New Works in the Field

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

Editors’ Note: Evan Faulkenbury introduces his new book on the Voter Education Project, Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South.

Without money, the civil rights movement would not have had the critical resources it needed to defeat Jim Crow at the ballot box. This may be an uncomfortable thought, but it is true. Social movements can begin on their own—organically and ill-defined—but they cannot last or have long-term impact without financial backing. Movements can quickly flame out, but with adequate financial resources, not only can they survive longer, they can shake the foundations of society.

Historians have tackled connections between the civil rights movement and philanthropy for some time, and these stories have added important context to how the struggle unfolded behind-the-scenes. My new book, Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South, builds on their work and suggests that white philanthropic funders did not co-opt the civil rights movement, but served as vital, committed partners. This story provides a closer examination of that partnership, charting how Black activists pursued philanthropic funds to empower grassroots activists.

In 1961, the civil rights movement in the American South was gasping for breath. Sit-ins and Freedom Rides had awakened America’s conscience, but a coordinated, financially-secure plan for a sustained fight against Jim Crow had not developed. But a handful of civil rights leaders, white liberal philanthropists, and Department of Justice (DOJ) officials began to synchronize their ideas and motives to place the civil rights movement on a firm financial foundation, one that would also focus on a singular goal of black freedom—the right to register and vote.

The plan started with Martin Luther King Jr. In 1958, he launched the Crusade for Citizenship—an ambitious plan across a dozen southern cities to register black residents and fight Jim Crow at the ballot box. King knew such a wide-ranging, coordinated attack on segregation needed money, but his newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was not able to raise the necessary funds. If the Crusade for Citizenship failed in this regard, it did prove that a southwide movement for the ballot might actually be possible if funds could be secured.

After John F. Kennedy won the Presidency in 1960, civil rights leaders believed they finally would have an ally in the White House, as well as one in the Department of Justice with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Having powerful friends in government also swayed liberal philanthropists that perhaps the time had finally come when they would not have to be overly burdened by tax-exemption rules that prohibited (with murky language) political activity. Many philanthropists were openly liberal and supportive of the southern civil rights movement, especially Stephen Currier of the Taconic Foundation. Currier decided to use his influence and money to help the struggling cause.

From July 1961 through March 1962, about two dozen people continuously met behind closed doors in New York City and Washington, D.C. to establish what became the Voter Education Project (VEP). They included philanthropists such as Stephen Currier and Vernon Eagle, DOJ officials such as Burke Marshall and Harris Wofford, and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Whitney Young, Leslie Dunbar, and Roy Wilkins. They pieced together a new organization that would use tax-exempt philanthropic dollars to put money in the hands of grassroots activists throughout the American South to register local people to vote.

A project of this magnitude had only been dreamed of before. With millions of dollars to come from philanthropic foundations, black southerners in Americus, Fayetteville, Dallas, Little Rock, Newport News, Richmond, Asheville, Rocky Mount, Orangeburg, Sumter, Albany, Greenville, Hattiesburg, Lake Charles, Shreveport, Gainesville, Charlotte, Memphis, Columbia, Tyler, Lynchburg, Charleston, Miami, Anniston, Selma, and in hundreds of other places across the American South had the resources to knock out Jim Crow at the ballot box. The money went toward car fuel, food, bills, flyers, salaries, stipends, and for volunteers going door-to-door canvassing to move people to the courthouse to register to vote. The VEP provided money for overlooked items that enable people to mobilize, such as babysitting costs and printing brochures about how to register. The VEP served as the behind-the-scenes engine of the civil rights movement, converting grassroots power into southwide political action.

Most people did not know where the money came from. This was deliberate on the VEP’s part—they shielded their philanthropic benefactors by keeping their names out of press releases because they did not want conservatives catching wind of how northern foundations were supplying money to black southerners, challenging their hold on political power through white supremacy. The DOJ worked out a deal with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to allow for philanthropies to give to registration organizations like the VEP, but they did so quietly and out of the public spotlight. Burke Marshall, Robert F. Kennedy, Leslie Dunbar, and others with both civil rights and government connections drafted memos to the IRS explaining how the VEP’s operations would be non-partisan as a 501c3—and therefore allowed within tax-exempt regulations. But within the context of a new, more liberal White House administration, they strongly suggested that this new arrangement could be fuel for a partisan fire, and IRS officials agreed. The plan worked, and over the next eight years, the VEP spent millions of philanthropic money to register black southerners. The VEP, working in concert with grassroots activists, paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, increased black political power, and funded the destruction of segregated voting in the South.

But in 1969, conservatives assaulted the VEP through the Tax Reform Act of 1969. Their ire for philanthropy had steadily grown throughout the late 1960s, and conservative belief had grown around the idea that most foundations were liberal and un-American. Fresh off Richard Nixon’s presidential victory, the House, Senate, and Treasury Department worked on a massive tax bill, and buried within the bill, conservatives (mainly Senators Herman Talmadge and Russell Long) placed restrictions on organizations like the VEP drawing on tax-exempt foundation grants. The VEP fought back, and while it survived more draconian penalties, the VEP’s access to philanthropic backing from 1970 onwards became much more onerous, including a requirement to operate in at least five states at once. As a result, the southwide, inter-connected movement for the ballot wilted without robust financial backing from the VEP.

The VEP was one of the most powerful and effective civil rights organizations of the twentieth century, largely due to its financial backing from northern foundations. But its success has not been duplicated, largely because the Tax Reform Act of 1969 remains in effect concerning tax-exempt funds and voter registration. Conservatives not only undermined the VEP in 1969, they ensured that future generations of disenfranchised citizens would have less access to philanthropic funds that could be used to increase their voting and political power.

Philanthropic money shaped the southern civil rights movement. Funneled into the VEP, it bolstered African American political power during the 1960s. But once conservatives figured out this threat to their power, they cut the money supply. The civil rights movement in the American South rose and fell with philanthropic support—a little-known, though important story that my newly released book explores in depth.

-Evan Faulkenbury

Evan Faulkenbury is an assistant professor of history at SUNY Cortland. His newly released book is Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South (UNC Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @evanfaulkenbury.

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