Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South

By Evan Faulkenbury | Go to book overview

Introduction

In 1962, James McPherson, a retired postmaster in his late seventies, helped start a registration movement in Orangeburg County, South Carolina. “It would be fair,” wrote Randolph Blackwell, the field director for the Voter Education Project (VEP), “to say that Mr. McPherson is effective in what he is doing.”1 Under McPherson’s leadership, hundreds of African Americans registered to vote between 1962 and 1964. Volunteers within the Orangeburg movement set up a headquarters, planned mass meetings at churches, purchased office supplies, cut radio commercials, printed flyers, paid utility bills, and bought advertisement space in newspapers. Leaders mobilized car owners to pick up rural residents and drive them to the registrar’s office in the basement of Orangeburg County’s courthouse. Men, women, and teenagers took off work to canvass neighborhoods across the city and county. Working in teams, they went door to door, rang doorbells, handed out pamphlets, and urged neighbors to register. Canvassers who brought the most people to the registrar’s office even won small prizes. McPherson wrote notices imploring residents to register, writing with passion and urgency: “YOUR VOTE WILL SOLVE MOST OF THE RACE PROB LEMS! YOUR VOTE CAN CHANGE MANY THINGS! REGISTER! TAKE A FRIEND TO REGISTER!!”2 But registering to vote was difficult for African Americans in Orangeburg. White supremacy infected the political system. Jim Crow laws stripped African Americans of their constitutional and human rights. Legal segregation and racist beliefs of black inferiority determined daily interactions on the streets, in schools, in politics, in neighborhoods, in restaurants, on jobs, in churches, and at the polls. The threat of violence remained constant. McPherson guided a movement to smash the racist order in Orangeburg by pursuing what the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had promised: the right to vote regardless of race. White resistance to black freedom had increased over the last decade, McPherson noted, and that reality had “brought the Negro face-to-face with the bare fact that we must either hang together or be hanged together and that the ballot and our few dollars were our best weapons.”3

Meanwhile, as the Orangeburg movement organized, VEP headquarters buzzed with activity. Within a small space on Forsyth Street in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, a handful of staff managed hundreds of thousands of

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