Today 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.
What Does Tax Policy Have to Do with the Civil Rights Movement?
When I first started working on my dissertation that eventually led to my book on the Voter Education Project (VEP), my adviser, Jim Leloudis, told me to look into the Tax Reform Act of 1969. He had written about some of the law’s effects in his book, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America, co-authored with Robert Korstad, and he thought it might have impacted the VEP, too. He was right. When I first set out on becoming a historian of the black freedom movement, the last thing on my mind was tax policy. But as I looked, I discovered an under-appreciated story about how congressional conservatives undermined the civil rights movement through the Tax Reform Act of 1969.
Between 1962 and 1969, the VEP helped spark and sustain a southwide registration movement, resulting in a massive shift of political power and the rise of African American political strength. White segregationist-turned-conservative politicians noticed, and being more limited in disfranchisement tactics after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they began to follow the money trail. Their interest segued with the growth of public distrust in philanthropic foundations, especially the Ford Foundation, which in the late 1960s funded several controversial programs. Many conservative and liberal Americans alike believed that foundations often abused their tax-exempt status for personal gain, and President Richard Nixon entered office with a mandate to pursue tax reform immediately following his 1968 election. This bipartisan attitude toward reigning in philanthropic foundations afforded conservatives with the necessary cover to also attack the civil rights movement.
For much of 1969, Congress debated an enormous and complex tax reform package, which included provisions for making sure foundations stayed out of the political realm. But southern white politicians saw an opening. Led by Senators Russell Long and Herman Talmadge, they pressed for harsh requirements and punishments for any foundation that supported registration programs, even if they were clearly non-partisan. Long and Talmadge both knew about the VEP and its impact on the southern electorate, and they moved to undercut the VEP’s financial stability. Masking their intentions within the guise of tax reform protected them from charges of racism. But the VEP knew that its existence was in danger, and executive director Vernon Jordan led a public lobbying campaign to protect the VEP and its ongoing work. Ultimately, the VEP survived, but Long, Talmadge, and their allies ensured that the VEP would have a much harder time in the future with requirements to operate in five states at once at all times and to ensure that no foundation ever gave more than 25% of the VEP’s total annual budget. These measures seem innocuous on the surface, but together, they wrecked the VEP’s strategy and operations.
The VEP was never the same after 1969, and even though it lasted until 1992, the VEP’s role as an engine of the southern civil rights movement stalled. No longer could the VEP help as many communities working to register voters as before. Due to the Tax Reform Act of 1969, the VEP separated from its parent organization, the Southern Regional Council, and it had to navigate the world of fundraising and tax rules all on its own. Problems escalated, and the VEP had to turn its attention away from promoting black political power just to survive year-to-year. Foundations became much more cautious when dealing with the VEP, and as a result, the southern black freedom movement received less money to continue grassroots registration campaigns. The spike in black political power eased up as the VEP lost its momentum.
We know a lot about how conservatives continue to fight black political power today, such as racial gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and raising false specters of fraud. But we have overlooked the role that the Tax Reform Act of 1969 played and how conservatives purposely injured the VEP. Doing so halted the momentum of the united, southwide pursuit of black political power. The consequences still resonate today.
Evan Faulkenbury is assistant professor of history at SUNY Cortland. You can read his previous UNC Press Blog post here.