and Racial Liberalism, 1938-1987. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1990. Print.
Rainwater, Lee, and William L. Yancey. The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T.Press, 1967. Print
Stack, Carol B. All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Print.



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