Bill Cutler is a freelance writer in Atlanta.
"If you can afford to vote, you don't need a loan." That's the way a Mississippi banker and member of the White Citizens Council pressured black citizens to refrain from voting in the early 1960s. "I know you're not going to go down and vote," an employer in Georgia is quoted as telling blacks on his payroll in 1983.
The present-day intimidation black voters face in the South may be slightly subtler than it was 20 years ago, but it is no less effective. Bob Flanagan, Field Services Director of the 21-year-old Voter Education Project, characterizes the difficulty he faces in current voter-registration efforts in the South: "These are hard times for people. They don't want to risk their jobs. A man might come to a mass rally, and he might tell you he's going to go down and register, but then when it comes down to doing it, he doesn't, because he's thinking of one thing — survival. He says to us, 'You're not hiring anybody, but these white folks are hiring everybody, so why should I jeopardize my job for you?'"
Since 1962 the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project has been struggling not only to increase electoral participation by black Southerners, but also to get black people to see that voter registration is their priority, not someone else's concern. The struggle has been marked by extraordinary successes. It has also been fraught with danger and frustration. During a period in the late 1970s, the project had to combat the notion that its work was completed and needed no more support. "The organization went through some hard, hard times," says Georgia state senator Julian Bond. "It went down and was in real danger of going out of business. Now it has begun to come back up and is going to thrive."
Founded in 1962 as a project of the Southern Regional Council (SRC), a nonprofit research and education organization founded in 1944 to promote improved race relations, the Voter Education Project (VEP) had to confront civil rights activists who suspected its formation was a plot to siphon energy away from direct street action into efforts to maintain the status quo. A history of VEP compiled by the staff during its darkest period (in 1979) summed up four theories about how and why the organization was started:
a) it was inspired by wealthy individuals and/or foundations with either foresight or disapproval of such direct action as the freedom rides; b) it was Kennedy administration-inspired, to get more politically related progress from the "civil rights" energies being expended; c) it was a carefully contrived ploy by the major black civil rights organizations to use the "respectable" biracial Southern Regional Council as a front and conduit; d) it was a remarkably wise plan devised by SRC to use its particular skills and assets.
It is likely there is some measure of truth in each of these speculations.
Observers of VEP generally agree that Attorney General Robert Kennedy's request for a "cooling-off period" during the freedom rides of 1961 influenced the founding of the organization. In 1962 Louis E. Lomax wrote in The Negro Revolt, "During the early months of the Kennedy administration, civil rights leaders were informed that the administration would be pleased if, in addition to sponsoring freedom rides and sit-ins, the various civil rights organizations joined together and undertook a major Negro voter-registration program in the Deep South." An SRC pamphlet published in 1963, entitled "Direct Action in the South," analyzed the Movement's options:
The titanic energies enlisted by the sit-ins and the freedom rides — where were they to go? To some, it seemed that they could best go into making the South the kind of place which could and would solve its own problems, i.e., a huge effort to get the full measure of Negro Southerners registered to vote, thus establishing for the first time the possibility of true representative government in the South. During the late spring and the summer of 1961, it was hardly a secret that the Department of Justice was among those quietly, but strongly, urging this emphasis.
John Lewis, then head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later executive director of VEP, recalls that when Kennedy proposed the cooling-off period and urged blacks to get off the streets, Martin Luther King resisted, saying the streets "had been cool too long." A major split occurred in SNCC over the new emphasis on voter registration, with many activists insisting that they must continue to focus on direct street action.
Today Lewis, now a member of the Atlanta City Council, considers that "the shift in emphasis of the Civil Rights Movement from direct action on the streets to the courthouses paid off, but we needed to keep the pressure on in the streets. It all worked together. It was a wise, sensible way to move." In practice the activities funded by VEP did not differ from earlier civil rights efforts. "Under the guise of doing research as to why blacks were not able to participate in voting," Lewis says, "VEP made it possible for the first persons from SNCC to go into Selma [Alabama] and Greenwood [Mississippi]" to do community organizing.
In order not to jeopardize SRC's tax-exempt status, VEP was conceived as its electoral politics research arm. In Lewis's view the Kennedy brothers were instrumental in persuading the Internal Revenue Service to decide in favor of the argument that this new organization did not violate regulations governing partisan political activity. The IRS made its decision known on March 22,1962, and VEP announced its formation one week later. Representatives of five major civil rights organizations took part in the official announcement: Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; Whitney M. Young, Jr., of the Urban League; James Farmer of CORE; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of SCLC; and Charles McDew of SNCC.
VEP's first executive director was Wiley A. Branton, a respected attorney from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Working with a staff of four in 1962, Branton coordinated the efforts of numerous organizations registering black voters in 11 Southern states; he also received reports from the field on the problems encountered, the solutions developed, and the results of the various programs. As has been true throughout VEP's history, funding for the initial voter registration efforts came from foundations. In the first year of its operations VEP raised $265,673, mostly from the Taconic and Field Foundations and the Edgar Stern Family Fund.
Convincing foundations of the need for a concerted drive to increase black registration in the South was facilitated by SRC data showing that black registration in eight Southern states decreased by 45,845 between 1956 and 1958. This figure did not include information from states that would not make registration statistics available to SRC. Between the formation of VEP in April 1962 and the end of the first phase of its operations on November 1, 1964, some 688,000 additional black Southerners registered to vote, bringing the total in the 11 states to 2,174,200, or 43.8 percent of those eligible. VEP made direct grants to organizations that registered 327,588 people in that period and gave non-financial assistance to many others.
As important as voter registration was VEP's documentation of voter fraud and intimidation, which "made the case for the Voting Rights Act" of 1965, according to John Lewis. In those early years, Lewis says VEP also:
helped to create viable, indigenous units all around the South which have continued to work long after VEP's funding of them ended. The investment VEP made in those early years is now paying off. It's like planting a seed and cultivating a plant. VEP provided groups with seed money to get people together and transportation to bring people in from rural areas. These small grants of maybe a hundred dollars a week for six weeks provided the resources to meet certain basic needs and also provided encouragement. It mattered to people in remote areas to know that SRC and VEP cared what they were doing. The organizations have continued their work and brought forth leaders — old VEP workers and administrators who have become elected officials around the South.
The first phase of VEP's activity also brought specific instances of defeat. Early in 1963, Wiley Branton announced a "saturation campaign" to register voters in Greenwood, Mississippi, following repeated acts of terrorism by local whites. Only a little more than six months later, however, Branton had to write his field forces in Mississippi "reluctantly" canceling all VEP funding for projects in the state. The executive director noted that more money had been spent with fewer results in Mississippi than in any other state, and that further spending would take funds away from projects in places where the likelihood of success was greater.
The percentage of registered black citizens eligible to vote in the 11 Southern states by November 1964 reflected the successes and failures of the voter drives: from a high of 57.7 percent in Texas, the figures drop to 23 percent in Alabama, and then the bottom falls out to a low of 6.7 percent in Mississippi.
Branton resigned as director of VEP in April 1965, and a skeleton staff was retained while SRC debated the merits of a second Voter Education Project. Upon approval of the continuation of the project early in 1966, SRC staff member Vernon E. Jordan became VEP's new head. Under Jordan's direction over the next four years, VEP funded more than 600 projects in 11 Southern states. Overall, more than one million black Southerners registered to vote between 1965 and 1969.
Jordan extended the organization's activities beyond basic voter registration to include get-out-the-vote campaigns, citizenship education, leadership training, workshops for black candidates and poll watchers, technical assistance to newly elected black officials, and the publication of Know Your Government booklets describing state and local governments.
Jordan's decision to resign and become the director of the United Negro College Fund in February 1970 coincided with a major change in VEP's status. Under provisions of the Nixon administration's Tax Reform Act of 1969, agencies engaged in voter registration were prohibited from receiving more than 25 percent of their support from any one donor. To meet the new provisions, it was decided that VEP should separate itself from SRC, obtain its own tax exemption from the IRS, and conduct funding drives independent of SRC.
John Lewis, the newly appointed VEP director, was known throughout the South as a hero of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, when his skull was fractured during the "Bloody Sunday" confrontation with state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. After leaving SNCC, Lewis had worked briefly with the Field Foundation and then with SRC. As the new head of VEP, Lewis launched a series of "Voter Mobilization Tours" throughout the South in 1971 with his long-time friend, Georgia state legislator Julian Bond. The first of these tours covered 39 stops in 25 Mississippi counties and resulted in the state's largest voter turnout to date and the election of 51 black officials. Shortly after its conclusion Lewis analyzed the campaign: "Our trip was an attempt to conquer the fear that black citizens have. We had to demonstrate to the people of Mississippi that they were not alone in their struggle. We did not tell them who to vote for or what political party to join, but simply that they could begin to control their own destiny by registering to vote."
Julian Bond also remembers the tours:
When we first started doing them, there was a slight element of danger. When we finished doing them, that had passed, and we were being escorted around by sheriffs, greeted by mayors. The most dramatic thing I can remember is being in Belzoni, Mississippi, where a guy had been murdered some years before on the courthouse steps in broad daylight — shotgunned. So we're speaking at this church in Belzoni, a real small church, hot as hell, and while I'm in the pulpit speaking and the crowd is with me, this white man starts to come down the aisle, and I'm nervous as hell. I thought he was going to do something. He strode up to the pulpit, and he said, "Welcome to Belzoni. I'm the mayor." I said, "Oh, my God!"
Also in 1971, VEP launched a campaign to register Chicano voters in Texas, which eventually led to the creation of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (see page 46). Over 30,000 Mexican-Americans were added to the voting lists that year and in 1972 VEP began printing bilingual citizenship education materials.
The decade of the 1970s, however, saw more retrenchment than expansion of the organization's programs. Foundation funding continued to flow during national election years, but in between available resources dropped dramatically, from $708,331 in 1972, to $478,873 in 1973, to a low of $206,487 in 1975. In 1974 the size of the staff was cut from 21 to nine.
In December 1976 Lewis resigned his post at VEP to make an unsuccessful bid for the Congressional seat vacated by Andrew Young. And a general turnover in the staff increased the feeling of instability. While VEP's board searched for a new executive director, Archie Allen, the former research and communications director of VEP from 1971 to 1976, became interim head of the organization. Describing the problems VEP faced at that juncture, Allen says:
John Lewis personified the work of VEP. He was seen by people like Fannie Lou Hamer in the Delta as one of the real heroes who had come in when the times were really rough and other organizations were hesitant to provide support, and had stood by the people. He would be introduced as 'Mr. Voter Registration' on these tours. Foundation people saw him in the same light. They had a long record of working with him. They knew and trusted him. Of course, he had inroads to the foundation community based on that experience, and so when he left, it broke that continuity on both the local community basis as well as the fundraising support.
In July 1977 Vivian Malone Jones, who had integrated the University of Alabama in the 1960s and then held federal jobs, was chosen as VEP's fourth executive director. But the organization's budget continued to decline, due to shrinking interest and a crippling recession that eroded the financial health of private foundations. The effectiveness of VEP was further crippled when Jones contracted a serious illness and resigned at the end of 1978. Much of the following year was spent assessing the continued need for the project. Board member Julian Bond took part in these discussions and remembers, "There was some pressure on us to fold it up or merge with other organizations." Yet the board "stuck with" VEP, according to Bond, even through this disastrous period that was characterized by illusions of adequate black progress, financial shortages, and leadership changes at the top of VEP during critical phases of its operation.
By June 1981, when VEP's current executive director Geraldine Thompson took office, the once distinguished organization was a shadow of its former self. Thompson recalls, "People believed black people had it made." On her first day at work she found $111.76 in VEP's bank account, a staff of six that couldn't be paid, no money for overhead expenses, and — the most startling discovery of all — that she was pregnant with her fourth child. To try to make ends meet, the organization surrendered its copying machine, borrowed typewriters, and cajoled foundations. Thompson, who had previously held important administrative positions with the City of Atlanta and the federal government, believes the challenges she faced "made the job that much more exciting."
Says a board member who asked not to be identified, "Gerri [Thompson] has gotten the respect of the foundation people without being obsequious. She deserves a lot of credit."
By October 1981 Thompson was able to pay the phone bills, thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. VEP's fortunes continued to rise and the following February the Field Foundation put up $7,250 for a successful one-day voter registration drive in Mississippi to coincide with a federal program to give away cheese and butter to needy families. Four thousand people in 38 Mississippi counties were registered that day. In the process, Thompson says, "People were educated. They hadn't realized why their welfare checks had been cut back. We told them they had to get involved in politics. It was a way of showing people how politics impacts on their lives. These times that are tough for so many are ideal for VEP."
The success of the "Cheese Project" led the Field Foundation to request other proposals from VEP, and when Thompson was able to persuade the Ford Foundation to renew funding for her organization, she says, "that set the tone for others. When we got through our tough time, it proved that we would make it." The budget grew from $244,000 in 1982, the first successful year in the recent period, to $450,000 in 1983, with a projected budget of $1,000,000 for 1984. In 1983 VEP funded the largest number of projects (92) in one year in its history, and has 150 planned for 1984. Says North Carolina VEP staffer Jonathan Edwards, "Our job is not to organize new groups," but to encourage existing groups to form short-term coalitions to register voters.
Currently the organization will work with and fund many groups' voter registration efforts. In 1983 SCLC and NAACP chapters received funds from VEP, as did the Georgia Black Women's Coalition and Coretta Scott King's Citywide Coalition to Get Out the Vote. In Virginia, VEP is funding a registration drive in public housing projects, training young people to canvass. In addition, since 1981 VEP has funded seven conferences for public officials on topics such as strategies for registration and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
Geraldine Thompson was one of the first people to call attention to the continued need for proper enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and recent experiences by VEP's field staff show the wisdom of her perception. Says Field Services Director Bob Flanagan about Mississippi's local elections during the summer of 1983, "The racists really went to work. They work their hardest in majority black areas where there is a threat of a black takeover. We found that they resolved to vote, they resolved to steal [the election] and intimidate when it's a threatening situation of electing two or three blacks, a black sheriff, or something. They make up their minds that they [are] going to win that thing regardless of what they have to do to do it."
In light of the disappointing 1983 election results in Mississippi, Flanagan is skeptical about recent highly publicized voter registration drives in rural Southern communities. He speaks guardedly when he says, "We are concerned — at least, I'm analyzing in my mind — whether or not it's strategically astute to send big names, your Jesse Jacksons, your Andy Youngs, Coretta Scott Kings, near the election day. What that does, really, is rally the white vote out. I'm wondering whether we shouldn't use the old VEP tactics of silently letting the local folk motivate and rally the people and ease them out to the voting place as opposed to all of this high visibility stuff."
Much of VEP's current work involves attempts to overcome impediments to registration, such as restricted hours and places for registering. In Georgia, Flanagan says, "Registrars don't like to get a whole lot of people on the books, white or black. It's more work for them, and their bosses would rather have a low registration list than a big one and a diverse one because that's more people he has to 'constitch' with — his constituency becomes diverse." Flanagan's assistant, Charles McCant, says Georgia is now the Southern state with the least cooperative and least sympathetic registrars, a perception that may help explain why Georgia currently has such a large number of unregistered black voters — more than 500,000 out of a total eligible black population of 1,027,000. As a result VEP is currently concentrating much of its activity in Georgia, with 38 projects in 1983.
A change in Georgia statutes that went into effect this year permits registration at sites other than the county courthouse, a longtime symbol of oppression. Individual county boards of elections, however, are not required to add registration sites, and many refuse to do so. In Bibb County, made up almost entirely of the city of Macon, McCant says, "We fought them on other sites for registration until we were wet with sweat. When you encounter racism like that, it makes you want to get out of the business of voter registration. I thought registering to vote was the easiest process, but it's the hardest. People will do whatever they can to keep us from making it."
Black churches, in particular, are often excluded as registration sites on the grounds that they are not "frequented by the general public." But a favorite method of restricting black voting continues to be locating polling places in establishments such as barber shops patronized only by whites. VEP Field workers recognize the importance of churches in voter registration and try to work with them.
While VEP has regained its momentum in the field — anticipating the addition of 350,000 black voters to registration rolls in 1983 and 500,000 in 1984 in 11 Southern states (not including Hispanic registration in Texas) — Bond would like to see the organization regain its old ascendancy in the area of research: "VEP is unmatched for coming up with the hard facts — who ran, who won, how many people voted, were they white, black, so forth. They're the best at that, always have been, and, I hope, always will be. They have a constituency, a base. They have been doing that work for more than 20 years." However, as of late September, VEP had not completed its analysis of the July elections in Mississippi, leading Bond to comment, "They're slow — real slow." This situation should improve soon. Gerri Thompson says VEP is working to develop a computerized system for storing and analyzing research data by the end of 1984. "Computer capability will enable us to complete studies quicker, and will make it possible for us to extensively and diversely interpret data," she said.
Bond would also like to see VEP develop the capability to issue more current research on "who's registered, who's not, who's voting, who's not. I'd like to see it develop some profile of the unregistered person. Who is this person? Why hasn't he or she registered to vote? Why haven't the normal processes ensnared this person?"
That, says Thompson, will be a major research objective in 1984: "We have a tremendous need to strengthen our profile of various population segments within the black community such as female heads of households, unemployed persons, youth, etc." Thompson also said VEP's research department regularly updates statistics on registered, unregistered, and voting age population persons, "but we must dig deeper for a better understanding of political attitudes among different population segments."
Plans are also underway for expanding voter education efforts to include addressing public policy issues with immediate impact on registered and unregistered blacks. In a related area, director Thompson is interested in sponsoring utility workshops to examine candidates running for public service commissions. Acknowledging that such an initiative "may have repercussions," Thompson says, "We need to join with the Hunger Coalition and others to focus attention on the problems of utilities."
The broader focus on social problems has been a trademark of VEP's work since the days of Vernon Jordan and John Lewis. Getting the disenfranchised to the registrar's desk and then to the polls is seen as only one part of the larger goal of educating the downtrodden to the full range of citizenship responsibilities — extending even to how to balance their checkbooks. Lewis sums up the two decades of the Voter Education Project's work this way: "People have been left out so long, we have to get it into their psyche for them to participate in the full life of the country. We've got to pass these skills on to the next generation. That's why it's so important for VEP to continue."