[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]
As you just heard, my name is Lanny Kaufer, and I'm a veteran of the 1965-66 SCOPE Project of the SCLC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under the direction of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I'm visiting here in the Bay Area from Southern California with my wife, Rondia, and my granddaughter, Adella, and my grandson, Eamonn, while their parents are away in New Orleans at Jazzfest. So thank you for including me today on short notice.
I'd like to share the success story of our particular project using part of a Powerpoint presentation that I bring into schools. And I've condensed it way down to fit into what I hope will be eight minutes. For those of you not familiar with SCOPE, that stood for Summer Community Organization and Political Education. It was founded by Dr. King and directed by Reverend Hosea Williams. Much of the history of SCOPE is documented at Bruce's CRMVET.ORG website, and the full story is in Willy Leventhal's book, the SCOPE of Freedom.
So my roommate, Phil McKenna, and I were freshmen at UC Santa Barbara, and Hosea Williams spoke at our campus in the spring of 1965. Phil and I immediately started a SCOPE chapter, and by June, a group of eight of us drove to Atlanta, Georgia for a week of orientation, and we were assigned to Sussex County in Southern Virginia. Phil and I were stationed in the town of Waverly, one of three or four towns that were on the border of the county. The County Seat was in the center of the county, surrounded by miles and miles of peanut fields and pine forest.
The sawmill was in Waverly where we were, and the great majority of African-Americans who made up about 60% of the total population of the county worked either in the sawmill or in the logging operations or in the peanut fields. And at that time, there was not a single Black person in any elected office or serving on any police department. And at that time, 11 years after the 1954 Brown decision — Brown vs. Board of Education, Sussex County schools and neighborhoods were still entirely segregated.
There was one single man that you could say was the kingpin of Sussex County. His name was Garland Gray. He was the State Senator almost continuously from 1942 to 1971 when his son Elmon took over until 1992. But Garland Gray was also the president of the bank. He was the owner of the sawmill and the logging operation and most of the peanut business. And most of his employees lived in his employee housing, so he was their landlord, their boss, their State Senator, and he was an avowed segregationist. So I share this background to emphasize the courage of the African-American people who took us into their homes, risking possibly everything — their jobs, their whole livelihood in that area. You know, it was a small area.
We stayed first with the Parhams. Mr. Parham didn't work for Garland Gray, and he owned his own home, and even though the train went right through his front yard on its way to the mill, he was better off than a lot of the people in that rural part of the area. And I remember my first night in Waverly, having dinner with this family, and their young son, about six years old kept staring at me. And finally his mother said, "Don't stare at the man. It's not polite." And he said, "But Mama, he eats just like we do."
The next day, their kids — the older kids — took us out in the neighborhood to meet all the rest of the kids, and they all wanted to come up and touch my skin to see if it felt the same as theirs. In this climate of segregation and fear of reprisal, there was one group that was happy to be seen with us and wanted to be a part of everything, and that was the local teenagers. So our first full day in town, we taught them the Freedom Songs that we'd learned in Atlanta.
We shared these songs with them, and the kids, teenagers, organized their own march, and they marched all through the Black neighborhood, singing these songs, and you could see their parents coming out on the porch or looking out the window, not quite sure what was going on. Then they went home, and they invited their parents to come to the first meeting of the Waverly Improvement Association. Shortly after that, some of our SCOPE workers in a nearby town were with a group of their new, young teenaged friends, and they went to a restaurant to get some burgers. They were refused service, and when they finally left, the owner closed her restaurant for good and put up this sign letting everybody know why. So this is Virginia, 1965.
We quickly learned that although many Blacks wanted to register, they hadn't been able to because the registrar's office was only open once a month, on the first Monday from 9 to 3. So anyone with a job couldn't register without taking a day off from work and possibly risking losing their job. And in most cases, their employer was Garland Gray. So we spent our first few days at the courthouse pleading with the county to open up the registration times to include some non-working hours. When our efforts to go through bureaucratic channels failed, we organized a march to the courthouse, and I have a video here of it.
So we organized a march to the courthouse under the direction of Herbert Coulton, the SCLC Field Director for Southern Virginia. The teenagers made up a good part of the marchers, and their parents attended as well. You'll see me briefly in this march wearing a short-sleeved blue work shirt and carrying a little boy. The march was on the last Monday of the month. So we knew the office was closed that day, but we had pairs of demonstrators march up to the door to find it closed in a symbolic gesture. When we finally got to the courthouse, Mr. Coulton spoke to the crowd about the unfairness of the limited hours, and he told them, "If that man's gonna sit here just one day, we want to work hell out of him on that one day."
After the demonstration, the teenagers flexed their muscles again, and they held an impromptu sit-in in the halls of the courthouse. And we let them do that until they were threatened with being arrested, and then we told them, "There's time yet. We have other things that we can do before we go ahead and get arrested if we're gonna have to do that."
So our march was a success on many levels, but the registration hours stayed the same. The following Monday was the first Monday of the month, so our next action was to follow up on Mr. Coulton's promise and get as many people down there to register as we could. And I'll show you some newspaper clippings in a minute that will document the success that we had at getting out the crowd. However, they still refused to change the hours. So we continued to march, and finally, as the summer was slipping away from us, and now that the Voting Rights Act had been signed in the summer of 1965, we ended up going to Washington, D.C. to the Justice Department. And they contacted the county and threatened them with federal registrars, and lo and behold, they opened up the office hours.
I think if there's one thing they hated more than Civil Rights workers from California, it was the federal government. So there we are out and around the courthouse. There's a newspaper story about the first demonstration, and there's the announcement that no need was demonstrated for change. They just said, "Well, nobody's showing up now on Mondays, so why should we open up the hours more?" So then we had our registration event and had a big turnout. There's people waiting to get in to register, people waiting to pay their poll tax, one of the Jim Crow laws in place to keep people from voting. And then again, their announcement that, "Well, yeah, that was nice, but we're still not going to change anything." We continued demonstrating, and there's where we went finally, to get some relief, from the federal government.
The rest of our summer was filled with many meetings, going to church a lot, and mostly walking miles and miles through the pine forest and the swamps, going door to door, talking to people about voting. We did have some other encounters with white racists including a high speed chase under threat of gunfire that ended up in a courtroom drama. I myself was held captive in a laundromat, but those are longer stories that will have to wait for another day, because I'd like to finish telling you about the success of our project.
I returned to Waverly in 1988 to visit my dear friend, John Barrow, who had risked everything to host us in his home for a week. He worked in the sawmill that Mr. Gray owned. I found that the Improvement Association was still going strong, and there were Blacks on the Town Councils, the County Board of Supervisors, on the police force. One of our hosts, Mrs. Maggie Turner, had even become a magistrate. So the moral of that story is Dr. King's simple, nonviolent strategy of getting people the right to vote and getting out and voting worked. At least in this county. Today, the Improvement Association has a budget of 3 million dollars and a staff of 35, at least they did before the sequester.
So the icing on the cake was that Virginia was a swing state in 2008 and 2012, and both times elected the first African-American President, Barack Obama. I feel blessed to have witnessed the courage and determination of the African-American people of Sussex County, especially these young folks, to have had the opportunity to meet Dr. King and hear him speak in Virginia that summer, and to have played a small part in his vision of freedom, equality and justice for all. Thank you so much.
Copyright © Lanny Kaufer, 2013
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