One thing is on many citizens’ minds this fall: voting. Voting is a powerful tool in our democracy that can help marginalized groups amass political power, and, for that reason, the fight for the right to vote in the United States has often been a contentious, and sometimes bloody, battle. Despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing American men the right to vote regardless of race in 1870 following the Civil War, African Americans throughout the country, but especially in the South, often found resistance to exercising this freedom.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960 mandated, among other protections, preservation of registration and voting records in federal elections and judicial appointments of voting “referees” to compile evidence of voting rights violations. However, African Americans who protested unjust treatment or attempted to register to vote were often met by violent pushback from Southern whites. The surge of negative press regarding civil rights protests caught the eye of the Kennedy administration, with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy who believed that a privately funded voter registration program would eliminate the need for these protests. The Southern Regional Council (SRC), with the full support of the Kennedy administration, established the Voter Education Project (VEP) in 1962.
VEP Selma Poster, circa 1960s
Initially a 2 year pilot project, the VEP provided grants to Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), National Urban League, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Despite President Kennedy’s request that, with the formation of the VEP, these groups halt protest activities, only the NAACP complied. When the VEP launched in 1962, only about 25% of voting age African Americans were registered throughout the South, with states like Mississippi having only about 6% of its voting age African Americans registered.
In its first two years, VEP efforts increased African American voter registration in Southern states from roughly 25% to roughly 40%, with nearly 800,000 new African American voters registered. Despite the success of the initial VEP campaign, the organizations funded by the VEP continued to face brutality and police repression against their voter registration campaigns. The collective national frustration over the dangers VEP volunteers faced ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965. The VEP continued to work under the auspices of the Southern Regional Council until 1971, when it became an independent organization under the leadership of now-Congressman John Lewis. Under the leadership of Lewis, the VEP continued to expand its mission throughout the country until financial hardships led to its closing in 1992.
Interested in learning more about the work of the Voter Education Project? You can view the GLAM Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning’s featured collection of VEP images on our digital portal. The Archives Research Center at AUC’s Robert W. Woodruff Library can provide access to the Voter Education Project organizational records and stay tuned for the GLAM Center’s digital exhibit on voting rights this fall!
“Register and Vote” line, undated
-written by Gayle Schechter, GLAM Digital Exhibitions Coordinator