Voter Education Project launches
Unexpectedly, the early sixties saw the eruption and rapid spread of mass civil rights protests in the South. In 1960, Black college students gained international publicity as they directly challenged segregation through sit-in protests and picketing. The following year, CORE initiated the Freedom Rides. As CORE’s national director James Farmer declared, they wanted to put “the movement on wheels,” by testing the Supreme Court rulings that outlawed segregated interstate transportation (Morgan v. Virginia, 1946) and segregated terminal facilities (Boynton v. Virginia, 1960). Both were universally ignored throughout the South.
The buses that carried the Freedom Riders through the South were bombed and burned. Freedom Riders were attacked by mobs and jailed. Meanwhile, the federal government claimed it could do little to stop such “local” violence.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy, very conscious of growing national and international media attention focused on the rides, was concerned that the administration’s reputation was on the line. He called for a cooling off period. While CORE was inclined to comply, the newly-formed SNCC decided that the rides must continue to prove that racist violence couldn’t deter the Movement. Because of insistence by the Nashville students, especially Diane Nash and John Lewis, the Freedom Rides not only continued but also amplified. Students from around the country joined in, forcing the federal government to provide protection.
Most Freedom Riders were arrested in Mississippi, where state officials promised the federal government that there would be no public display of violence. This complicity with the Kennedy administration allowed Mississippi to continue to flout the law. Dixiecrats, like Mississippi’s Senator James Eastland, as well as southern Democrats in general, were powerful within the Democratic Party, forcing the national party of defer to their white supremacist interests.
Fearful now of direct actions like sit-ins and freedom rides, the Kennedy Administration pressed civil rights leaders to concentrate on voter registration. They promised money from large liberal foundations that they influenced and helped organize meetings with them. These meetings resulted in the formation of the Voter Education Project (VEP) in early 1962 to disseminate funds for voter registration work in the South. The Stern Family Fund, the Taconic Fund, and the Field Foundation supplied the initial grant of $870,000.
The idea of turning their attention to voter registration sparked internal debates within SNCC. Born out of the sit-ins and hardened in the Freedom Rides, many student activists saw nonviolent direct action as what was necessary for meaningful social change. These students saw the formation of VEP as a government attempt to co-opt their movement. Voter registration was selling out, many thought. Lonnie King, a student from Morehouse College in Atlanta, felt that the Kennedys were just trying to protect their image. “I felt that that what they were trying to do was kill the Movement, but kill it by rechanneling its energies.”
But there were SNCC activists who wanted to tackle voter registration and not because of the Kennedys. These students saw obtaining the right to vote as a key to unlocking political power for Black Americans. Older Black southerners were also pressing SNCC to move in this direction. One of them, Mississippi NAACP leader Amzie Moore attended SNCC’s second conference in October 1960 and put the issue on the table there.
The debate over voter registration almost destroyed SNCC, but it was finally resolved when Ella Baker suggested that the organization create two wings: one for direct action and one for voter registration. When SNCC began to work intensively in Mississippi in the summer of 1961 it became clear to SNCC activists that in the Deep South, that “voter registration was direct action.”
In McComb, where SNCC began its first voter registration project, an older core of local leaders welcomed and supported them. Young people in the small city joined them, anxious to work with “Freedom Riders.” SNCC began learning how to dig in.
Like the freedom rides and sit-ins, white resistance, often violent, taught SNCC workers that voter registration was as direct a challenge to white supremacy as anything they had been doing before. SNCC’s Reggie Robinson succinctly described how McComb drove this lesson home: “If you went into Mississippi and talked about voter registration they’re going to hit you on the side of the head and that’s as direct as you can get.”
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 78.
Timothy Jenkins and Lonnie King, “SNCC and Kennedy Justice: A Southern Strategy,” My Soul is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, edited by Howell Raines (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 227-231.
Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr, Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 43-44.
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 108-109.
Howell Raines, ed., My Soul is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 109-116.