When leaders of civil rights organizations criticize President Reagan's proposed budget cuts for impacting on the poor, they do not mention another concern -- the potential effect of the reductions on the civil rights groups themselves.
Little noticed in the years since the Great Society of the 1960s have been the millions of dollars civil rights groups have received in federal contracts and funds to administer government programs.
President Reagan's economic recovery plan with its deep cuts in federal funding for social programs, has caused cold sweat and tremors at the headquarters of civil rights organizations, which will be forced to lay off workers and cut operations if the reductions are approved.
The National Urban League and its affiliates in 45 cities take in about $110 million a year in federal grants and contracts, principally to administer now-vulnerable jobs training programs. a
Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH receives only about $2 million in federal funds but these account for one-third or more of his annual budget.
Indeed, at least 10 of the 15 groups in the Black Leadership Forum, the loose federation of the major black advocacy organizations, have accepted federal dollars at one time or another.
The NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. founded, have received small federal grants for one-shot projects, but as a matter of policy both have refrained from undertaking continuing administration of large federal programs. r
"We jump on government too much to have a depend on them for survival . . .I'm not cirticizing those organizations that do," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who now heads Joseph E. Lowery, who now heads SCLC. "Our role is unique. We are a fiercely independent advocacy agency. We may be poorer but we're freer."
Jackson and Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League, and their allies defend acceptance of federal dollars. The point to their many speeches criticizing the social policies of then-President Carter and now Ronald Reagan as evidence the money did not compromise them.
In many instances, they say, federal aid allowed them to expand projects they had initiated with their own money. Some ask, if they had not come forward to be the agents in black communities for Great Society programs, who else would have?
"What those programs represented was a joint venture," Jordan said."We are there as a middle partner, a broker, and that brokerage I think is necessary in the successful implementation of government programs. These are effective programs."
Jackson says his group "always took the position" not to seek government grants, "because of the ol' hanky panky. That is why each grant we took was offered to us."
The civil rights groups have been scrambling to get an audience with Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan and administration budget-cutters. These efforts have not been marked by the kind of unity that the civil rights groups have demonstrated on other matters.
"My sense is that this is kind of every man for himself," said one Washington political operative with long ties to civil rights groups. "You're talking for some of those folks about organizational survival. Coalitions don't work too well when the question is organizational survial."
Jordan did get in to see Donovan and subsequently received commitments to continue funding for most his programs at least unitl September. Jackson and others have so far been rebuffed and the Labor Department has asked Jackson to meet with officials to negotiate termination of his programs.
Jackson angrily complains, "I think they're going out of their way in the attempt to punish us because of our support for Carter and our outspokenness on what we consider to be the president's Laetrile approach to economic cancer."
While Labor Department spokesman deny they are carrying out any vendetta against the civil rights groups, the Regan administration has not done much in the way of hiding its feelings toward black leaders.
When Reagan was asked in an interview last month in The Washington Post why he felt most blacks in the nation did not approve of him or the course of his administration, he said: "I just think that they have been misinformed, and in some instances by their own leaders."
Speaking to a conference of black neoconservatives in San Francisoco in December, presidential counselor Edwin Meese III drew a contrast between their discussions and a meeting he and the president had held with civil rights leaders a few days earlier.
The civil rights leaders "were talking about the last 10 years and the ides of the last 10 years. You are talking about the ideas of the next 10 years or beyond," Meese said.
But, the differences are more than philosophical. In the White House there is still fresh memory of the support black leaders, particularly Jackson, gave Carter in his efforts to bring out the black vote by painting Reagan as a racist.
Jordan, regarded by some Reagan administration officials as having been the least partisan of the major black leaders during the presidential campaign, now unique among them, enjoys access to the new administration.
But, said Jordan, "There's a difference between access and getting what you want."
The flow of federal dollars to civil rights groups began in the mid-1960s and the Urban League got a big boost during the Nixon administration. That group and subsequently the others became adept at playing the grants game on a high level, pulling the appropriate levers both in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill.
There is a line in federal jobs training legislation in which Congress suggests that the Urban League be favored for funds set aside for distribution at the secretary of labor's discretion. Jackson has a similar line in federal education legislation for his federally funded PUSH-EXCEL program to instill self-discipline and a desire to succed in high school students.
Assistant Labor Secretary Ernest Green was the principal contact for civil rights organizations in the Carter administration. Green, the first black graduate of Little Rock Central High School in the stormy school desegrergation battles in the South in the late 1950s, had later worked in New York running a firm, RTP Inc., that prepared poor youths for jobs in the construction trades.
"We knew that the people over at Labor, prinicpally Ernie Green, were being generous to those [civil rights] groups," said a senior Carter administration policy adviser.
The adviser recalled how the Carter White House would seek to avoid cutting jobs funds in episodic efforts to reduce federal spending because officials knew that, both because of reasons of ideology and of self-interest, this would bring on "squawking" from "our friends" in the civil rights organizations.
Another Carter aide remembered that relations between Green and the civil rights groups were not always cordial.
"About a year before the election, Ernie and the [civil rights] leadership were at odds because they felt not enough money was coming out of the pipeline," that aide recalled. "They asked for his head if he didn't do better."
Green said there was never a confrontation between him and civil rights leaders.
There is certainly no dissatisfaction with him now.
In December after the campaign and in January, up until the day before President Reagan was sworn in, Green and aides at the Labor Department processed millions of dollars in post-election grants to labor unions, consulting firms and the civil rights organizations.
The Urban League, the National Council for Negro Women, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change, the National Urban Coalition and Jackson's Operation PUSH were among the recipients. Much of Jackson's $2 million two-year grant went for the establishment here of a research institute, which for the first time gave PUSH a presence in Washington. It is one of several of the last-minute grants, referred to as the "Midnight Specials" in the Reagan Labor Department, that is now slated for termination. An $8.6 million grant went to Green's former firm, RTP Inc.
Green said he he wanted to get the funds out to ensure that the organizations would continue to operate because it was clear the Reagan administration intended to cut the programs benefiting them.
Both Jackson and Jordan point to their blistering attacks on Carter as proof of independence they said they maintained despite the federal funds. "I've never felt bound because I had government programs," said Jordan. "I never felt bound.
"Federal grants never stopped me from saying what I wanted to say."
And saying what he wanted to say during the Carter years did not stop the federal grants from coming, either.
"Everybody was attacking us and getting money," the senior Carter policy adviser said. "I think there was generally a view in Washington that you could attack the Carter administration and not get penalized for it because we were weak politically and needed their support."
Reagan's overwhelming victory, which was won without black support, and the Republican takeover in the Senate changed the political equation in Washington -- a fact of life Jordan, more than Jackson, concedes.
"If you look at the matter in hard political terms, [Reagan] has no political debt [to blacks or civil rights groups]," Jordan said. "We don't have him where we had Carter. Politically, we do not have any chits to cash in."
Jackson said he intends to fight efforts to end his federal funding and Jordan said he hopes to persuade the administration of the value of the programs the Urban League administers. But, both said in interviews, that their groups would survive without the money.
"If they cut this room off of the house that we attached, then we will simply let that room fall off the house," Jackson said. "But we will still be warm in the winter time."
At the Urban League headquarters in New York, the staff of more than 300 is funded under two budgets. The general fund of $5 million comes from corporate and foundation contributions and supports less than half the staff. The rest comes from a special projects fund of about $20 million that is financed by the federal government. Urban League affiliates receive about $90 million from other government grants.
Said Jordan, "The budget cuts will not cut the Urban League out of business. It will cut back special project funding that deliver services to black people."
But it is clear that reliance on federal dollars has put the groups in an awkward position as they prepare to battle the administration over its deep cuts in social programs, a battle that an overwhelming majority of black people across the nation want them to win.
Jordan said firmly: "I am less concerned about the impact of the budget cuts on the Urban League than I am about the overall impact on poor people."
Said Jackson: "I will not betray our people just to keep a grant.
"We intend to march in Washington against these budget cuts this spring. I'm not marching for a grant. I'm marching against the budget cuts and for a more humane consideration.
"Our point is we're not going to lay dead, roll over. We deserve equal protection under law under any administration."