Council of Federated Organizations (COFO)
The names of national organizations–SNCC, CORE, SCLC, even the NAACP–were less well-known in Mississippi than the Council of Federated Organization or COFO. First formed in 1961 to support jailed Freedom Riders, in 1962, it reorganized as an umbrella organization staffed by the national civil rights organizations. SNCC had the largest number of staff workers in COFO.
As a coalition, COFO was designed to be a kind of coordinating body meant to avoid inter-organizational political wrangling and to facilitate the flow of funds into Mississippi for voter education and registration, particularly from the Voter Education Project (VEP). Equally as important, the COFO umbrella was also meant to protect and nurture grassroots activism in the state. NAACP state president Aaron Henry was COFO’s president, SNCC’s Bob Moses was program director, and CORE’s Dave Dennis was assistant program director.
Youthful activism began accelerating in the “closed society” of Mississippi in the early 1960s, and it increasingly centered on community organizing. Bob Moses, sent by SCLC’s executive director Ella Baker, had quietly entered the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1960 and began conversations with local NAACP leader Amzie Moore. He promised to return to Mississippi the following year.
When Moses returned, Amzie Moore sent him to McComb. Moore had introduced the Harlem-native to the need for a voter registration program, and Moses began that work in McComb as a SNCC field secretary; it was SNCC’s first voter registration project. Bob Moses, now developing Moore’s ideas, began forming a grassroots community organizing template that became key to SNCC and later COFO’s organizing efforts across the state.
During the early sixties, COFO field workers–almost all of them college-age Mississippians–initiated and sustained a series of voter registration projects in various counties throughout the state. The community organizing work Bob Moses started in McComb spread into the Delta in northwest Mississippi and then across the South. In these voter registration projects, field workers embedded themselves within local communities, encouraging community organization by emphasizing voter education and registration. COFO’s voter registration program involved three basic steps to break the fear and political apathy: (1) door-to-door canvassing as the primary means of meeting and talking with community members; (2) workshops designed to prepare local residents for the actual registration attempt, including voter education; (3) actual registration attempts, which required a direct confrontation with the hostile local power structure.
Commenting on the broader implications of this work, Bob Moses noted that COFO was especially important in creating and sustaining “a sort of culture, which…provides a space where local people can grow and emerge” as political actors willing to fight for their rights. In this sense, COFO was created not only to maintain order in the Mississippi Movement, but also to provide a space for local people to hold leadership positions in the Movement. Overall, COFO emerged as an important coalition designed to harvest the newfound energy of the Mississippi Movement.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Interview with Bob Moses by Joseph Sinsheimer, November 19, 1983, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University.