|War on Poverty|
|The Murder of Sammy Younge (Jan)|
|Vietnam and the Draft: Taking a Stand|
|Julian Bond Denied Seat in GA Legislature (Jan)|
|The Murder of Vernon Dahmer (Jan)|
|Greenville Air Force Base Occupation (Feb)|
|State Poll Taxes Ruled Unconstitutional (Mar)|
|Lowndes County: Roar of the Panther|
|White House Conference on Civil Rights (June)|
|Meredith Mississippi March and Black Power (June) [TBD]|
|Chicago Freedom Movement & the War Against Slums|
|Grenada MS Movement (July-Nov)|
|Clarence Triggs Murdered (July)|
|Civil Rights Act of 1966 Killed by Senate Fillibuster (Sept)|
|ASCS Elections in Alabama — The Struggle Continues (Sept)|
|1966 Alabama Elections|
|The Election in Lowndes County|
|The Election in Dallas County (Selma)|
|The Election in Macon County (Tuskegee)|
|Keeping On — From Cooperatives to Pigford|
[This is a huge and controversial topic that may be too large and complex for a History & Timeline article.]
In the mid-1960s, Freedom Movement activists hold a wide range of views on LBJ's War on Poverty program (WoP):
These conflicting views result in sharp debates and bitter divisions among Freedom Movement activists at all levels.
(A more detailed and analytic description & discussion to be written someday — we hope.)
See Tuskegee Merchant Boycott (1957-1960) for preceding events.
Born in 1944, Samuel "Sammy" Younge grows up in Tuskegee Alabama, population 7,000. It's the seat of Macon County — 84% Black yet under the economic and political control of a white power-structure. The town, also overwhelmingly Afro-American, is home to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama's premier Black college, and a segregated Veterans Administration hospital which cares for Alabama's Black servicemen. These two institutions provide a significant number of jobs for Tuskegee's Black professional-class of doctors, professors, researchers and administrators, most of whom live in a distinct, self-contained enclave that is socially & culturally separate from the town's working-class Blacks, and largely insulated from the Jim Crow realities they endure.
The main Afro-American political organization in Macon County is the Tuskegee Civic Association (TCA) whose leaders are primarily drawn from the college and hospital professional-class. Over the years, Tuskegee Blacks have won and negotiated some concessions and accommodations from local whites. So much so that the national media describes Tuskegee as a "model town" of racial harmony. Few rural Blacks in Macon County are registered to vote, but within the town limits Afro-American voters are now in a solid majority. The conservative leaders who control the TCA, however, fear that electing too many Blacks to office will alienate local whites and trigger harsh retaliation from the all-white state government in Montgomery. So they ensure that whites retain a voting majority on all municiple councils, boards, commissions, and other governing bodies. Two of the four city councilmen are Black, for example, with the white mayor presiding and holding the tie-breaker vote.
Upon graduating high school in 1962, Sammy joins the Navy. After falling ill and losing a kidney, he returns home and receives a medical discharge in 1964. At the beginning of 1965, he enrolls in the Tuskegee Institute. With the Selma Voting Rights Campaign erupting just a 90-minute drive to the west on US-80, he quickly becomes active in the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League (TIAL), the student civil rights organization that is supporting the Selma struggle and beginning to raise local issues. After "Bloody Sunday," he is one of the thousand or so Tuskegee and Alabama State College students who protest on March 10th in Montgomery where they are confronted and attacked by police, state troopers, and mounted possemen. Tuskegee professor and later SNCC member Jean Wiley later recalled:
At first, Sammy was just another one of the several hundred students who went to Montgomery. When I returned to Tuskegee, I was told that a student had stood before a group the night before and had begun to talk about the very pressing racial questions in Alabama. He defined the student role as he saw it. Most of the people were faculty members and they were very impressed with this kid, as they called him. From the time that he returned to Montgomery, Sammy became one of the major students in civil rights on the campus. He started organizing students, became one of the major people in TIAL. — Jean Wiley, SNCC. 
Sammy and some of the other student activists of TIAL form close associations with SNCC organizers. Over the Easter break in the Spring of 1965, Sammy volunteers to help Fannie Lou Hamer register voters in Sunflower County, Mississippi, a SNCC stronghold and Freedom Movement battleground in the heart of the Delta since 1962. When he returns to Tuskegee, Sammy begins doing voter-registration work in rural, poverty-stricken areas of Macon County.
After we had gone to Mississippi to help Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer get those people registered ... I remember that he was on fire to work Macon County when we got back. I used to go out in the county with him. We would be going to places in Macon County all the time after we got back from Mississippi. — Wazir (Willie) Peacock, SNCC & Tuskegee student.
Soon Sammy is working on issues of hunger, commodity food distribution, and segregation in public low-cost housing. Sammy joins with other TIAL students in desegregating public facilities, both to defy racism and force compliance with the Civil Rights Act. They also engage in local anti-racism actions such as boycotting the local A&P grocery store because of hiring discrimination.
Bringing protests and confrontation to Tuskegee stirs tension and conflict with segregationist whites. It also alarms Institute administrators and professional-class Blacks who have comfortable positions to protect and who prize the absence of overt racial strife in their "model town." For many of them it is an article of faith that educational achievement, middle-class careers, and accommodation to the status quo exempts them from the rigors of segregation and the brutal realities of Alabama-style white-supremacy.
Everything [Sammy] did in Macon County with TIAL — Tuskegee Institute Advancement League — he took on the politics of Macon County. Some of the elitist Black people had cojourned with the old white leadership there and set up a hard fight for TIAL. It brought out the real what was going on in Macon County and Tuskegee. ... And these Black leaders and white were joined together hip to hip, they really were. — Wazir (Willie) Peacock, SNCC & Tuskegee student.
The class and generational tensions between the young militants and the old guard leaders are replicated among Tuskegee students — many of whom are focused on getting their degrees and then leaving the South for comfortable careers in the North.
TIAL had its internal conflicts as well, and they dated back to the Montgomery demonstrations. The group identity thing was gone; the old leadership had faded; personality and power conflicts developed, sometimes between TIAL and SNCC people. When there was a hassle in TIAL, it tended to produce factions instead of compromise. A number of TIAL activists were also torn by personal conflicts. They simply could not deal with the contradiction between Tuskegee Institute and the life for which it was preparing them, and the events which had taken place only thirty minutes away in Montgomery. Tuskegee said: Get an education and you won't be a nigger. Montgomery had said: You're a nigger no matter what you do. Tuskegee said: Join our safe little middle class and forget what's outside. Montgomery had said: Black people are oppressed in this state, and you cannot turn your back on that. There was no connection between the campus classroom and what had happened in front of the State Capitol. Which was real? — James Forman, SNCC.
As spring evolves into summer and the school semester ends, protests, confrontations, and tensions ratchet upwards in Tuskegee. Conflicts with the Institute administration force TIAL to move its office off campus. In late May, Alabama Governor George Wallace is invited to speak at the graduation ceremony of a segregated private high school for whites only. The event is held in the National Guard armory — a public building subject to the Civil Rights Act — but Black students are blocked when they try to enter to hear their Governor's address. One of them is a recent military veteran, "I've just come from Vietnam fighting for freedom in this country and I can't even come into a National Guard Armory."
In the sweltering heat of an Alabama summer, TIAL activists desegregating the white-only swimming pool are met with resistance and harassment. Despite the year-old Civil Rights Act, the pool is drained and closed to prevent Blacks from using it. Students picket the town's main bank owned by City Councilman Allen Parker. When they try to attend services at white churches they are met with violence and death threats. The school superintendent warns Sammy's mother that her teaching job is at risk if her son continues leading civil rights protests in Tuskegee. TIAL forces a meeting with the city government over the closed swimming pool. Black TCA leaders also participate, and Sammy angrily confronts both them and the whites. Funded by a federal anti-poverty grant, hundreds of Tuskegee and northern students are hired for a summer program tutoring Black children in rural areas. Tuskegee administrators pressure them, warning that if they participate in demonstrations they may lose their jobs and be expelled from their campus housing.
When school resumes in the Fall of '65, Sammy is placed on academic probation. If he doesn't improve his grades and take a heavier class load he'll be dropped. He tries to cut back on civil rights activities to focus on his studies. But he's known to both white racists and the local power structure as a leading "troublemaker." Hostility and death threats continue. Nor is he able to completely withdraw from Freedom Movement activities. In September, an all-white jury in Lowndes County acquits the man who gunned down Jonathan Daniels and Sammy organizes a protest march of more than 50 students to the Confederate monument on the town square. By December, he's once again setting school work aside for voter registration work in rural areas of the county.
Monday, January 3rd, 1966, is one of the two days per month when people can register to vote at the courthouse.
We had brought a lot of people down to register — we had 118 people at the courthouse. The registrar decided that he wasn't going to register people because we had too many down there. He said he had to "purge" the list that day — take off the names of people who had died or moved out of the county. I asked him, "Couldn't you find some other time to purge the list? Today is registration day, and we only have two registration days a month." ... "We're not going to be registering people today." He just kept on saying that. I said, "Well, you're going to be registering us today." ... He said, "You've been causing me trouble all morning. If you don't get out of here, I'm going to spill your guts all over the floor." ... I went to the telephone and called the Atlanta SNCC office and had them call the FBI and the Justice Department. While I was gone, Sammy had come up with Eldridge Burns and [Wendell] Paris. — Jimmy Rogers, TIAL & SNCC.
The registrar pulls a knife, but Sammy and the other TIAL/SNCC workers are not intimidated, they keep demanding that the registrar do his job and register the people who have been waiting all day in the courthouse. An FBI agent arrives. He takes no action to enforce the law.
[By January of 1966, the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) which is supposed to prevent denial and intimidation of voters has been the law of the land for five months, but in Macon County (as elsewhere in Alabama) local authorities feel free to ignore it because federal enforcement is weak and half-hearted.]
After the courthouse closes for the day, the TIAL and SNCC activists hold strategy meetings and then begin to party. Around midnight, Sammy goes out to buy cigarettes. He never returns.
Sammy's body is discovered in a dark driveway between the bus depot and adjacent gas station. Shot in the back of the head. There is no shortage of witnesses and no doubt that Marvin Segrest, the white attendant at the Standard Oil station, shot him. Segrest admits to the police that he fired the bullet. He is arrested. A week later he is released on bail.
I've read five affidavits, and they all say basically the same thing about what happened. Sammy was at the gas station that evening when a group of Tuskegee students drove up into a sort of alley between the gas station and the bus depot. As far as they could gather, he was going in to buy a package of cigarettes and he also asked to use the restroom. The man at the station, a white man, pointed to the back. The bathroom for Negroes is there, the one for whites is inside. Sammy said — they heard him say this — "You haven't heard of the Civil Rights Act." Sammy wasn't going around to the back. Harsh words were exchanged and the man started waving his gun. He told Sammy to get off his property.
Sammy got in his car and moved it over near the bus station which is next to the gas station. ... They still had this exchange of words. At that point, the man waved the gun and then raised it. There were some golf clubs standing beside the bus station — they belonged to a passenger waiting for the late bus to Atlanta — and Sammy pulled one out. The man looked as though he was coming at Sammy. Sammy ran and the man fired. He missed. Sammy ran onto the Greyhound bus standing there — the bus to Atlanta. He shouted, "Would you shoot me on this bus?" The bus driver got off and went to talk to the man, told him he'd better not do that. Sammy got off the bus and it pulled away. ... The man raised his gun again and shot. Sammy fell, hit in the head. — Gwen Patton, Tuskegee student body president and TIAL leader.
Several thousand people — students, faculty, and members of Tuskegee's working-class Black community — march in the rain to protest the murder and demand justice. The mayor assures them that he "deplores" the incident, but his trite phrases do not mollify the angry crowd. "The students at Tuskegee will tear this town to bits, if justice is not sought. If any people out there wish to take us on, we welcome you," says student body president Gwen Patton.
Protest marches continue for the rest of the week. The Tuskegee Institute president reverses his long-standing opposition and encourages students to participate in civil rights activities. Faculty, students, and community leaders form an Ad Hoc Committee for Justice in Macon County to push for badly needed reforms. TIAL and the Ad Hoc Committee draft a set of 14 demands related to voter registration, school desegregation, hiring of Black cops, civilian review of police, segregation, jury integration, and welfare issues. When a march downtown is blocked by cops on Saturday, January 8th, a thousand demonstrators vote to push through the police line. The cops allow the marchers to reach the downtown district where they sit on the sidewalks impeding entrance to white-owned stores. Pickets, protests, and meetings with town officials continue until mid-month amid rising tension and increased threat from white racists determined keep Blacks "in their place" at all costs.
After a decade of police brutality, Klan bombings, and racist murderers acquitted by all-white juries, many in SNCC and TIAL no longer accept nonviolence as either a strategy or a tactic. Even those most firmly committed to nonviolence are expressing their frustration:
If the federal government cannot provide protection for people seeking civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution, then people will have no protection but themselves. We find it increasingly difficult to ask the people of the Black Belt to remain nonviolent. We have asked the President for federal marshals for over three years. If our plea is not answered, we have no choice. — John Lewis, SNCC.
On Saturday, January 15, a small number of TIAL members are picketing stores. One, a high-school student, is shoved by a white store owner. The cops arrest the Black picket. Rage on both sides boils over, verbal and physical altercations break out between protesters and police & white civilians. When they hear that TIAL chairman Wendell Paris is being beaten, students pour off campus and rush downtown to join angry community folk who are fed up. Bricks and punches are thrown, some windows are broken.
Many Tuskegee students and community people are becoming increasingly angry at the delay in indicting Segrest for Sammy's murder. Just as infuriating is the stark contrast in concern and action on the part of the White House and Justice Department regarding the murder of Blacks like Jimmy Lee Jackson and Sammy Younge and the murder of whites like Rev. Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and Jonathan Daniels. Others, however, blame SNCC and TIAL "troublemakers" for encouraging violence, stoking racial tensions, and fomenting civic strife. Institute administrators revert to discouraging and opposing student involvement in Freedom Movement activities, an attitude that resonates among some students who had participated in previous actions, but who have been alienated by violence and are now refocusing on their studies. The unity forged in the immediate aftermath of Sammy's death dissolves.
With support dwindling, marches and protests cease, though political education, meetings, and negotiations continue. On February 3rd, the Ad Hoc Committee holds a Conference on Alabama Justice.
Voter registration by TIAL/SNCC activists in cooperation with the Ad Hoc committee also continues, and though federal enforcement of the VRA continues to lag, the number of Black voters rises steadily. By the Spring of 1966, enough rural Blacks have been added to the voting roll that in combination with those in Tuskegee, Afro-Americans now have a county-wide majority and it becomes feasible to elect Blacks to county offices, not just municiple positions. Lucius Amerson, a 32-year old Black Korean War veteran and former Tuskegee student announces his candidacy for sheriff in the May 3rd primary.
Amerson steers a careful middle-course in the conflicting currents of Tuskegee Black politics. Though TIAL members support his campaign as individuals, he does not seek SNCC or TIAL's endorsement. Nor does he run as a militant. Nevertheless, the old guard TCA leaders decline to support him — he's too young, he's not under their control, and they believe that electing a Black sheriff risks alienating local whites with whom they have economic ties. They also fear it might trigger punitive retaliation from Governor Wallace and the state legislature. Amerson does receive support from SCLC, including a team of Black and white civil rights workers who assist with his campaign. He wins the May Democratic primary 53% to 47% to become the first Afro-American sheriff elected in the South since Reconstruction — though he will not assume office until January 1967.
[In 1966, local politics in Alabama were still completely dominated by the Democratic Party, so winning the party primary inevitably led to victory in the November general election. This remained the case until 1972 when President Nixon and the Republican Party adopted a "southern strategy" of appealing to racist whites. A successful strategy they continue to persue.]
Meanwhile, months and more months drag slowly by while the county grand jury deliberates what, if any, charges to file against Segrest who has already admitted to the police that he fired the fatal shot. It is not until November, 10 months after Sammy's death, that they finally indict him on a charge of 2nd-degree murder. He pleads "Not Guilty."
In Alabama at this time, jurors are selected from the voting rolls. Given the large number of Blacks who have registered in Macon County, there is no chance that the white power-structure will be able to ensure that the case is tried by an all-white jury. After a brief, unpublicized hearing, the local judge declares that Segrest cannot get a fair trial in Tuskegee because of "professional agitators" stirring up racial strife. He means SNCC and TIAL activists. He transfers the case to Lee County which is only 30% Black, few of whom are registered to vote. The Macon County prosecutor whose sworn duty is to seek justice for Sammy makes no serious effort to oppose this change of venue.
Movement lawyers file suit in federal court against the Lee County jury system that excludes Blacks and poor whites. It is to be heard on December 10. The case against Segrest, which has been moving with glacial slowness, suddenly accelerates to lightening speed. To prevent the federal court from intervening, Segrest's trial is set for December 7.
As expected, Segrest is tried by an all-white jury. He claims self-defense, that Sammy tried to run him over with a car, and then assault him on foot. The case goes to the jury after two days of testimony. Ignoring the Black witnesses who described how Sammy was walking away from Segrest when he was shot in the back of the head, and paying no attention to the forensic evidence that the fatal bullet was fired at a distance, the jury takes just 90 minutes to return a verdict of "Not Guilty."
At nightfall, word of the verdict reaches Tuskegee.
The students were very angry, very frustrated. The girls went to all the dorms, went to the boys' dorms, everybody's dorm. By midnight, it wasn't two hundred people. It wasn't three hundred or five hundred. It was a thousand, fifteen hundred, two thousand. They were coming in. ... They said, "Damn the president. Damn the curfew. We're going downtown." And they went. — Scott B. Smith, SNCC.
We had no form, which was beautiful. We had no pattern, which was beautiful. People were just filling the streets, and they weren't singing no freedom songs. They were mad. People would try and strike up a freedom song, but it wouldn't work. All of a sudden you heard this "Black Power, Black Power." People felt what was going on. They were tired of doing this whole nonviolent bit. They were tired of this organized demonstration-type thing. They were going to do something. We got to the square. The beautiful thing was that people who did the talking were mainly black men: black men were speaking; black men came up with the ideas; and black men wanted to do something about the whole situation. The black leaders of the past wanted to have an all-night vigil. That wasn't what students wanted to do. They went down there with their minds set on destroying that city. It was obvious and everybody knew it. We didn't contact nobody, no professors, and there were no white people there. — Gwen Patton. 
At the center of the town square stands the statue of a Confederate soldier. The students paint his face black, a yellow stripe running down his back, and "Black Power" and "Sam Younge" on the pedestle. Rocks are thrown, windows are broken, some piles of dead leaves are set on fire. The out-numbered police do not intervene.
Come daylight, controversy over the protest roils both campus and community.
This community is responsible for Sammy's death ... We are all responsible because we have allowed white people to think that they can kill black people and go free ... — Activist leaflet. 
Mobs cannot be tolerated. It is a very sad thing for the people of Tuskegee Institute to have to face ... the evidence of wanton physical destruction caused by a very few people in a rather large group of Tuskegee students and others. All who were there share the blame, ... — Luther Foster, Tuskegee Institute President. 
We have, ... stated our case against mob vandalism, but we have said very little concerning why the vandalism took place ... 350 years of abuse, intimidation, subjection, and oppression were released ... It is healthy that windows were broken instead of lives taken. [The demonstrators] do not share the full blame for the violence, The real blame is focused upon the Negro and white leadership who failed to take a firm stand on the side of justice. — Rev. Lawrence Haygood.
See Election in Macon County (Tuskegee) for continuation.
For more information:
Book: Sammy Younge, Jr: The First Black College Student to Die ....
Web: Martyrs of the Movement
See Vietnam and the Assembly of Unrepresented People for Vietnam War background and preceding events.
As the number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam continues to rapidly increase, a poll in August of 1965 reports that 61% of Americans support the war. Only 25% believe military intervention in Vietnam is a mistake, while 14% have no opinion. President Johnson is riding high at the peak of his popularity and his Vietnam policies enjoy solid support from both establishment-liberals and conservatives. Echoing LBJ's war rationale, Vice President Hubert Humphrey who is the chief spokesman for the northern wing of the Democratic Party hawkishly condemns, "Militant, aggressive Asian Communism with its headquarters in Peking, China."
The majority of Blacks at this time also support both the war and President Johnson, though with somewhat lower numbers and greater opposition than whites. Within the Freedom Movement however, anti-war sentiment among activists is rising fast. Many react viscerally to white America forcing Black and Brown GIs to fight and die for democracy 10,000 miles away when it is denied to them at home. Others are angered that "War on Poverty" promises are dying in Vietnam rice paddies as funds that might have been used for education and scholarships, jobs and job-training, adequate housing, and improved health care are being diverted and squandered on bombs, bullets, and war-profits.
Civil rights workers who come to oppose the war do so for a variety of reasons. Some are devoted to pacifism or nonviolence in all aspects of their lives, others oppose war and violence except in cases of immediate self-defense. Some Movement folk view the Vietnam War in racial terms as a white super-power suppressing the aspirations of nonwhite Vietnamese, others view it more broadly as yet another military intervention in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean aimed at thwarting anti-colonial liberation struggles and imposing American neo-colonial control over Third World nations.
[As used in the 1960s, the term "Third World" had different connotations depending on context. In a diplomatic context the "First World" was the political bloc formed by the industrialized democracies of Europe, North America, Japan, etc; the "Second World" was the socialist-bloc centered around the Soviet Union and China; and the "Third World" were those nations not politically aligned with either of the first two blocs. In a political-economic-historic context, "Third World" referred to the nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America who were emerging from, or struggling against, various forms of colonialism. In a racial context, "Third World" referred to nonwhite populations or to populations historically subject to ethnic prejudice and discrimination by white Europeans and Americans. Depending on context, the bloc/world that some nations were considered part of might vary.]
But opposition to the Vietnam War is far from universal in the Freedom Movement. Some support the war as their patriotic duty, others from deeply held anti-Communist beliefs, and some out of sincere loyalty to President Johnson and the Democratic Party. And in some instances leaders stifle their private reservations, voicing support for the war out of fear that public opposition will cause LBJ and the national power-elite to cease supporting Black civil rights or cause them to directly retaliate against organizations and individuals who don't toe the establishment line.
Organizationally, Urban League and NAACP leaders publicly support both Johnson and the war and condemn those who take an anti-war stand — as do many of the Black politicians and community power-brokers allied with LBJ and the northern Democratic Party. But as time and the war go on, by the late '60s some of those who initially supported the war and condemned opponents come to adopt anti-war positions themselves — others do not. Bitter and divisive controversies over Vietnam continue within the Afro-American community, among Black leaders, and between Movement organizations for years.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the lives of young adults are enormously affected by the military draft (also known as "Selective Service" and "Universal Military Training"). The realities of conscription profoundly affect people's education, careers, marriages, life choices, and family relations between young and old.
When Johnson converts an Indo-Chinese civil war into an overseas American invasion in March of 1965 he initiates the nation's largest military mobilization since WWII a generation earlier. The number of men drafted into the service soars upward and continues to climb. A majority of the 3,400,000 uniformed Americans who eventually serve in the war zone are directly or indirectly coerced into uniform by conscription.
But the Selective Service System which runs the draft is both racially and class biased. Blacks, Latinos and poor-whites are far more likely to be drafted than middle and upper-class whites.
Under the Selective Service System, men with "1A" classifications can be drafted into the Army at any time while those with "2S" student deferments are exempt from conscription. Despite what is euphemistically referred to as "Universal Military Training," in actual fact, the number of men using student deferments to avoid combat in Vietnam well outnumber those conscripted into the military.
Because of long-standing race and income-related disparities in public education, Afro-Americans and Latinos are less likely than whites to meet college entrance requirements and despite Brown v Board of Education many schools in the mid-1960s still racially discriminate against nonwhites. And as a general rule, most nonwhites and most poor-whites cannot afford the cost of college even if they are admitted as students. The result is that the sons of the affluent can usually avoid both the draft and the war by attending college while most Blacks, Browns, and poor-whites cannot.
In theory, college graduates whose military service has been "deferred" so they could complete their education become draft-eligible upon matriculation, but the system provides loopholes such as post-graduate study or occupational deferments that can be used to indefinitely forestall being sent to Vietnam. And in some cases young men from wealthy families with elite political connections are given preference in joining "weekend warrior" National Guard units that will never be sent to Vietnam — George Bush being the most famous example.
Once drafted into the service, nonwhite enlisted men often find themselves shunted into the most onerous and least desirable jobs or assigned to serve under blatantly racist officers and sergeants. And due to educational disparities and long-standing patterns of racial discrimination within the service, higher proportions of nonwhites are assigned to dangerous front-line combat jobs like infantry ("grunts" or "snuffies" as they are referred to in the slang of the era) which result in proportionally higher casualties for Black and Brown GIs than for whites.
And when nonwhite soldiers and sailors return to "the world," they came back to denial of voting rights, southern segregation, and myriad forms of racial discrimination nationwide. Eventually, anger over these issues becomes summed up in the slogan, "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger!"
When young men without college deferments who don't want to fight in Vietnam are faced with imminent conscription some try to find a way to fail the physical or be rejected by the Army, others attempt the very difficult process of becoming Conscientious Objectors. Such efforts rarely succeed, leaving then with three profoundly life-altering choices:
The draft is a highly charged emotional issue. Men who avoid or refuse military service are excoriated and condemned as "cowards," "draft dodgers" "traitors," and "Communists." Fathers and uncles who had served with honor and pride in WWII and Korea are often bewildered and outraged at sons determined not to fight a war they oppose on political, moral, or religious grounds. In extreme cases parents cast their sons out of the family, refusing to speak to, or even acknowledge their existence for years — and in some cases forever.
Local draft boards determine each man's classification and choose which 1A men to call up for induction each month. Despite the Civil Rights Act, southern draft boards are still all white and they often work with the White Citizens Council to call up Movement activists as a way of removing them from the communities they're organizing. And from a practical Freedom Movement point of view, male college students are unable to take a year or semester off to do Freedom Movement work for fear of losing their student deferments.
As with the Vietnam War itself, civil rights organizations are split over the draft. SNCC and CORE both speak out against conscription and explicitly support men who refuse induction even though that could be interpreted as a federal crime. Dr. King (and therefore by implication SCLC) urges draft-age men to oppose the war on religious grounds and legally seek exemption from military service as Conscientious Objectors. The NAACP and Urban League disassociate themselves from SNCC, CORE, and SCLC and stress their patriotic support of LBJ and military service.
By the mid-1960s, the Freedom Movement is expanding its focus beyond segregation and voting rights to address issues of economic justice, poverty, political power, colonialism, war, and the draft. Some Movement activists and leaders have begun to speak out against the war and draft as individuals, but in the summer of 1965 no major civil rights organization has yet taken an official anti-war, anti-draft stand as an organization. (See Vietnam and the Assembly of Unrepresented People for events up to mid-August 1965.)
A few days after the Vietnam protests at the Assembly of Unrepresented People, the annual SCLC convention is held in Birmingham AL. In his address to the convention delegates, Dr. King calls for an end to the war through a negotiated settlement with the NLF or through U.N. mediation. To encourage negotiations, he calls on LBJ to halt the bombing of North Vietnam and for Hanoi to drop it's demand for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The furious condemnation of the Assembly's anti-war protest is still fresh in everyone's mind and the SCLC Board of Directors balks at involving the organization in foreign policy and military affairs. "I don't think SCLC is structured to go into this kind of complex, difficult and confusing area," says senior board member Rev. Joseph Lowery. Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin and others hurriedly devise an alternate resolution that distances SCLC as an organization from King's personal stand — a move that has little practical effect since most people assume that King speaks for the organization he heads. King is not deterred by the board's reluctance to support his anti-war stand. In a speech to a Birmingham crowd he says:
"Neither the American people nor the people of North Vietnam is the enemy. The true enemy is war itself, and people on both sides are trapped in its inexorable destruction. ... It is this belief that compels me to speak on this issue, that the conscience of our nation may be aroused to see that war as a means of solving problems is obsolete. ... Every effort should be made toward some courageous and creative solution to this potentially catastrophic situation. The American people and our government can find this solution if reason can triumph over pride, and statesmanship conquer condition. I further urge that the United Nations be empowered with the authority to mediate this conflict in negotiations involving all parties, including the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam." — Martin Luther King.
Compared to the recently released "Declaration of Conscience" from the Assembly of Unrepresented People and the uncompromising position of the McComb branch of the MFDP, King's positions are mild and well within the scope of traditional Christian, pro-peace, anti-war theology. Though white religious leaders have previously expressed the same sentiments without significant rebuke, both King and SCLC are harshly condemned by the press and excoriated by moderate Black leaders and organizations such as the NAACP.
In September, Dr. King meets with America's U.N. ambassador to urge a negotiated settlement of the war. In answer to a reporter's question after the meeting, King says the U.S. should allow China to join the United Nations and that, "800 million people are not going to disappear because we refuse to admit their existence."
[Until Nixon's surprise trip to China in 1972, the United States refused to "recognize" China because doing so might be seen as granting to Mao Tse Tung's government some form of legal or moral legitimacy and the U.S. used its position on the Security Council to bar China from membership in the United Nations. American diplomats asserted that the remnants of the old regime who had fled to Taiwan after being toppled by the Red Army were the "legitimate" government of China even though it was only the U.S. Navy that prevented them from being utterly swept away. America's entire political establishment, Republicans and Democrats both, accepted and defended the "Red China does not exist" orthodoxy. Dissenters were reviled as heretics and treated accordingly.]
King's dissent from Cold War orthodoxy provokes another wave of condemnation from the Johnson administration and politicians ranging from right-wing segregationists like Senator Strom Thurmond (SC) to Democrats like Thomas Dodd of Connecticut who asserts, "He has absolutely no competence to speak about complex matters of foreign policy. And it is nothing short of arrogance when Dr. King takes it upon himself to undermine the policies of the President of the United States..."
National NAACP leaders, Black office holders, and the Afro-American press rush to separate themselves from King. A Newsweek poll reports that the majority of Blacks still support the war and only 18% advocate U.S. withdrawal. Afro-American intellectuals in Harlem tell Bayard Rustin that King should stop talking about Vietnam and focus on racial discrimination. King concludes that there is no chance of passing national Fair Housing legislation if he doesn't stop infuriating LBJ and the Cold War-liberal Democrats (to say nothing of conservative Republicans and southern segregationists). An FBI wiretap records a weary King telling an aide, "I really don't have the strength to fight this issue and keep my civil rights fight going."
Nevertheless, King perseveres. In October of 1965 he joins other religious leaders and theologians in forming Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV). Among the CALCAV founders are civil rights allies like Robert McAffe Brown, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, William Sloan Coffin and Father Daniel Berrigan. The influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr states, "We are making South Vietnam into an American colony by transmuting a civil war into one in which Americans fight Asians while China, the presumed enemy, risks not a single life."
Politically, CALCAV is a "moderate" organization initially leaning towards a "negotiated settlement" stand rather than "immediate withdrawal" as advocated by the more radical wing of the growing anti-war movement. CALCAV chapters begin to spring up in cities across the county, significantly expanding the anti-war movement beyond college campuses.
Vietnam and the draft are important topics of discussion at a SNCC conference in November. Opposition to the war is fierce and uncompromising. And for most speakers, their anti-war position is based on principles of liberation and self-determination — for Vietnamese in Vietnam, Africans in Africa, and Blacks in the U.S. — rather than peace or nonviolence. Opposition among SNCC members to the military draft is also strong and vocal. Some SNCC men are already facing the choice of induction into the Army, or a year in prison for draft refusal, or fleeing the country. Though they know that such stands will incite increased attacks from both the political right and Cold War liberals, there is general agreement that SNCC should publicly come out against the Vietnam War as an organization. (Heretofore, SNCC leaders and activists have opposed the war as individuals, not as representatives of SNCC.)
But in the urgent crush of SNCC's ongoing work, neither the anti-war statement nor a proposed anti-draft program are actively implemented. Outside of SNCC itself, SNCC's new organizational stand is largely unknown.
During the night of January 3-4, 1966, SNCC volunteer and Tuskegee student Sammy Young is murdered in Alabama for refusing to accept segregation. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he has led voter registration efforts in Macon County and assisted SNCC in Mississippi. Earlier on the day he is shot, the Macon County registrar of voters threatens him with a knife when he demands that Black citizens he has brought to the courthouse be registered. That night, a white gas station attendant shoots him during an altercation over segregated restrooms.
This murder of a military veteran killed while fighting for freedom in Alabama galvanizes SNCC into action against the Vietnam War. There are sharp debates in SNCC's Atlanta office over how best to respond. Working from a draft by Gloria Larry House that incorporates positions and arguments articulated at the November meeting, Gloria, James Forman, Charlie Cobb, and several others hammer out a coherent Statement on Vietnam that is issued on January 6th.
The Statement asserts SNCC's, "... right and a responsibility to dissent with United States foreign policy on any issue when it sees fit. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee now states its opposition to the United States' involvement in Vietnam ...." It declares that, "The murder of Samuel Young in Tuskegee, Alabama, is no different than the murder of peasants in Vietnam," and that, "Samuel Young was murdered because United States law is not being enforced. Vietnamese are murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law. The statement also directly challenges the draft, "We are in sympathy with, and support, the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to United States aggression in Vietnam in the name of the "freedom" we find so false in this country."
A reporter asks newly-elected state assemblyman and SNCC leader Julian Bond if he supports SNCC's position. He does. Political hysteria, charges of "treason," and accusations of "subversion" sweep through the white members of the Georgia legislature who refuse to allow Bond to take his seat as the elected representative of his district. (See Julian Bond Denied Seat in GA Legislature details.)
Dr. King is one of Bond's constituents. He cuts short a fund-raising trip to participate in protests defending the free speech rights of both SNCC and Bond to dissent against government policy. King does not endorse SNCC's encouragement of draft resistance, but neither does he condemn the SNCC statement. He leads a march from Ebenezer Baptist Church to join a SNCC-led march from Atlanta University Center demanding that Bond be allowed to take his seat and represent the voters who elected him. King tells reporters, "It is ironic that some of the prominent persons who now question Mr. Bond's willingness to uphold the Constitution of the U.S. have failed miserably in this regard." Two members of SCLC's board resign rather than continue to be associated with Dr. King and his anti-war views. Again there's a media uproar.
In April of 1966, King convinces the SCLC board to pass a stronger anti-war statement than the vague one they reluctantly agreed to at the Birmingham convention the previous August. The new position calls on the U.S. to stop aiding the Saigon junta against the "manifestly vigorous popular opposition" of the Vietnamese people. King tells reporters it is time, "to reassess our position and seriously examine the wisdom of a prompt withdrawal," and that he intends to, "intensify my personal activity against this war." A few days later he meets with President Johnson to discuss the pending Civil Rights Act of 1966. LBJ is cold and hostile. The meeting is short. They never meet again.
In June, LBJ hosts the White House Conference on Civil Rights, a massive gathering of more than 2,000 participants from business, government, labor, religion, and the Afro-American Civil Rights Movement. It's entirely orchestrated and controlled by Johnson and his political allies. Though he's a conference delegate, King is not invited to speak nor is he given any significant role at all. Many Freedom Movement activists believe that King is snubbed to prevent him from speaking out on Vietnam. SNCC boycotts the conference as "useless." CORE sends a delegation who hope they can raise the war as an issue. Their efforts are quickly squashed.
Back in July of 1965, CORE had narrowly passed, but then shelved, a resolution condemning the Vietnam War. Since then, individual CORE leaders and chapters — particularly the student-based campus chapters — have increasingly involved themselves in anti-war protests. When the organization convenes again in the summer of 1966, convention delegates pass and publicize a strong anti-war position.
While most liberal "doves" welcome and applaud the anti-war sentiments of civil rights leaders and organizations, conservatives, moderates, and establishment-liberals denounce the actions of King, CORE, and especially SNCC, as "close to treason." Dixiecrat segregationists, who have long opposed the Freedom Movement, charge that the groups are "Communist front organizations." Civil rights activists opposing the war are accused of being "un-American." Outraged politicians demand that SNCC leaders be indicted for encouraging men to refuse the draft.
In mid-September, the Civil Rights Act of 1966 is killed by a Senate filibuster led by segregationist Democrats and conservative Republicans. Hopes that nonviolent direct action and a united Civil Rights Movement could once again pass major civil rights legislation — legislation that for the first time would address economic racism and northern segregation — are dashed.
Black urban unrest and challenges to economic racism are causing former liberal allies to fall away. LBJ is consumed by Vietnam and will not tolerate dissent. Divisions within the Movement are growing wider. SNCC and CORE leaders criticize King for not speaking out more forcefully on Vietnam and the draft. Yet with just a few exceptions, King's inner-circle of advisors and SCLC's board of directors remain opposed to King taking a stronger anti-war stand because doing so, they believe, risks future Black political and economic advances and an even more intense white-backlash against gains already achieved — sentiments shared by many NAACP and Urban League leaders and a majority within the Afro-American community as a whole.
By the fall of 1966, the broad Civil Rights Movement has splintered over Vietnam. The national leadership of the NAACP and Urban League and other Black leaders who are closely allied with LBJ — or hope to become so — condemn those who are now opposing the war. They avow their loyal support for the president. As do some Afro-American newspapers. The Atlanta Daily World, for example, which had previously opposed SNCC's Atlanta sit-ins, castigates SNCC's position as "...deplorable, misleading, and incorrect..." while going on to say, "Negroes must continue to be loyal to America, particularly when they are on the threshold of receiving full equality before the law." 
Though now growing rapidly, the anti-war movement is also divided. SNCC, CORE, SDS, and other "anti-imperialists" vehemently oppose both the war and conscription while supporting the right of self-determination and armed struggle for the Vietnamese fighting against U.S. troops. They call for immediate, unconditional withdrawal of American forces and for active resistance to the draft. Dr. King, along with CALCAV and other "moderates," oppose the war on traditional grounds of peace, nonviolence, and bread-not-bombs. They call for a suspension of bombing and negotiations leading to a peace settlement. King continues to urge young men to legally file for Conscientious Objector status.
As both the war and the anti-war movement expand, the different positions championed by King and CORE/SNCC are visibly evident at the large mass marches opposing the war that take place with increasing frequency in Washington, New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere. Protesters oriented around nonviolence, peace, and opposition to war in general wear the traditional circular peace symbol and sing, "All we are saying is give peace a chance." Smaller in numbers but fiercer in anger, those opposing U.S. imperialism and calling for self-determination chant, "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, N-L-F is going to win!" They carry Viet Cong flags, and wear clenched-fist symbols (often based on a design by SNCC field secretary Frank Cieciorka).
As 1966 draws to a close there are more than 400,000 American troops fighting in Vietnam, roughly 60,000 of them Black. Afro-Americans — particularly the young — are beginning to turn against the war. When Dr. King testifies before a Senate subcommittee on poverty and the plight of the urban poor he contrasts the very real war in Vietnam with the so-called "War on Poverty."
"Instead of joyfully committing ourselves to the war on poverty, a grudging parsimonious allocation of resources is measured out as if we feared to overkill. ... While the antipoverty program is cautiously initiated, zealously supervised, and evaluated for immediate results, billions are liberally expended for ill-considered warfare. The recently revealed misestimate of the war budget amounts to $10 billion for a single year. [That accounting] error alone is more than five times the amount committed to antipoverty programs. ...
The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Vietnam explode at home — they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America. ... When it is not our security that is at stake, but questionable and vague commitments to reactionary regimes, values disintegrate into foolish and adolescent slogans." — Martin Luther King. 
See A Time to Break Silence, Dr. King and Vietnam for continuation.
For more information:
Web: Vietnam War & Civil Rights Movement
Documents: SNCC Position Paper: On Vietnam
See Vietnam War: Taking a Stand for preceding events.
Prior to 1964, the districts used to elect members of congress and state legislatures varied widely in population. Like other southern states, Georgia had many thinly populated rural districts that politically dominated the few heavily-populated urban districts. In the rural areas, few (if any) Blacks were registered to vote, but the urban areas — particularly Atlanta — had a significant number of Afro-American voters. In 1964, a series of Supreme Court reapportionment cases (most notably Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims) require that electoral voting districts have roughly equal populations. In 1965, these "One Person, One Vote" rulings force Georgia to create a number of new state assembly districts, several of which are in Atlanta. A special election is scheduled for June 15, 1965, to fill these new seats for the 1966 session of the legislative term.
One of these new districts is the 136th, in the heart of Atlanta's Black community. Some 90% of the 6500 voters in this district are Afro-American, with a large number still unregistered. Among those voters are SNCC Communications Director Julian Bond and Dr. Martin Luther King. After some debate, SNCC decides to run Julian on the Democratic ticket. And to use the campaign as an experiment in issue-oriented, community organizing in an urban environment (as opposed to the rural areas where most SNCC work is focused).
Negro politics in Georgia is still new enough and open enough for Negroes to force a whole new concept of what politics is. ... We wanted people to use their own politics. We had a tool for them to use — Julian. ... Like most communities, the 136th has been ripped and torn apart. Julian was/is like a sewing needle. Using him, we hoped the district could begin to sew itself together again. ... We need to disprove "voter apathy," which really is election irrelevancy. — Charlie Cobb, SNCC. 
I'd like to see people organized across the District. I'd like to see a community advisory board that would tell their representative what to do in the Georgia House and would give them opportunity to plan what they can do for themselves in the community. — Judy Richardson, SNCC. 
Staffing Julian's campaign are SNCC field workers and volunteers who go door-to-door talking to people and discussing issues such as raising the state minimum wage to $2.00 an hour (equal to $15.11 in 2014), repealing anti-union "right to work" laws, and challenging urban renewal programs that are used to destroy and displace Black communities. They ask district residents — voters and non-voters alike — what they expect from a state Representative? And what are they prepared to do themselves?
This was SNCC's entry into traditional politics, but in a non-traditional way. A sense of the movement really did imbue that campaign. I mean, Ivanhoe [Donaldson] and Charlie [Cobb] had just come back from Mississippi & Alabama and they ran it like a Movement election. Our office was next door to a barber shop, and down the street from Paschal's [restaurant & SNCC hangout] and the SNCC office.
I remember going with Julian to a meeting of the Red Rosebud Savings Club — a group of lower-income church-lady types who were just so pleased that this "nice young man" (Julian) was coming to talk with them about their problems & concerns. Most of the meetings were like that. And Julian was seen, by a number of the older folks in that new district as part of "The Bond" family, which, as you know, was prominent in Atlanta, through both his mother and his father. I don't think we could have run just anyone. In black Atlanta, many folks in the district didn't have a real sense of him in SNCC — but they knew him in the context of his family. — Judy Richardson, SNCC. 
After decisively winning the Democratic primary, Bond faces an Atlanta University dean running as a Black Republican in the June election. Julian receives 82% of the vote. Prior to this election there had been only one Afro-American in the Georgia legislature. Now the June balloting sends nine Blacks to the Georgia House (one of whom is Julian) and three to the state Senate. The newly elected officials are to take their seats when the legislature reconvenes in January of 1966.
On the night of January 3-4, 1966, Navy veteran and SNCC activist Sammy Younge is murdered by a white racist in Tuskegee Alabama. Two dates later, on January 6, the SNCC office in Atlanta issues a statement condemning the Vietnam War and opposing the military draft. A reporter for radio station WGST calls Julian Bond and asks him if he endorses the SNCC statement. Though Julian was not involved in drafting it, he unequivocally supports it:
I endorse it, first, because I like to think of myself as a pacifist, and one who opposes that war and any other war, and eager and anxious to encourage people not to participate in it for any reason that they choose. And secondly, I agree with this statement because of the reason set forth in it — because I think it is sorta hypocritical for us to maintain that we are fighting for liberty in other places and we are not guaranteeing liberty to citizens inside the continental United States." — Julian Bond. 
When asked about the statement's opposition to the draft, he replies:
Well, I think that the fact that the United States Government fights a war in Vietnam, I don't think that I, as a second class citizen of the United States, have a requirement to support that war. I think my responsibility is to oppose things that I think are wrong if they are in Vietnam or New York, or Chicago, or Atlanta, or wherever. ... I'm not taking a stand against stopping World Communism, and I'm not taking a stand in favor of the Viet Cong. What I'm saying that is, first, that I don't believe in that war. That particular war. I'm against all war. I'm against that war in particular, and I don't think people ought to participate in it. Because I'm against war, I'm against the draft. I think that other countries in the World get along without a draft — England is one — and I don't see why we couldn't, too. — Julian Bond. 
Elected officials and the establishment media erupt in a firestorm of criticism against both SNCC and Bond for opposing the war and the draft. Charges of "disloyalty," "treason," and "subversion" are hurled. Some 75 white members of the Georgia House — most of whom are staunch segregationists opposed to everything the Freedom Movement stands for — challenge Bond's right to represent the people of the 136th District because (they claim) his statements, "[Give] aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States and Georgia, [violate] the Selective Service laws, and [tend] to bring discredit and disrespect on the House." They assert that since his position, "Is totally and completely repugnant to and inconsistent with the mandatory oath prescribed by the Constitution of Georgia for a Member of the House of Representatives" he cannot be seated.
The barrage of political and personal attacks on SNCC and Bond are still raging when the Georgia House of Representatives convenes on January 10, 1966. Bond is not permitted to take the oath of office or to assume his seat. Backed by SNCC and other civil rights supporters, Julian disputes the charges against him, viewing them as a racially-motivated and unconstitutional attempt to deprive him of his First Amendment rights and deny the voters of the 136th District the representative of their choice. He states his willingness to take the oath and argues that he can do so in good faith. A special House committee is appointed to hear the case and recommend action to the body.
Dr. King, one of Julian's constituents, cuts short a fund-raising trip to join protests demanding that Bond be allowed to take his seat. "It is ironic that some of the the prominent persons who now question Mr. Bond's willingness to uphold the Constitution of the U.S. have failed miserably in this regard, King tells reporters. In cold winter weather, he leads a march from Ebenezer Baptist Church to join a SNCC-led march from Atlanta University Center. The 1500 marchers snarl traffic as they converge on the Georgia State Capitol and circle the building. A small break-away group attempts to force their way inside and is met with police clubs. Media reports focus their attention on the violence and the small band of militants rather than the large number of marchers or the fundamental issues (the Atlanta Constitution headline reads: "Troopers Repel Pickets Trying to Rush Capitol").
Most of the white legislators condemn Bond, but the newly elected Blacks come to his support. The two Black men whom Julian defeated in the election speak out in his defense. Representative J.C. Daugherty, a Bond defender, exposes the inherent racism underlying the anti-Bond sentiment by repeating what a white political leader told him: "This boy has got to come before the committee, recant, and just plain beg a little."
Julian Bond refuses to bend or beg. He tells the hearing committee:
I stand before you today charged with entering into public discussion on matters of National interest. I hesitate to offer explanations for my actions or deeds where no charge has been levied against me other than the charge that I have chosen to speak my mind and no explanation is called for, for no member of this House, has ever, to my knowledge, been called upon to explain his public statements or public postures as a prerequisite to admission to that Body.
I therefore, offer to my constituents a statement of my views. I have not counseled burning draft cards, nor have I burned mine. I have suggested that congressionally outlined alternatives to military service be extended to building democracy at home. The posture of my life for the past five years has been calculated to give Negroes the ability to participate in formulation of public policies. The fact of my election to public office does not lessen my duty or desire to express my opinions even when they differ from those held by others. As to the current controversy, because of convictions that I have arrived at through examination of my conscience, I have decided I personally cannot participate in war." — Julian Bond. 
The committee report supports and echoes the segregationist charges. By a vote of 184 to 12, the Georgia House of Representatives adopts a motion that: "Bond shall not be allowed to take the oath of office as a member of the House of Representatives and that Representative-Elect Julian Bond shall not be seated as a member of the House of Representatives." The vote is on clear racial lines — white vs Black.
With Dr. King as co-plaintiff, Julian files suit in federal court.
The Georgia governor calls a special election to fill the "empty" 136th District seat. Julian wins the election by an overwhelming margin. He again refuses to abandon his opposition to the Vietnam War. The white members of the Georgia House again deny him his seat. In the November, 1966, election for the new legislative term, the people of the 136th District again, for the third time, choose him as their representative by a huge margin.
On December 5, 1966, the United State Supreme Court unanimously rules in Bond v Floyd, that the Georgia House of Representatives denied Bond his freedom of speech. When the Georgia House convenes in January of 1967, Julian takes the oath of office as the duly-elected representative of the 136th District. He serves in that capacity for four terms during which he organizes the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and opposes the legislative appointment of the avowed racist Lester Maddox as governor. In 1975 he is elected to the Georgia Senate where he serves for six terms.
See Freedom Day in Hattiesburg for preceding events.
Under the laws and customs of the "southern way of life," if just one of your great-grandparents was Black — then so are you. Therefore, as the child of a mixed-race marriage, Vernon Dahmer is considered "Colored" by everyone in the Hattiesburg area. He is raised in Forrest County as an Afro-American, attends segregated schools, and drinks from "Colored" water fountains. In the terminology of the times, he is "bright," or "light-skinned." So much so that he could live as a white man anywhere else in the country. Instead, he chooses to remain and lead the struggle for civil and human rights in Southeast Mississippi.
On land passed down through the family, Vernon and Ellie Dahmer farm 200 acres in the rural Kelly Settlement area north of Hattiesburg. They own a small store and an independent saw mill. With seven sons and a daughter, they are one of the few prosperous Black families in Southeast Mississippi, providing jobs and assistance for others in the community.
He is also a leader and prime-mover of the Forrest County NAACP. " If you don't vote, you don't count," he tells his friends and neighbors. Inspired by his example, an NAACP Youth Council becomes active. Among the young council members are high-school students Joyce and Dorie Ladner who travel with Mr. Dahmer to state-wide NAACP meetings in Jackson.
With Mr. Dahmer's support, military veteran and Youth Council activist Clyde Kennard applies for admission to Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg (now University of Southern Mississippi). Under the Brown v Board of Education decision, Kennard cannot be legally barred, so to prevent him from attending the all-white school, he is framed on trumped-up charges of stealing $25 worth of chicken feed. He is sentenced to seven years in Parchman prison.
When NAACP leader Medgar Evers declares that Kennard's trial was "a mockery of judicial justice," Evers is sentenced to 30-days in jail for contempt of court. Dahmer, Evers, and the Ladner sisters (who are now attending college in Jackson) struggle for years to clear Kennard's name and free him from prison.
In December of 1961, the SNCC organizers who had been working in Southwest Mississippi are released from jail. A few months later, two of them — Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes (Muhammad), are invited by Mr. Dahmer to set up a voter registration project in Forrest County. In exchange for part-time work on his farm and in his sawmill, he provides them with room and board, local contacts, and political guidance.
Now, black people were afraid to go down [to register]. They were afraid that the same things would happen that did happen to Vernon; that they would be killed. There were many persons who would like to go and register but would just tell you, "I'm afraid to go down there." Rather to give their lives, they just let it go. ... [Vernon, Hollis, and Curtis] would go around and talk with people and try to get them to [take] the test and [tell them] that it was nothing to be afraid of. ... to go down and take it. If they failed it, go back and take it again. If the man talked harsh to them, it would be all right and sometimes they would go with people down there. In fact, Vernon carried several carloads down to register who were just afraid to go. — Ellie Dahmer.
Fear in Forrest County is palpable. Only one-tenth of one percent (0.001) of eligible Blacks are registered. The registrar, Theron Lynd, is notorious for his racist hostility to Afro-Americans who seek to become voters. The police are quick to arrest "troublemakers" on trumped up charges, the White Citizens Council stands ready to inflict economic retaliation, and the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — the most violent of all the Klan factions in the state — is based in nearby Laurel, just half an hour up the road.
Progress is slow and hard-won. For a time, local churches are afraid to open their doors for any sort of voting rights activity. Eventually, a little church in the unincorporated community of Palmers Crossing on the south side of Hattiesburg agrees to let the young organizers address a meeting:
... a couple of young men, really teenagers, came to Hattiesburg. Those young men were very dear to my heart, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes. And there was a meeting called in my area. This meeting took place at the St John Methodist Church ... the only [one] that opened up to them was the St John Methodist Church, which I happened to be a member of. That night we gathered there at St John's and the Reverend Ponder prepared the audience for what was about to take place.
Then he introduced these two young men, who shared their mission with the people there, and then offered the altar call, the invitation for people to come and participate in seeking first-class citizenship. I saw Reverend Ponder's hand go up and then my hand went up, and in the few brief moments that it took for me to get my hand up, I had another vision, another turning point. Because somehow intuitively I knew that my entire life was going to be changed as a result of this. I knew that I might even lose my life because of raising my hand, but I knew that I had to do what I had done, and that brought the most important turning point in my life. — Victoria Gray Adams. 
The work is hard and progress is slow, but step by step through '62 and '63, Mr. Dahmer, Vicky Gray, J.C. Fairly, Peggy Jean Connor, John Henry Gould, Johnnie Mae Walker, Mrs. Lewis, other local leaders, and a growing band of SNCC field secretaries nurture a budding Freedom Movement in the Hattiesburg area. The Kelly Settlement and Palmers Crossing become hotbeds of freedom spirit and a Forrest County Voters League comes to life.
SNCC transfers Hollis and Curtis to the Delta area and Vicky Gray assumes leadership of the Voters League. SNCC stalwart Lawrence Guyot becomes project director for an expanding staff that includes among others, John O'Neal, Gerald Bray, and Jean Wheeler. During the statewide Freedom Ballot campaign in the Fall of '63, nearly half the county's eligible Blacks defiantly cast their votes in the mock election — the biggest turnout of any county in the state.
January 22nd, 1964, is Freedom Day in Hattiesburg, a mobilization of would-be Black voters attempting to register en mass at the county courthouse. The night before, more than 600 people jam St. Paul's Methodist church and overflow outside to hear addresses by Vernon Dahmer, James Forman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, Ella Baker and many other freedom fighters. Some 50 northern clergymen, most of them white, answer SNCC's call for outside support. A cold rain falls as local students and the northern supporters picket the courthouse while more than 150 courageous Black citizens defiantly line up to register. Only a handful are allowed in the building, and few — if any — are added to the voting rolls. Some of those attempting to register are fired from their jobs, others are threatened with violence.
We got threatening phone calls all day long and at night, too. Most of the time they would ask for him, but I could always listen in when he would be talking. They would say, "Nigger, you're going to get killed." ... It was nothing for the phone to ring at twelve or ten o'clock or something like that, late in the night, where they would holler, "Nigger, you're going to get killed if you keep on what you're doing." — Ellie Dahmer. 
Come summer, Vernon Dahmer and what is by now a thriving, broad-based Hattiesburg movement host the largest Freedom Summer project in the state with more than 50 volunteers and SNCC staff working on voter registration and Freedom Schools. The plan calls for 100 Freedom School students, but more than 600 show up ranging in age from 8 to 82. Retaliatory violence by white racists increase, as do death threats against the Dahmer family.
Cars would pull out in the yard, run up in the driveway, and turn around. In fact, we slept in shifts. I usually slept the first part of the night and Vernon slept the last part of the night, so that we could watch and protect our home. — Ellie Dahmer.
Throughout 1965, the struggle for voting rights continues in Forrest County. Passage of the Voting Rights Act in early August leads to a surge in Blacks applicants. The Act outlaws tricks and gimmicks such as the so-called "literacy test," but economic retaliation, physical threats, violence, and official harassment hinder and slow Black registration. The Act allows the Justice Department to send federal examiners into counties with clear histories of voting-related racial discrimination, but Washington is reluctant to offend white southerners by doing so. In a few Mississippi counties, federal officials ensure that Blacks can actually get registered if they are willing risk trying — but Forrest County is not one of them. Nevertheless, the number of Afro-American voters in Forrest starts to slowly climb, with 300 or so courageous citizens added to the rolls in August and September.
Though Mississippi's poll tax can no longer be applied to presidential and congressional elections, voters still have to pay in order to vote for state and local offices. For Blacks, the county courthouse — lair of the sheriff and his deputies — remains a place of intimidation and fear. By past practice, local civic groups like the Jaycees are allowed to collect poll taxes and issue the receipts that allow voters to cast their ballots. As an officer of the Forrest County Voters League, Mr. Dahmer obtains the necessary materials. On January 9, 1966, he airs a radio advertisement telling people they can pay their poll tax at his store in the Kelly Settlement, and if a registered voter can't afford the tax, he'll pay it for them.
That night, two carloads of Klan terrorists attack the Dahmer farm with guns and fire bombs:
... when I waked up, I heard shooting and blazes; it looked like the house was on fire. ... you could hear gunshots coming in the house. I jumped up and got [10-year old daughter Betty] out of bed ... The eaves of the house was on fire. Betty's room was right next to ours. So, after I got Vernon aroused, he jumped up and got the guns. He kept guns loaded all the time with buckshot. ... the shots were coming in so fast ... By that time, I looked and the living room was just in a ball of fire. Nobody was able to get [on] shoes or anything, it happened so fast. — Ellie Dahmer. 
Firing from window to window through the smoke at the masked terrorists, Vernon Dahmer manages to drive them off.
I knew we had to get out. ... Vernon was handing Betty out the window to me. She was burning; she had got burned and he was burning. Betty just rolled over in the grass out there, she was hurting so. ... Vernon was hurting so bad that by that time, he went on over to the barn to get out of the light. He was afraid they would come back and shoot us. — Ellie Dahmer.
The Dahmer home and store are burned to the ground, nothing left but ashes. The following day, January 11, Vernon Dahmer dies of smoke inhalation and severe burns (daughter Betty recovers). More than 500 people attend his funeral service.
For generations, the Klan has used violent terror to intimidate and suppress, but now times are finally beginning to slowly change. Not only is Mr. Dahmer a beloved leader in the Black community, he is also a successful businessman and as such he is widely respected among significant segments of the white community. The Hattiesburg City Council and Chamber of Commerce collect money to rebuild the Dahmer home and a white-owned bank makes the first donation. Both whites and Blacks donate furniture, clothes and building materials. Local unions and students from Mississippi Southern College donate construction labor.
Fourteen men connected to the Klan are indicted on charges related to the assault on the Dahmer's home. One pleads guilty to arson, and thirteen are tried. Three of them are convicted of arson and murder charges, the others are freed by hung juries. It is well known that Sam Bowers, the "Imperial Wizard" of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, ordered the attack. He is tried four times with each trial ending in a hung jury. (In 1970, Bowers is convicted of civil rights charges stemming from the Lynching of Chaney, Schwerner, & Goodman in 1964 and serves seven years in federal prison.) The Dahmer case is reopened in the 1990s and in 1998, some 32 years after the crime, he is tried for the fifth time and convicted of ordering the murder of Vernon Dahmer. He is sentenced to life in prison where he dies in 2006.
Though most of the attackers go free, for Mississippi juries in the 1960s to convict any Klansman for killing a Black man is a sign of at least some progress. And today in Hattiesburg there is both a street and a park named after Mr. Dahmer.
Well, about the only way I can look at Vernon's death and not cry about it is when I walk in the bank, I see black faces there. You see buses driving, you see black faces on them. You see the police force, you see black faces. You see the relationships, how the police treat people. Now, during my time, I [knew] a time you'd be called a name ... just because your face was black. But, by the fact that he died — when we look at these things and go out to [University of Southern Mississippi] — ... and you go out to Southern and see all these children out there at Southern and then you look at his death and say, "Well, his dying did all this." Then, it's worth it and he would have done it again. — Ellie Dahmer.
For more information:
Books: Mississippi Movement
Web: Vernon Dahmer Murder
For preceding events see:
Issues of Poverty, Exploitation, and Economic Justice
Mississippi Freedom Labor Union (Jan)
By 1966, the economic plight of Afro-American sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and seasonal workers has become ever more desperate — particularly in Mississippi.
The White Citizens Council is determined to drive poor Blacks off the land and out of the state before they can register to vote and win some share of political power. To accomplish this, they wage economic warfare against those who have labored in the fields for generations. Loans for machinery that can pick cotton cheaper than Black field "hands," along with chemical herbicides that eliminate the need for hand "chopping" of weeds, allow plantation owners to eliminate the need for unskilled, ill-educated, hand-labor. Technical and business assistance encourages white land-owners to switch from cotton to less labor-intensive alternatives such as livestock (catfish, cattle, and chickens), row-crops like corn and soy, and timber for pulp mills.
Klan terror reinforces Citizens Council economic warfare. In January of 1966, Vernon Dahmer is murdered, and 50 crosses are burned across the state in a coordinated show of force and intimidation. In the dead of an unusually cold winter, thousands of rural Blacks — the very people who have been the main focus of SNCC organizing in Mississippi — are being evicted and dispossessed from their homes in the Mississippi Delta.
On Saturday, January 29, 1966, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, and the Delta Ministry organize a Poor Peoples Conference at the Ministry's Mount Beulah center. Some 700 people attend, many of them already homeless and unemployed. News comes in that two former sharecroppers have been found frozen to death. President Lyndon Johnson is Commander-in-Chief of the "War on Poverty." The conference sends him a telegram pleading for jobs and housing. There is no answer.
Plans were made at the Poor Peoples Conference to occupy one of the over 300 empty buildings at the Greenville Air Base. Described as a civil rights demonstration by the press, it was simply an attempt by the poor and dispossessed to make use of living facilities that were sitting empty. While confusion reigned among state, county, and Air Force officials about what to do and who was to do it, the people moved mattresses, quilts and stoves, and hung out a sign "This is our home; please knock before entering." — Sue Thrasher, SSOC. 
Some 40 or so dispossessed sharecroppers accompanied by 10 Movement activists drive through the night. Arriving at dawn on January 31st, they pass by the sleepy civilian security guard, to enter the empty base which has been unused since 1960. They pry open the door of an abandoned barracks and move in with their old blankets, a few boxes of skimpy rations, some jugs of water, mops, and brooms. The men and women (along with a few children) elect a leadership council headed by MFDP activist Unita Blackwell of nearby Issaquena County, and including Issac Foster an MFLU organizer, and Ida Mae Lawrence from Bolivar County. As word gets out, others join them. By nightfall, they number close to 100.
The lone Air Force officer in charge of the derelict base orders them to leave. They refuse, telling him: "We are here because we are hungry and cold and we have no jobs or land. We don't want charity. We are willing to work for ourselves if given a chance. They hand him a list of seven demands.
1. We demand food. We are here because we are hungry. Our children can't be taught in school because they are hungry. They can't even get food in school because they have to buy it and don't have the money.
2. We demand jobs. Many of us have been thrown off the plantation where we worked for nothing all our lives. We don't want charity. We demand our right to jobs so that we can do something with our lives ...
3. We demand job training. We demand that people be trained for things that they want to do and that they be paid while they are being trained.
4. We demand income. We demand that poor people be given the income they deserve. But until we get an income we want [food] commodities that are fit to eat. The commodities we get now are old and full of bugs and weevils. We want fresh vegetables, fruit, and meat. We want to decide what food we eat. The federal government tells us to go directly to the state and county for food, but when we get there they do not know what we are talking about.
5. We demand land. There are thousands of acres here that the government owns. We are supposed to be part of that government. We want the clear and the unclear land, and we'll clear the unclear land ourselves.
6. We want Operation Help* to be stopped. We don't want the Mississippi county Board of Supervisors to have another chance to decide whether poor people should get food. We don't recognize the county boards because they don't recognize us. We want the Office of Economic Opportunity and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hire poor people who we say represent us. We, the poor people, want to distribute the food.
7. We demand that Operation Headstart schools be started now. We demand that OEO give us the money which they promised us last September so that our children can be taught in Headstart schools.
We are now ready to ask President Johnson, "Whose side are you on — the poor people's or the millionaires?"*["Operation Help" refers to an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) program that had promised to hire 500 unemployed people — mostly Black — to distribute surplus commodity food to those in desperate need. Local county officials blocked the program because it required them to hire Blacks in counties where all public employees were — and always had been — white.]
With obvious glee, state and county officials inform Washington that since the base is still under military jurisdiction, the federal government will have to handle the protesters — and bear the public shame of evicting hungry women and children into the freezing cold. During the night, 150 military police led by a major general, three colonels, two lieutenant colonels, and two majors are mobilized from distant military installations to retake Greenville Air Force base from a shivering band of nonviolent protesters.
On Tuesday, February 1st — the anniversary of the The Greensboro Sit-Ins — the United States Air Force surrounds the old wooden barracks building. Major General Puryear tells the protesters that they have to leave. They tell him they have nowhere to go. He says they should leave because they don't have heat or basic plumbing. We've never had that, replies Unita Blackwell, "If that's all you got to say, I guess we'll stay right here."
The Air Police enter the building. Half the protesters allow themselves to be escorted off the base, most of the others go limp and are dragged out the gates and left by the side of the road. A few kick and bite and struggle to no avail. News coverage focuses attention on the few who kicked and cursed.
No charges are filed against the occupiers. They take temporary refuge at the MFLU's Strike City, then move on to Black-owned land in Issaquena County until freezing rain, mud, and sickness force them to move on. Eventually they return to Mt. Beulah while the Delta Ministry tries to find some place they can live and work.
Up in Washington, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach tells LBJ:
"... the situation demonstrated by the invasion of the Greenville Air base ... is potentially explosive. Many thousands of poor Negro workers are losing their jobs, and, in many instances, their homes as well. [The situation is] even more acute because of the unwillingness of the white community to attempt to deal with the problem even at the welfare level. ... [Which had resulted in] great delays in getting federal programs carried out by state officials. [He further urges Johnson to], "Deal with this problem expeditiously and directly through surplus food distribution, crash employment programs, and as many poverty programs as we can fund. If we do not do this, there is a real possibility that Mississippi will be the Selma, Alabama of 1966" — Nicholas Katzenbach.
Federal funds are quickly released for Operation Help, and by the end of the program six months later, some 500,000 hungry people have received some food assistance, though few Blacks are hired to perform the work and control is left in the hands of local white officials. Funding for the Head Start program is also released, and for a time the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) manages to survive, providing pre-school education and nutrition to Afro-American children. But eventually it is destroyed by the state's white power-structure who furiously oppose programs that encourage poor parents to take active decision-making roles in the education of their children and broader community affairs. And also CDGM's practice of hiring and training actual poor people to staff the Head Start centers as opposed to professional (mostly white) educators with college degrees.
Dr. King urges Johnson to turn the Greenville base into, "a huge center for providing training, housing and supportive programs" for the poor. But Mississippi Senator John Stennis — a member of the crucial Senate Appropriations Committee — kills that idea. Today, the old air base is the Mid-Delta Regional Airport.
Long-term, Washington's soothing promises of job-training, employment opportunities, business development, and land retention either never materialize or soon founder on the rock of political control by economic elites determined to prevent any fundamental changes to the status-quo. Gradually, over time, charity, welfare, and other forms of poverty-assistance slowly become a little more acceptable to Mississippi power-brokers who have always opposed any form of government assistance that might offer rural Blacks some means of survival other than starvation wages in the cotton fields. But their acquiescence is limited to programs where most of the funds go to white businesses and credentialled professionals providing food, clothing, shelter, and services to impoverished clients who are kept dependent and powerless. The Johnson administration does not challenge this dependency paradigm in Mississippi — or anywhere else..
Tens of thousands of rural poor are forced to leave Mississippi for urban slums in the North, but the Citizens Council ethnic-cleansing campaign ultimately fails to eliminate majority-Black counties. Yet through economic power, control of government programs, and alliances with upwardly mobile Black professionals they do largely succeed in preventing impoverished Blacks from gaining any significant share of political power. It is out of this context (and similar situations elsewhere) that six months later the cry for "Black Power" rises from a freedom rally in Greenwood, just an hour's drive from the still empty Greenville Air Force Base.
I feel that the federal government have proven that it don't care about poor people. Everything that we asked for through these years has been handed down on paper. It's never been a reality. We the poor people of Mississippi is tired. We're tired of it, so we're going to build for ourselves, because we don't have a government that represents us. — Unita Blackwell, MFDP.For continuation see
ASCS Elections in Alabama — The Struggle Continues
From Co-Ops to Pigford
Poor People's Campaign Launched
Memphis Garbage Workers Strike
For more information:
Books: Economics, Class, and Race.
Web: Mississippi Movement
Documents: Documents From Poverty & Economic Justice Projects, 1964-68
See 24th Amendment Ends Poll Tax in Federal Elections for preceding events.
A "poll tax" is a tax you have to pay in order to vote. At one time, state and local poll taxes were common throughout the country, but by the mid-20th Century they are mainly limited to the South as a means of preventing Blacks and poor whites from voting. (The only non-South state with a poll tax is Vermont.)
Southern poll taxes range from $1 to $5 per year, and some towns and counties levy additional local poll taxes. In Mississippi, for example, the state's poll tax is $2 per year (equal to about $15 in 2014). That might not sound like a lot of money, but for impoverished Blacks (and whites) who have to feed their children on free federal "commodity" food donations it's a sum that forces many to choose between voting and necessities of life. And in the mid- 20th Century South, some of those at the bottom of the economic ladder exist entirely outside the cash economy. Many sharecroppers, tenant farmers, agricultural laborers, coal miners, timber workers, and others buy their necessities on credit at over-priced plantation or company stores and their pay goes directly to the store. They receive little or no cash. In the words of 16 Tons by Merle Travis:
You haul Sixteen Tons, and whadaya get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store
To make matters worse, the tax has to be paid every year whether there is an election or not, and in many states the tax is cumulative, so if you can't afford it one year you have to pay double the next year, and triple the year after, and so on. In some states, the tax has to be paid in February before the candidates to be voted on in November are even nominated. As one anti-tax activist puts it: "[That's] like buying a ticket to a show nine months ahead of time, and before you know who's playing, or really what the thing is all about."
For decades, civil rights organizations — particularly the NAACP and Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) — fought with some success to end the poll tax outside of the Deep South. In 1962 Congress passed the 24th Amendment prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections. It was ratified by the states, and went into effect in January of 1964. But that amendment only affected federal elections (Congress and the President). Poll taxes could still be levied as a requirement for voting in state and local elections.
During the congressional debates over passage of the Voting Rights Act, eliminating poll taxes in state elections became a central issue. Senator Ted Kennedy proposed an amendment to eliminate poll taxes in all elections, but conservatives objected. In their view, the rights of states to levy taxes had to be held sacrosanct from federal "meddling." If the federal government was allowed to legislate against a state poll tax, might not other matters of state tax policy someday come under federal scrutiny? The enormous disparities between funding for "rich" and "poor" school districts, for example? There was also an unspoken partisan subtext to the poll tax debate. Historically, affluent voters tend to favor Republicans while the poor are more likely to vote for Democrats. In the South of the 1960s, of course, elections were polarized around race, not class — a situation that still holds true today. But as a matter of habit and principle, many conservative Republicans favored anything that discouraged or restricted low-income voters.
Kennedy's proposal failed in the Senate. It was not included in the bill the Senate passed. But in the House, liberals from districts with large numbers of Black or Jewish voters didn't want to be seen as laggards on civil rights, so they fought for a total ban on all poll taxes everywhere. They won, and the House passed an anti-poll tax version of the bill. Because the Senate and House versions didn't match, the bill was sent to a conference committee to resolve the differences. The House negotiators refused to budge — repeal all poll taxes now! The Senate negotiators refuse to budge — the Senate won't accept a bill that outlaws poll taxes! Deadlock.
Impatient at the delay, President Johnson rammed through a compromise. The conference committee would accept the Senate's poll tax language, but add a "declaration" that poll taxes abridge the right to vote. Also included was a directive ordering the Attorney General to immediately move against state poll taxes in federal court, along with congressional instructions that the courts were to expedite hearing the cases at "the earliest practical dates." With hundreds of SCLC-SCOPE summer volunteers in six southern states waiting for the Act to become law, King assured the House negotiators that the new language was acceptable, and the final Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law August 6, 1965.
As Chief Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Thurgood Marshall argued and won decisive Supreme Court civil rights cases such as Brown v Board of Education. In August of 1965, the same month that the Voting Rights Act is signed into law, President Johnson appoints Marshall to be Solicitor General — the lawyer who represents the United States in Supreme Court cases. He moves quickly to challenge the constitutionality of state poll tax laws. Virginia levies an annual $1.50 poll tax. Three years of the tax must be paid by anyone who wants to vote in a state or local election. Back in November of 1963, Evelyn Butts a Black civil rights activist in Norfolk VA sued in federal court, arguing that the tax violated the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. In March 1964, Annie Harper and several others in Fairfax County also sued when they were told they had to pay the tax before they could register to vote. The two cases were consolidated under the name Harper v Virginia State Board of Elections. Based on previous Supreme Court rulings, the district court rules against them. They then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Thurgood Marshall and attorneys for Butts, Harper, and the other plaintiffs argue the case before the Supreme Court in January of 1966. In a 6-3 decision on March 24, 1966, the court rules that all poll taxes are unconstitutional on grounds that, "Once the franchise is granted to the electorate, lines which determine who may vote may not be drawn so as to cause invidious discrimination," and "Fee payments or wealth, like race, creed, or color, are unrelated to the citizen's ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process." This ruling effectively ends all poll taxes on all elections in the United States.
[Today in 2015, Harper v Virginia is being cited by those who oppose laws that require a photo-ID in order to vote. They argue that for the poor and elderly who may not own a car (and therefore don't already have a drivers license) the cost of obtaining such ID constitutes a kind of defacto poll tax.]
For more information:
Web: Poll Taxes
See Cracking Lowndes County and Murder of Jonathan Daniels for preceding events.
By the time the Voting Rights Act is signed into law on August 6, 1965, the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR) has been active for almost six months. In that time they have managed to register over 200 Black voters in a county that at the beginning of the year had not a single Afro-American on the voting rolls. After the Act goes into effect, the so-called "literacy test" can no longer be used to deny Blacks the vote. Led by John Hulett, and supported by Stokely Carmichael and a team of SNCC organizers, the LCCMHR steps up its registration efforts.
Getting people registered to vote — a priority of our work — involved workers canvassing daily along long stretches of white-owned plantations. We rose early to find the sharecroppers as they left their homes for the fields. In the small towns we did door-to-door canvassing to encourage people to register. We prepared for weekly mass meetings on Sunday and evening meetings during the week. We taught people to read and write; we conducted political education workshops for those aspiring to run for office. We maintained a Freedom School and library for the children. We helped to organize food co-ops and crafts co-ops; we distributed information on government-sponsored farm programs whose benefits had been withheld from black farmers for generations. — Gloria Larry House, SNCC.
Lowndes becomes the first county in Alabama where federal registrars (known as "examiners") are dispatched to ensure that Blacks willing to risk registering can actually get on the voting rolls. But the local white power-structure convinces the examiners to work out of Fort Deposit — a Klan stronghold — rather than Hayneville the county seat. Despite the ever-present threat of KKK violence, the number of Black voters begins to steadily rise. So too does intimidation, violence, evictions, and firings.
For transgressing against the southern way of life, at least 75 Black families are evicted from the land they had farmed for years, in some cases for generations. Many have no choice but to leave Lowndes and seek work and shelter elsewhere, others join a "tent city" that SNCC helps them erect on Black-owned land near Highway-80. The cold rains of fall and winter turn the field where their tents are pitched into a swamp of oozing mud — but they endure.
It was like the [Mississippi] Delta back in 1961, an attempt to drive out the African population before they became voters. African workers were run off the plantations for registering. Sharecropper families were run off the land, their crops abandoned in the fields. It was cruel to see. ... A black farmer volunteered some land and we moved the families into tents. Then we used all the techniques SNCC had developed in Mississippi. We set up freedom schools. We had literacy and political education classes. We played tapes of Malcolm. Taught African history. I remember we developed comic books to teach local politics. The role of the tax assessor, of the sheriff, and like that. These comics were very effective. ... Once the people were out from under the oppressive plantation system, they just blossomed and developed. ... When night riders started driving by firing guns, the men and boys posted sentries along the road and returned fire. The night-riding stopped. — Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael). 
We were always conscious of danger. In Lowndes County we learned to hit the ground or find cover when white men drove by at night shooting at the freedom house. Or at the tent city where we lived with sharecropping families who had been evicted because they registered to vote or took part in the Movement. Fortunately, no one was wounded in these terroristic assaults in Lowndes when I was there. But they happened regularly enough to keep us alert. — Gloria Larry House, SNCC. 
Nevertheless, despite economic retaliation and violent terrorism, as summer turns to fall and fall to winter, the number of Black voters in Lowndes County continues to climb. Though struggles, danger, and hardship still lie ahead, the writing is on the wall, Black folk in Lowndes — and across the South — are going to have an electoral voice.
At this point, SNCC had been struggling around the vote issue going on five years, with what results you've seen. But that one we gonna win. That's clear. Then what? How should we, could we, how must we, move to maximize the effect of that victory? In the South? In the nation? How could we stretch and remake the electoral system to do justice to our interests? Africans were and would always be a minority nationally. So what would this vote that people had sacrificed so much for, some even died for, really mean? Only a fool would think that winning the right to vote would automatically free anybody. Remember, Africans in Cambridge, Maryland, could vote and you saw how much good that by itself had done them. — Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael). 
Alabama in '65 is still a one-party state and Lowndes is a one-party county. Democrats rule. There is no Republican opposition. The Democratic Party primary is the real election, candidates who win the primary run unopposed or against token opposition in the general election. The Democrats are the party of George Wallace and segregation, their politics are all-white all the time. The party symbol is a rooster with the slogan, "White Supremacy For the Right." In theory, once Blacks have a voting majority in Lowndes they could take over the county-level Democratic Party. But that would probably require time-consuming and expensive litigation, to say nothing of endless procedural battles with local and state-level party bosses. And in the end, they would still find themselves in endless conflict with the party's white majority from other areas of the state.
Lowndes County Blacks could organize themselves as Republicans. But nationally, the Republican Party is aligning itself with "states rights" ideology and the racist "white-backlash." Lowndes County Afro-Americans are poor, and historically the Republican Party has represented the interests of wealth in opposition to those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Black Republicans in Lowndes would find themselves enmeshed in futile political battles with the state and national party leadership.
These political realities are driven home in November of 1965. Working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, white political operators rig the vote so that no Black farmers anywhere in Alabama are elected to the economically crucial ASCS county committees. These are the committees that determine which farmers get federal farm assistance — and therefore, who will prosper and who will be marginalized or driven under. In Lowndes County, two-thirds of the farmers eligible to vote in the ASCS election are Afro-American, yet despite arduous organizing and a determined election campaign, no Black candidates are elected. "We did it fair and square, Stokely reports to a mass meeting. "We believed in them, and they cheated us."
From SNCC's perspective, Lowndes County Blacks need a party that will represent them, a party they control, a party that will fight for poor people regardless of race.
When you have a situation where the community is 80 percent black, why complain about police brutality when you can be the sheriff yourself? Why complain about substandard education when you could be the Board of Education? Why complain about the courthouse when you could move to take it over yourself? There was a certain logic to that position. That is to say, in places where you could exercise the control, why complain about it? Why protest when you can exercise power?" — Courtland Cox, SNCC.
Jack Minnis, the head of SNCC's research department, delves into Alabama law. Buried in the dusty tomes of the Alabama Code of Laws he discovers Title 17, Section 337, an old relic of the Reconstruction era that allows voters in a county to create their own independent political party. It was originally intended to help former Confederate soldiers regain political power after the Civil War, but it's still on the books and anyone can use it. In essence, it says that if voters in a county hold a convention on primary day and nominate a slate of candidates, that party and its candidates will then be on the ballot for the next general election. If those candidates receive 20% of the vote in the general election, it must be officially recognized as an established political party for future elections.
But it's an "either-or" situation. Voters who participate in the independent party nominating convention are not allowed to vote in the Democratic Party primary — the election that historically has been the key to political power and influence at both the county and state levels. This means that newly-registered voters in Lowndes County will have to voluntarily forego casting ballots at the traditional polling places where whites have voted for generations. And they won't be able to vote in any state-wide primary races such as the contest between "racial moderate" Richmond Flowers and Lurleen Wallace who is standing in for her husband who cannot run for reelection because of term-limits.
SNCC argues, however, that real political power comes from political organization rather than individual candidates.
The energy for this political thrust has to come from the victims of this country's political exclusion. It now becomes necessary to develop a political environment where the organization and organizational participation of people becomes more important than the politicians' platform. As it now stands, politics is defined as the art of the possible, inclusive of few, exclusive of many. The right of people to make decisions about their own lives is the most fundamental right that a member of a democratic society can have. And this is the perspective from which the concept of freedom organizations evolved. — Courtland Cox, SNCC.
In December of 1965, SNCC begins holding a series of workshops for field organizers and local Lowndes County activists on election rules and procedures, the structure and powers of county government, and what could be done for poor folk if officials were elected by the Afro-American majority and held accountable by a strong political organization.
Since many people in the county could not read and write, SNCC drew up picture-stories about each office. They showed what each official was supposed to do, and what the people could do if they controlled those offices. These picture stories were mimeographed and widely distributed throughout the county. They not only taught the people what the duties of the various county officials were, but also what the rights of the private citizen were. — Jack Minnis, SNCC. 
Among both Blacks and whites, Alabama has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the nation. Until passage of the Voting Rights Act, Blacks had to pass a so-called "literacy test" in order to register, but whites were generally not required to prove their literacy. Because so many white voters are unable to read candidate names on the ballot, state law requires every political party to adopt a symbol that people can use to vote for the party slate. The Democrats, for example, tell their voters to mark their "X" under the rooster. The Republicans use an elephant for the same purpose.
After much discussion, the new Lowndes County Freedom Organization adopts a black panther as its symbol. The drawing by SNCC field secretary Ruth Howard is based on the logo of the Clark College football team in Atlanta. Soon almost everyone is referring to the LCFO as the "Black Panther Party" rather than its formal official name. (In 1966, the unrelated Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California, asks for, and is granted, permission to use the LCFO panther as their symbol too.)
The black panther is an animal that when it is pressured it moves back until it is cornered, then it comes out fighting for life or death. We felt we had been pushed back long enough and that it was time for Negroes to come out and take over. — John Hulett, LCFO. 
The local white power-structure is making its own preparations for elections that will now, for the first time in living memory, include a significant number of Black voters. The words "White Supremacy" are removed from the Democratic Party emblem state-wide, but the essence does not change.
In Lowndes County, there is a committee in the Democratic Party. This committee not only controls the courthouse, it controls the entire county. When they found out that the Negroes were going to run candidates in the primary of the Democratic Party on May 3 , they assembled themselves together and began to talk about what they were going to do. Knowing this is one of the poorest counties in the nation, what they decided to do was change the registration fees in the county. Two years ago, if a person wanted to run for sheriff, tax collector or tax assessor, all he had to do was pay $50 and then they qualified to be the candidate [in the Democratic primary]. This year, the entrance fee is about $500 (equal to $3,600 in 2014). If a person wants to run, he has to pay $500 to run for office. In the primary, when they get through cheating and stealing, then the candidate is eliminated. So we decided that we wouldn't get into such a primary because we were tired of being tricked by the southern whites. — John Hulett, LCFO. 
As the new year begins, Black voter registration steadily climbs and organizing continues apace. Political education primers are created to teach the civil government basics (and other subjects) that the Lowndes County school board refused to include in segregated "Colored" school curriculums.
Meanwhile, outside of Lowndes County, the Watts revolt in August of 1965, shocks and angers a large segment of white America. And ongoing protests in the North against job & housing discrimination, segregated schools, and police brutality, stir resentment and resistance among many northern whites. Reflecting (and to some degree instigating) this "white-backlash," are significant portions of the national news media that by 1966 are shifting their emphasis, focusing less on the oppression and injustice of southern segregationists and more on "black militants," "black nationalism," and even "black racism."
We were criticized, we were called communists, we were called everything else, black nationalists and what not, because we did this. Any group which starts at a time like this to speak out for what is right — they are going to be ridiculed. ... I would like to let the people here tonight know why we chose this black panther as our emblem. ... Our political group is open to whoever wants to come in, who would like to work with us. But we aren't begging anyone to come in. It's open, you come, at your own free will and accord. — John Hulett, LCFO. 
And for some in the liberal wing of the national press, thoughts of breaking away from the Democratic Party are anathema. Says the New York Times in an April 21st 1966 editorial titled, "Sabotage in Alabama:"
Extremist elements in Alabama's civil rights movement have adopted a rule-or-ruin attitude toward the forthcoming Democratic primary there that can only produce frustration and defeat for the state's Negroes. ... Under these circumstances, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's call for Negro voters to boycott the primary is destructive mischief-making. It derives from the same attitude of extremism for the sake of extremism that prevailed in the senseless demonstration against Sargent Shriver in last week's anti-poverty conference in Washington and in the refusal of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats to accept a generous compromise worked out in their behalf at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
While the gentlemen from the Times have little influence among Lowndes County residents (Black or white), they do have significant sway among the northern liberals who provide a major portion of SNCC's funding. A funding base that has been steadily eroding ever since the MFDP defiantly rejected LBJ's so-called "compromise" at the Democratic convention, and urban revolts in Harlem and Watts forcefully confronted liberals about the institutionalized racism in their own businesses, schools, and backyards.
But all that is far from Lowndes County where the heart, soul, and backbone of the Freedom Movement are the men, women, and children of the Black community.
I am thinking of people like Mr. Jackson, who did not run for any office, but he was the key to SNCC's success in Lowndes County. Mr Jackson allowed the SNCC staff to live in a place next to his house with no rental costs. He also stood guard at night in the field between his house and the Freedom House. As you know, SNCC could not afford to pay weekly the staff salaries of $9.60, after taxes, on a regular basis. However, it was the residents of Lowndes who fed us on the weekdays and we would load up on food on Sunday's when we visited the churches so that we were able to survive. Ms. Strickland, was [also] one of the best local volunteers that we had; however, she would stop every day to make sure that she stayed abreast of her soap operas. — Courtland Cox, SNCC.
On Sunday, March 27, a mass rally is held at a rural Black church to mark the year that has passed since John Hulett led the first courageous group through a driving rainstorm to the voter registration office in the Lowndes County courthouse. They were tricked and denied then, and none were registered. But now some 500 Afro-Americans and a swarm of SNCC organizers and supporters from around the region celebrate gains that a year earlier seemed almost inconceivable. Rosa Parks speaks to them as does Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, and John Hulett.
A week later, on Saturday, April 2, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) holds a mass meeting at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church to begin the formalities of establishing its legal identity as an independent political party. Some 60 local activists participate. Bylaws and the Black Panther symbol are officially adopted and party officers are elected. John Hulett is elected LCFO president, Robert Strickland, becomes vice president, Sidney Logan treasurer, Ruthie Mae Jones financial secretary, Alice Moore recording secretary, and Frank Miles chaplain. Most of the LCFO officers come from the ranks of the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR), which as a tax-exempt, non-partisan organization cannot run or endorse candidates.
Some at the meeting express concern about giving up their chance to vote in the Democratic Party primary which has always been the most important election in the state. By choosing not to participate, are they not throwing away the very vote they've been fighting for?
Hulett argues that in May more white voters might show up at the polls than Blacks, and therefore white candidates running in the Democratic Primary would defeat any Black candidates, but by the November general election Black registration will be much higher. However, to be on the November ballot, Black candidates will either have to win the Democratic Primary in May — which, given the current registration numbers is risky, or be nominated by an independent party which is the strategy of the LCFO.
Stokely and Hulett then zero in on the essential point, that the collective needs of Afro-Americans as a group transcended the candidacies of individuals. "This meeting is very different from any other meeting taking place in the state because the candidates are not important. It is the organization that is important," Stokely tells the group. "We feel in Lowndes County that the power does not lie in the person who runs for office but in the organization around the person," adds Hulett.
But the new party does have to have candidates. Someone must directly challenge the sheriff and the other county officers — and that places their lives on the line to a far greater extent than simply registering to vote. John Hulett is the obvious first choice to run against Sheriff Ryals, but he is needed at the head of LCFO, building it into a strong, effective organization.
At a mass meeting three weeks later, courageous Lowndes County activists announce their intention to seek the Black Panther party nomination as candidates in the November general election. Sidney Logan and Jesse Favors will run against each other for the sheriff nomination. Frank Miles and Josephine Waginer will vie for tax collector. Emory Ross decides to run for coroner, and Alice Moore for tax assessor. Contending for the three school board slots are Robert Logan, John Hinson, Bernice Kelly, Virginia White, Willie Mae Strickland, and Annie Bell Scott. For the next two weeks the Panther candidates campaign for the nomination, speaking to churches, meeting voters, and urging potential voters to register because only registered voters will be able to participate in the nominating convention.
The law requires that party conventions be held at an official polling place. Other than the courthouse, all of those places are at white-owned locations, so the courthouse in Hayneville is the only option for the Black Panther convention. By long custom, political meetings have been held in the courthouse square, but Sheriff Ryals refuses to allow Blacks to gather there because, he claims, he "cannot protect" them. Through the grapevine, LCFO activists hear he is "deputizing" armed white men, many of them KKK members, to prevent "his" courthouse from being used by Afro-Americans for political organizing. But Lowndes County Blacks are no longer intimidated by threats of white violence. Says one old man in a mass meeting, "We been walkin' with dropped down heads, with a scrunched-up heart, and a timid body in the bushes. But we ain't scared any more. Don't meddle, don't pick a fight, but fight back! If you have to die, die for something, and take somebody before you."
Justice Department officials warn of a "race war" and urge that the convention be called off. "If the sheriff cannot protect us, then we are going to protect ourselves," declares LCFO leader John Hulett. But necessary self-defense is one thing, deliberately courting bloodshed is quite another — if it can be avoided. The Black Panthers stand firm, the convention will be held, but they also offer a reasonable compromise. If they are given written assurance from Alabama Attorney General (and governor candidate) Richmond Flowers that they can legally hold their party convention somewhere other than the courthouse, they'll move it to a nearby church. They get that assurance. "When people are together, they can do a lot of things, but when you are alone you cannot do anything," comments Hulett.
Tuesday, May 3rd, 1966, is the date of the Alabama primary and LCFO nominating convention. The convention convenes at First Baptist Church not far from the courthouse. "We must use the vote to get out of the cotton fields and we can't do that by voting for the boss man," says one Black farmer.
[The convention] was wide open. Anyone in the county who wanted to could run for nomination to any of the offices that were open. There were at least two candidates for each of the offices. Voting in the nominating convention was by secret paper ballot. A regular registration procedure was set up to make sure that only persons who were qualified to vote under Alabama law could vote in the convention. All of the convention rules and procedures were set up by the Lowndes County people, themselves. The SNCC organizer only helped the people determine whether the procedures met all the requirements of the law. — Jack Minnis, SNCC.
Armed sentries guard the area against white violence. Taking shotgun shells from his pocket a 67-year-old military veteran says, "I remember when that minister got shot here [referring to the murder of Jonathan Daniels]. He had his arms folded and just got shot down. We gonna protect our friends this time"
Some 900 Black voters, most of them wearing their Sunday-best suits and dresses, cast their ballots for LCFO candidates at the convention. A different group of roughly 700, vote in the Democratic Party primary at the regular polling places. In a county where little more than a year earlier there had been no registered Afro-American voters at all, some 1,600 defy the southern way of life by showing up to vote — but on very different ballots. All of the state and local candidates running in the Democratic primary are white. All the Panther candidates are Black.
For the Panthers, Sidney Logan wins the nomination for sheriff. Emory Ross takes the race for coroner, Alice Moore will be on the November ballot for tax assessor and Frank Miles for tax collector. John Hinson, Robert Logan, and Willie Mae Strickland are the LCFO candidates for school board.
We've decided to stop begging. We've decided to stop asking for integration. Once we control the courthouse, once we control the board of education, we can build our school system where our boys and girls can get an education in Lowndes County. There are 89 prominent families in this county who own 90 percent of the land. These people will be taxed. And we will collect these taxes. And if they don't pay them, we'll take their property and sell it to whoever wants to buy it. — John Hulett, LCFO. 
We have our candidates. Their names will be on the ballot November 8 along with our symbol, the black panther. All the people have to do is pull the lever under the panther. November 8 we vote. November 9 we take over the courthouse. — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC. 
See 1966 Alabama Elections and Election in Lowndes County for continuation.
For more information:
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Web: Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO)
In mid-1965, the Freedom Movement is riding a tide of success. After the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and March to Montgomery, and now with strong support from the Johnson administration, the new Voting Rights Act is slowly working its way through Congress. It's only a question of how long the Dixiecrats can delay its inevitable passage. For his part, LBJ is also riding high. There's a groundswell of support for his new war in Vietnam and in addition he basks in public acclaim for his parallel declarations of support for civil rights and a war against poverty.
On June 4, 1965, President Johnson gives the commencement address at Howard University, an historically Black college in Washington. Titled, "To Fulfill These Rights" it begins, "Our earth is the home of revolution. In every corner of every continent men charged with hope contend with ancient ways in the pursuit of justice." He goes on to speak eloquently of justice and racism, freedom and equality; of poverty and its roots in society, of "the unemployed, the uprooted, and the dispossessed," and the "devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred, and injustice."
During his address, he announces a large-scale White House conference on civil and economic rights whose theme and title will also be "To Fulfill These Rights." It will bring together government officials, Movement leaders and grassroots activists, and representatives from business, labor, academia and religion. He tells officials: "I want a quivering conference. I want every damn delegate quivering with excitement and anticipation about the future of civil rights and their future opportunities in this country.
But it takes a year to plan and organize the conference and over that time the political winds dramatically shift. The bloody Watts Revolt and other violent urban uprisings raise fears of Black violence among northern whites. And as the Freedom Movement begins addressing northern style, defacto segregation, white anger and resistance to "forced integration" of schools and residential neighborhoods begins to spike upwards.
For their part, Republicans are crying "law and order" over urban unrest while stoking a "white backlash" of racial fears and resentments among whites. They condemn War on Poverty programs and additional civil rights laws as "appeasing" and "rewarding" violent rioters. Among white voters and office-holders in the South there is widespread anger over the civil rights laws and policies enacted by northern Democrats. The number of southern whites are switching parties from Democrat to Republican is steadily increasing. And in the North, Democratic leaders are starting to fear that race issues may cause northern white working-class voters to also abandon the party of FDR for the party of Nixon.
As the Movement shifts its focus from voting rights to issues of economic justice, it begins to impact powerful business interests, corporations, financial institutions, and labor unions who are influential, deep-pocket contributors to the Democratic Party. They respond by bringing pressure to bear on Johnson and other party leaders. Meanwhile Assistant Secretary of Labor (and later NY Senator) Daniel Moynihan issues his controversial "Moynihan Report" in which he links Black poverty and unemployment to the rise within Negro communities of single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births. Many in the Civil Rights Movement angrily condemn his thesis as "blaming the victim" and "confusing symptom with cause."
LBJ wants to reach a consensus on the future direction of civil rights and anti-poverty efforts, but as SNCC Chairman John Lewis would later write: "A consensus. He must have used that word a dozen times. And there was no consensus anymore. Not among his own party. Not among Americans. Not among black Americans."
Nor is there any consensus within the broadly-defined Civil Rights Movement. Long-standing differences between organizations and individuals are beginning to widen — in some cases into unbridgeable chasms. Until passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the common goals of dismantling formal, de jure, segregation in the South, winning voting rights for Blacks and other nonwhites, and the necessity of mutual support against state repression, economic retaliation, and terrorist violence had functioned as a kind of gravity holding people and groups together in a degree of limited unity. But now that cohesive gravity is beginning to weaken as court victories have begun to dismantle the legal assault against the NAACP, the federal government is finally, at long last, taking action against Klan violence, and passage of the two civil rights acts signals a major milestone in regards to ending segregation and denial of voting rights. As external realities forceing unity fade, inherent ideologic differences and competition for prestige, funds, and public support begin to exert increased divisive pressure.
As has always been the case, the NAACP and Urban League champion litigation, legislation, and lobbying while opposing the direct action tactics of CORE, SNCC, and SCLC. A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, SCLC, and the NAACP remain committed to both nonviolence and integration as strategies and goals, SNCC and CORE are moving away from integration and nonviolent strategies towards nationalism and revolutionary rhetoric.
Distrust and hostility towards Johnson and the national Democratic Party establishment are growing ever stronger among SNCC and CORE activists, more and more they are now viewing the federal government as an enemy to be protested and opposed rather than a potential ally to be beseeched and courted. SCLC, Randolph, NAACP, and Urban League continue their strategy of pressuring Washington for stronger action against racist policies and practices and more effective anti-poverty programs. But Urban League and NAACP leaders go farther, seeking to forge close ties and political/electoral partnership with the White House while maneuvering to reap funds, patronage, access, and concessions from the liberal power-elite. That leaves King, Randolph, Rustin and SCLC trying to hold together some kind of middle ground between total opposition and co-opted alliance.
Randolph, Rustin, CORE, SNCC, and SCLC, are all increasingly focusing their efforts on poverty and economic justice, (see Background Paper: White House Planning Conference). While the NAACP and Urban League also speak about issues of poverty, they mainly continue their traditional programs aimed at serving and expanding the small Black middle-class (teachers, ministers, professionals, land-owning small farmers, and business proprietors). These different class perspectives are reflected in their respective political positions. As just one example, around the critical issue of jobs and employment-discrimination the Urban League advocates an "equal opportunity" strategy, while CORE presses for preferential hiring quotas and other forms of remedial affirmative action.
During the conference planning phase, there is sharp contention over who will be invited to participate. There are disagreements over how many delegates each organization and constituency will be allocated, and also disagreements over what kind of people should be invited? Government and academic "experts? Those with power to make societal change? Or activists and people from the grassroots who are challenging from below the powers that be?
Initially, some 2000 people are invited, roughly broken down as follows:
|Civil Rights & Grass Roots||350||18%|
|Business, Industry, & Mass Media||380||19%|
|Academic, Foundations, & Religious||240||12%|
|Other & Miscellaneous||330||16%|
These numbers are eventually increased to a total conference attendance of around 2400, but government, business, and academic delegates continue to numerically dominate Freedom Movement and community activists. Moreover, it is decided not to include any representatives from Latino, Native American, or Asian communities or organizations. So the conference is one where the dissatisfied "have-nots" are outnumbered (and some say marginalized) by the comfortable "haves." To conference critics, the delegate demographics confirm that Johnson's goal is to shift control over civil rights, poverty and social-change issues into establishment hands. Conference supporters on the other hand counter that in order to achieve actual changes those with the power to make those changes have to be a big part of the effort.
Before the conference takes place in June of 1966, James Farmer resigns as CORE National Director over the organization's move away from strict adherence to nonviolence and its drift towards nationalism. He is replaced by Floyd McKissick whose criticisms of the Johnson administration are much sharper than Farmer's. CORE considers boycotting the conference, but decides instead to participate in order to raise issues related to northern ghettos and oppose the Vietnam War. When McKissick arrives he tells reporters, "There's a prevailing sentiment that the conference has been rigged by the administration." Well-prepared for political battle, CORE delegates come equipped with a cohesive set of analyses and resolutions around issues such as police repression, employment discrimination, welfare rights, opening up federal programs for nonwhites — and Vietnam.
In a close and contentious election held during May of 1966, Stokely Carmichael replaces John Lewis as the head of SNCC. One of the criticisms made against Lewis by his opponents is his participation in planning the White House Conference which they view as an effort by the national power-structure to co-opt and blunt the Freedom Movement. With Lewis out, SNCC publicly opposes the conference and decides to boycott it (see SNCC Statement on White House Conference).
The White House Conference on Civil Rights takes place in Washington hotels on June 1-2, 1966. For most of the time it is divided into a dozen discussion groups of around 200 people each. Each group debates a set of liberal-progressive policy and action proposals in four broad areas: poverty & welfare, education, housing, and police & courts. Transcripts of each group's discussion and resolutions are then passed on to the White House for consideration.
The group discussions at the conference are characterized by wide-ranging debate among the various individuals, organizations, and constituencies. Some of the debates center on the conference process itself — who was invited, how the topics and proposals were developed, who was appointed to speak on panels, the discussion format, how conference conclusions (if any) will be implemented, and so on.
But the sharpest disagreements are over substance — poverty & powerlessness, role of the Black family, urban violence, police & repression, unions & worker rights, business and profit, role of the federal government and expansion of its powers, and equal opportunity versus affirmative action. With SCLC's campaign against northern residential segregation in Chicago beginning its direct action phase and fierce debates in the House of Representatives over the proposed Fair Housing Act, issues of defacto segregation, human rights versus property rights, "forced integration," and the need for a massive federal low-cost housing program are all hot topics. Some of the conflicting points of view reflect debates over black nationalism and separatism (the "Black Power" slogan does not erupt into national consciousness until a few weeks after the conference). And running like two underground rivers of conflict are the future of the Civil Rights Movement (and who will control it) — and the Vietnam War which by June of 1966 has become an increasingly bitter and divisive subject.
Contention over these issues both foreshadow and shape the ideologic conflicts that will rage within the broadly-defined Civil Rights Movement, and between radicals, liberals, moderates, and conservatives in the nation as a whole for the remainder of the decade and well into the 1970s.
The Vietnam War is an especially sore point at the conference, and in the months that follow it becomes a bitterly divisive issue throughout the nation. To the surprise of the Cold-War liberals running the White House, the Vietnamese have not folded in the face of U.S. military might. Not only have they refused to surrender, their resistance is stiffening. American casualties are mounting, and more soldiers and Marines are being deployed than Pentagon planners had originally estimated. Which means that draft call-ups are rapidly rising — as is anti-war and anti-draft sentiment.
Never someone to accept dissent or criticism with easy grace, LBJ digs in his heels. There will be no questioning of his foreign policy at his civil rights conference. When Floyd McKissick and other CORE delegates try to raise Vietnam resolutions in the discussion groups, the group chairs shut them down.
Prior to the conference, Dr. King had begun to publicly question the war, and in an act of political-heresy that violates liberal anti-communist orthodoxy he has called for negotiations with communist North Vietnam and the "Viet Cong." He also refuses to condemn SNCC's statement opposing the war and he supports Julian Bond's fight for his seat in the Georgia assembly. Though King is a delegate to the conference, he is not invited to give an address and his participation is severely curtailed. The keynote speeches are given by NAACP leaders Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins both of whom snub King, SNCC, CORE, and SCLC by completely ignoring the roll of protest and direct action in the Civil Rights Movement while posing legislation and litigation as the only legitimate and viable civil rights strategies.
With delegates so divided over so many issues it's no surprise that assessments of the conference vary widely. Predictably, the White House calls it a great success. The NAACP and Urban League concur, calling for state and local conferences and a national follow-up conference to be held in June of 1967. On the other hand, many of the "grassroots" delegates are deeply disappointed. Says Bogalusa Movement leader Robert Hicks, "The Negro people in Bogalusa will be peeved ... They spent $500 to send me to this big show, this come-on, this waste of time. I hoped I could come back and tell them some kind of action would be taken immediately." SNCC, which opposed and boycotted the conference continues to condemn it, while Floyd McKissick of CORE tells reporters that he thinks, "no longer that the conference is rigged, but that it is in reality a hoax."
In the end, the conference has little noticeable effect. Two months after the conference ends, the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1966 which contains legislation strongly supported by conference delegates is defeated by a Senate filibuster. Other national legislation called for by conference resolutions is either defeated or never even considered by an increasingly hostile Congress. Existing anti-poverty programs starve and wither as federal funds are shifted to finance the expanding Vietnam War — and new initiatives die unborn. With the nation increasingly divided by Vietnam, urban unrest, Black Power, and "white backlash" politics, there are no follow-up conferences. Among Movement activists working in hardship and danger throughout the rural South many didn't even know it was taking place, and among those who did few considered it significant. In his autobiography written after he is driven from office over Vietnam, LBJ makes no mention of his White House Conference on Civil Rights.
For more information:
Background Paper: White House Planning Conference
SNCC Statement on White House Conference
(Description to be written.)
For more information:
Books: Mississippi Movement
Web: Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear
Personal story from the Meredith March, Bruce Hartford
1. Dr. King, the Farmers Will Tell You..., Don Jelinek 2. Carry It On: the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama 3. Opinion, Judge Friedman, Pigford v Glickman 4. Attorney J.L. Chestnut's Speech on the Black Farmer Lawsuit (FSC-LAF) 5. African American Farmers and Civil Rights (Journal of Southern History, 2/1/07) 6. Shirley Sherrod Address at the Georgia NAACP (American Rhetoric) 7. Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in ..., James Forman 8. Killing of Rights Worker Jolts Tuskegee ..., Mary Gale, Southern Courier, 1/8/66 9. The Trial...And After, Mary Ellen Gale, Southern Courier, 12/17/66 10. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement 1942-1968, Meier & Rudwick 11. SNCC Statement on Vietnam 12. Untranscribed Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement discussion, September 6, 2014 13. Selma to Saigon, Daniel Lucks 14. A Reflective Look, Charlie Cobb, May 1965. 15. Student Voice, July, 1965. 16. Opinion, Bond v Floyd, Chief Justice Earl Warren, U.S. Supreme Court 17. Email correspondence from Judy Richardson, November 15, 2014 18. A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, Cheryl Lynn Greenberg 19. Oral History With Mrs. Ellie J. Dahmer (Univ. Southern Mississippi) 20. New South Student, February, 1966 21. Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, by John Dittmer. 22. Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), by Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. 23. What Would it Profit a Man to Have the Vote and Not be Able to Control it?, Courtland Cox, SNCC 24. Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. 25. In Struggle, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960's, by Clayborne Carson. 26. Lowndes County Freedom Organization, Jack Minnis. 27. How the Black Panther Party Was Organized, Speech by John Hulet, May 1966. 28. Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt, by Hasan Jeffries. 29. "Sabotage in Alabama," New York Times April 21st, 1966 30. Courtland Cox email, January 16, 2015
© Bruce Hartford