Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) reorganized
On a cold February night in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1962, SNCC and CORE workers in the state met with NAACP leaders Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, and Medgar Evers to discuss a coordinated voter registration effort. Violence had been increasing, and resources available to SNCC and CORE workers were scarce.
Despite being from disparate organizations that sometimes had tense relationships at the national level, these local leaders agreed on the necessity for unity in the state. The meeting went beyond midnight, and at its end, they agreed to reactivate the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) as an umbrella organization to “coordinate efforts … to avoid duplication, confusion, and general lack of direction.” COFO had first been organized in 1961 as an ad hoc organization with the single goal of meeting with Governor Ross Barnett about imprisoned Freedom Riders, but it had fallen into a period of dormancy after those rides ended. That night, state NAACP president Aaron Henry was elected president, SNCC’s Bob Moses became its voter registration director, and CORE’s Dave Dennis became assistant project director.
The same year that COFO was reactivated, the Taconic, Field, New World, and Stern Family foundations had agreed to fund a southwide voting rights drive administered within the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council (SRC). The Kennedy administration supported what became known as the Voter Education Project (VEP) in the hope that it would slow the mass protests in public spaces that they felt embarrassed the United States overseas and jeopardized its relationship with southern Democrats or “Dixiecrats” as they were dubbed.
COFO became the vehicle for bringing VEP money into Mississippi. In the summer of 1962, the organization received a $14,000 grant, allowing it to launch voter registration projects in communities around the state, including Greenwood, Ruleville, Hattiesburg, and Holly Springs.
COFO was more than just a clearinghouse for voting rights activities in the state, however. The organization’s structure drew heavily off of SNCC’s experience in McComb. Bob Moses remembers “one of the things that happened in [McComb] was that there was a joining of a young generation of people with an older generation that nurtured and sustained them.” This kind of intergenerational and often interorganizational relationship was the cornerstone of the Mississippi Movement. At the grassroots level, organizational affiliations melted away as Black people fought for the franchise in hostile environments. McComb NAACP member Webb Owens claimed, “I’m with the NAACP, SCLC, CORE, SNCC, anything that will bring us freedom,” capturing the idea of unity that led to the formation of COFO.
COFO’s reactivation was meant to directly involve local Mississippians in the Movement. CORE’s Mississippi state director, Dave Dennis explained, “the Negro people in Mississippi needed some organization which could belong to them (as opposed to their belonging to it).” Bob Moses noted that COFO created a movement culture that allowed “ordinary people [to] participate, so that Mrs. [Fannie Lou] Hamer, Mrs. [Anne] Devine, Hartman Turnbow, all of them were empowered.”
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1994), 116-121.
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 77-78.
Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 55-61.
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 128-131.
Interview with Bob Moses by Joseph Sinsheimer, December 5, 1984, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University.