Voter Registration expands in Southwest Georgia
By April 1962, although there was continued protest in the city of Albany, SNCC’s movement work was increasingly shifting to the rural districts of Southwest Georgia surrounding the city. This countryside of pecans, peanuts, and the rural poor represented “the area of most critical human need resulting from civil rights deprivations.”
Several counties were chosen as strategic sites of action. One of them, Terrell County, located in the third congressional district and commonly called “Terrible Terrell,” became a hotbed of political organizing. It symbolized generations of oppression in the region despite its majority Black population.
Lee County was another county of great movement activity. Like Terrell County, it had a majority Black population, but roughly 90% of all legislative decisions were made by the Forresters, a white family who controlled the sheriff’s office, the office of the coroner, the tax office, and the county commission.
Throughout Southwest Georgia, SNCC activists began emphasizing voter registration projects as the primary means by which white supremacy could be defeated and Black political and economic empowerment at the local level could be achieved.
SNCC activists went door-to-door encouraging Black residents to register to vote and explained how their political involvement could overturn the prevailing white supremacist network that dominated the region. When asked to describe the organizing efforts in the area, an unnamed movement participant said, “we spend days at a time visiting negro homes in the backcountry. We talk, we talk, and we talk. We are met with all grades of enthusiasm from very faint to very sincere.”
SNCC organizers arranged meetings where people were encouraged and taught to pass the literacy tests. “A great deal of movement teaching and learning took place in churches, the usual place to hold voter registration classes,” recalled Peggy Dammond. By adopting the church as a spot for organizing, SNCC workers were able to build strong bonds with community members. “It provided not only a place to meet and talk but also a venue to demonstrate our sincerity and common values,” asserted Dammond.
Voter registration projects in Southwest Georgia were sites for mutual learning. When asked to spend a summer working with SNCC’s Southwest Georgia Project, Dammond and Kathleen Conwell lived in Lee County with Mama Dolly Raines. Mama Dolly was a farmer who had her own house and raised crops and chickens behind her house. Dammond and Conwell learned to get food from the birds as well as from Mama Dolly’s garden, thanks to Mama Dolly’s careful instruction. They plucked the feathers of chickens for supper and helped Mama Dolly with other chores.
It was during these intimate encounters with locals, that SNCC workers learned the true meaning of kindness, generosity, and perseverance. “The primary lesson that I received from those Black sages,” recalled SNCC’s Prathia Hall, “was that of faith for living in life-threatening circumstances.”
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989) 479-481.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 119-120, 168-169, 179-180.
Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, “It was Simply in My Blood,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 163-172.
Southwest Georgia Voter Registration Project report, 1963, Faith S. Holsaert Papers, 1950-2011, David M. Rubenstein Library, Duke University.