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Education as Activism: The Voter Education Project in the Civil Rights Movement

In May 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) received a grant worth $5,750.00 for voter registration campaigns in Mississippi from the Voter Education Project (VEP). In exchange, SNCC agreed to send detailed reports back to the VEP chronicling expenditures and about how many people had attempted to register to vote. SNCC field workers had been working across Mississippi for well over a year to help African Americans gain political power, but white supremacy reigned in the Magnolia State, and few African Americans had registered. While SNCC relied on the goodwill of local hosts for places to stay and food to eat, field workers needed money to put fuel in their cars, print flyers, pay a modest salary, and on occasion, bail allies out of jail. SNCC had few resources, but the VEP grant allowed its field workers in Mississippi to stay put, to organize, and to fight Jim Crow by encouraging African Americans to register. After three months of activity, SNCC reported to the VEP that it had registered 41 new black voters—a humble figure, but the makings of a sea change. By providing money, the VEP became a crucial partner to SNCC.[1]

What was the VEP, why did it help SNCC, and how did it shape the civil rights movement in the American South? Put together in 1961 and launched in March 1962, the VEP came together as a joint project of liberal philanthropists, the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the figureheads of the major civil rights organizations—Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Whitney Young, Jim Forman, and John Lewis. Placed under the Southern Regional Council (SRC), a progressive, interracial research organization in Atlanta, Georgia, those involved designed the VEP to operate as a clearinghouse to solicit grants from foundations and distribute money between the major civil rights organizations, as well as to independent grassroots campaigns. Philanthropists, such as Stephen Currier of the Taconic Foundation, empathized with disfranchised black southerners. Currier wanted to invest in democracy, and the DOJ under Robert F. Kennedy desired to quell black unrest and promote voting rights as the central aim of the movement. Civil rights leaders largely agreed that black disfranchisement in the South should be the chief target for grassroots activism, but their organizations needed money. The VEP answered the need for financial investment in voting rights activism, and in turn, the VEP helped center the 1960s-era black freedom movement on the ballot.

Setting up the VEP, however, proved to be a challenge. The main hold-up centered on federal tax-exemption. Foundations would not give money unless their donations went to tax-exempt organizations in compliance with the IRS Internal Revenue Code of 1954. And the SRC, which agreed to host the VEP internally, would not move forward without assurance from the federal government that its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization would not be revoked after establishing the VEP. The root of the problem centered on whether or not tax-exempt grants could go toward registering African Americans to vote. For decades, philanthropy in the United States walked a fine line between education and political advocacy. To the IRS, investing in education was fine, but foundations could not fund projects that smacked of politics or partisanship, lest a foundation risk the IRS revoking its tax-exemption, which would devastate its financial capacity. In effect, the VEP could not begin until its backers convinced the IRS that tax-exempt philanthropic money would not be used to influence politics in any way.

To appease the IRS, the VEP’s backers framed its purpose as educational, not one of advocacy. Adrian DeWind, a tax lawyer for the Taconic Foundation who appealed to the IRS on the SRC’s behalf, promised that the VEP would remain nonpartisan, but would “enable the [Southern Regional] Council to promote and to study and evaluate methods for teaching and encouraging the exercise of the right to register and vote.”[2] The VEP would provide grants to local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Urban League, SNCC, and independent organizations, whose leaders would then spend the money to promote registration and political participation. Grant recipients would chronicle each dollar spent, record statistics of black southerners attempting to register, document instances of abuse and violence, and report back to the VEP. The VEP would then compile the data and publish information related to black disfranchisement for the benefit of the general public to describe in detail how African Americans were deprived of voting rights in the South.[3] After some nudging from Robert F. Kennedy, the IRS approved the tax-exemption in March 1962, and the VEP immediately went to work.

Looking back, Leslie Dunbar, the SRC’s executive director when the VEP began, credited DeWind for putting into words “an ingenious kind of theory” that shrouded the VEP’s true aims. By stating that the VEP would concentrate on education, its backers signaled that the “VEP was really engaged in research, that we were researching the best ways to register voters in the South, [but] our method of research was [direct involvement].”[4] An ambitious project to fund the black freedom movement built itself on a pedagogical model—education as activism.

Between March 1962 and October 1964, the VEP, led by Wiley A. Branton, helped register approximately 688,000 black southerners after spending $855,836.59 on 129 voter registration projects throughout the 11 states of the Old Confederacy.[5] By framing its mission as educational, the VEP funded the groundswell of voting rights activism within the black freedom struggle, laying the foundation for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Those 41 Mississippians whom SNCC helped register during the summer of 1962 were part of a much larger, VEP-equipped movement that ended Jim Crow at the polls.

Evan Faulkenbury is an Assistant Professor of History at the State University of New York at Cortland. His first book will chronicle the Voter Education Project during the 1960s and 1970s. Follow him on Twitter @evanfaulkenbury.

[1] Wiley A. Branton to James Forman, Re: VEP 2-5, May 4, 1962, Reel 173, Southern Regional Council Papers (hereafter SRC Papers); and VEP Summary Report, “SNCC Program in Mississippi,” May 11 – July 31, 1962, Reel 176, SRC Papers. The VEP later increased SNCC’s 1962 summer grant to $6,375.00, and the grant also included SNCC’s activities in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

[2] Adrian W. DeWind to Burke Marshall, December 14, 1961, Box 34, Folder “Voter Registration, 1961-1963,” Burke Marshall Papers, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

[3] The book Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: The Arrival of Negroes in Southern Politics (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967) by journalists Pat Watters and Reese Cleghorn served as the first VEP’s comprehensive report for the general public.

[4] Interview with Leslie W. Dunbar by Jacquelyn Hall, Helen Bresler, and Bob Hall, December 18, 1978, 20, G-0075 in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[5] VEP Financial Statement, January 1962 – May 1, 1965, Frame 1477, Reel 173, SRC Papers; Annual Report of the Executive Director of the Southern Regional Council, A Review of Program Activities During 1964, April 1965, Box 12, Folder 15, Leslie W. Dunbar Papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University; and Pat Watters and Reese Cleghorn, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: The Arrival of Negroes in Southern Politics (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967), 26-27.