Evan Faulkenbury: Who Deserves Credit for the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American SouthToday we welcome a guest post from Evan Faulkenbury, author of Poll Power:  The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South, just published by UNC Press.

The civil rights movement required money. In the early 1960s, after years of grassroots organizing, civil rights activists convinced nonprofit foundations to donate in support of voter education and registration efforts. One result was the Voter Education Project (VEP), which, starting in 1962, showed far-reaching results almost immediately and organized the groundwork that eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though local power had long existed in the hundreds of southern towns and cities that saw organized civil rights action, the VEP was vital to converting that power into political motion. Evan Faulkenbury offers a much-needed explanation of the crucial role philanthropy, outside funding, and tax policy can play in the lifecycle of social movements.

Poll Power is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Who Deserves Credit for the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

Many of us know parts of the story. On March 7, 1965, police troopers and local white henchmen attacked peaceful protestors on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Newspapers and nightly reports broadcasted violent images of wounded African Americans on the ground, shocking the nation, the world, and lawmakers in Washington, D.C. A week later, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered an address before Congress on national television calling for new legislation to protect the franchise. Two days later, Congressmen introduced a voting rights bill in both the House and Senate, and after five months of debate and arm-twisting, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. History remembers many of the key players who capitalized off the horrors of Bloody Sunday to quickly pass the law, such as President Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, Emanuel Celler, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Everett Dirksen. And deservedly so. But history has had trouble remembering the grassroots groundswell that led to Bloody Sunday, the rising tide of black voting rights activism that swept the South beginning in mid-1962.

How did such a powerful, southwide movement begin, and why was it a factor securing the Voting Rights Act of 1965? The answer lies within the little-known history of the Voter Education Project (VEP), a small, discreet, behind-the-scenes civil rights organization headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Housed within the progressive Southern Regional Council, the VEP formed in 1961 with help from civil rights leaders, Department of Justice officials, and philanthropic foundations. Liberal donors wanted to fund southern voting rights campaigns, but complex rules regarding federal tax-exemption delayed their charity. Meeting behind closed doors, interested parties charted a path that would enable the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to approve such a project, and in March 1962, the VEP began its work. Led initially by Wiley A. Branton (and later by Vernon Jordan and John Lewis), the VEP funded 129 separate voter registration movements across the 11 states of the Old Confederacy between 1962 and 1964, resulting in a whopping 688,000 newly registered African Americans—all before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The VEP financed the civil rights movement in towns, counties, and communities across the American South. By providing grant money, the VEP helped grassroots activists hire canvassers to go door-to-door, pay bills, put fuel in cars, buy food, print informative flyers, and sustain projects lasting weeks, months, or years. Social movements, unfortunately, cost money, and the VEP provided the necessary costs. But few today or back then knew about the VEP’s role because it deliberately maintained a low profile. VEP leaders did not want to draw unwanted attention from conservative leaders or the IRS, nor did they want to get in the way of grassroots activists who knew their communities best. The VEP compiled data on disfranchisement from across the South, and as it worked to register voters, it also amassed proof that Jim Crow was alive and well at the ballot box, but also that black southerners wanted to participate in democracy. By pumping money into registration campaigns spanning the American South, the VEP bolstered a southwide movement that demanded the right to vote.

Which brings us back to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even in Selma, the VEP had funded activists since 1963. Bloody Sunday did not occur within a vacuum, but was part of something much larger. The VEP was at the root of this change that eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Evan Faulkenbury is assistant professor of history at SUNY Cortland.  Follow him on Twitter.  For more information, visit his website.