In 1968 a couple graduate students from the University of Texas School of Social Work, came to East Austin to recruit women on welfare to participate in their project. They were looking for a welfare recipient to be president of WRO. Women, basically living in East Austin, were invited to a meeting to get more information about the program. Whereas all the women approached said no to the position, Roberts accepted. All work with Welfare Rights Organization was voluntary. Roberts had never dabbled in politics, but she was confident she could step up to the plate, and hit a home run for impoverished women and their children in East Austin. She was a natural politician.
“Even though at the time I didn’t consider myself to be political, I had the personality needed to be an activist. I didn’t take nothing off of nobody, Black or White. I understood what little rights I had and didn’t believe in letting anybody put me down. This, more than being political, was what helped me in Welfare Rights. Sometimes activists are too smart, too intellectual. In some cases what is needed is an old fashioned hands-on-your-hips attitude: ‘You mess with me, I will mess with you.’ All people tend to understand this,” said Roberts in No Apologies: Texas Radicals Celebrate the 60s, edited by Daryl Janes, Eakin Press, 1992.
Roberts began attending city council meetings. Almost immediately she became a pain the Council’s side, especially for the only African American councilman, Berl Hancock. At one meeting during a heated exchange, Roberts threatened to throw a shoe at Hancock, who rose up from his seat on the dais to call Roberts' threat. Oddly, Hancock was a frequent customer at the restaurant where she worked. They managed to be civil toward each other until they locked horns at council meetings.
"Welfare children" were scorned and made fun of, and harassed by paying students and some teachers. Taking on this venture drove Roberts further into politics, acquainting her with local politicians that she would be dealing with on a regular basis. Roberts liked the power the Welfare Rights Organization afforded her. She said the power helped her “get things done.”
"People would start lining up outside the distribution station before sunup and would sometimes have to stand there all day. I'm talking about hundreds of mothers, babies and senior citizens in the rain,cold, the hottest of summers, going through hell to get what was rightfully theirs." (No Apologies)
Roberts said WRO wanted the county use a numbers system, and provide a facility for people to wait indoors. WRO members testified before the Commissioners Court for one year. Their Monday testifying eventually bore fruit. The Commission agreed to conduct a study "that told them the same things we had been saying for free," said Roberts. It would have made more sense for the Commissioners to donate the $9,000 fee to the Welfare Rights Organization, but that is not the way politics works. The simple has look complicated, and the complicated has to look simple.
Neither Jackson nor Roberts were willing to accept defeat. Attending a school board meeting, WRO and CUF planned in advance to take control of the microphone, blocking others from speaking. “It just so happened that this was the same meeting where teachers were asking for a pay raise. Finally, the board approved a breakfast program—not for three additional schools, but for twelve. Today, every school in AISD has a breakfast program.” (No Apologies)
In 1974 Roberts began working as a paralegal at the Legal Aid Society. Her duties with WRO had prepared her to work at Legal Aid. The clients she represented were mostly poor and on welfare. She also handled other kinds of cases that did not require appearances before judge. Roberts acted as a representative in food stamp and welfare hearings.
In addition, Roberts and a co-worker worked with Black and Hispanic kids who were getting harassed and suspended at schools. They worked with East Austin residents receiving the blunt end of harassment, death and brutalization by police officers. These three illnesses were like an aggressive disease plaguing minority communities.
Roberts, her co-worker, several night club owners and the NAACP President Nelson Linder, often met with Miles in an attempt solve the police problem. In addition to stopping minorities for no reason, police officers waited for customers exit from bars, then stop. Customers were allowed to drive a block or two, stopped and given a DWI or warning. It did not matter if they had only drank one beer or 12. After Miles resigned, the meetings continued with the next chief.
However they felt about Roberts and Turner, none of the critics--older African Americans-- were willing to step forward and take on the issues these activists tackled.
Velma Carter Roberts and Dorothy Turner were quite the team, and that meant double trouble for disagreeable politicians. In 2001 City Councilman Danny Thomas proposed renaming Hargrave Street to Velma Roberts and Rosewood Avenue to Dorothy Turner Blvd. The proposals could not garner a full council vote. both ideas were. Many residents and businesses in East Austin were divided about the recipients and name changes.
Because of inadequate construction and interior problems the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center has been closed indefinitely. If they were alive Roberts and Turner would see this as a slap down of their achievements.
***Also see "Activist Dorothy Nell Turner said what she meant and meant what she said"