The Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was a voter registration civil rightsinitiative conducted from 1965-66 in 120 counties in six southern states.
While leading the Chatham County Crusade For Voters in Savannah, Georgia, one of many SCLC grassroots affiliates across the South, Rev. Hosea Williams, an SCLC aide to Dr. King, had been joined by white college students for various short term civil rights projects. From that interracial success, as well as the SNCC/COFO Mississippi Freedom Summer, the idea of SCOPE grew to fruition. Dr. King and SCLC decided that there was a need for white college students to journey south to join with local activists.
The SCOPE Project, was approved by the SCLC executive committee in December 1964. The goals included organizing formerly disenfranchised African Americans for voting, and, if necessary, engaging in street demonstrations to help put political pressure on the Congress, should the proposed Voting Rights Bill of 1965 be met with congressional resistance and stalling, or even filibuster by die-hard segregationist forces.
In the Winter and Spring of 1965, the voting rights movement in Selma and the Selma-Montgomery March were challenging the segregated status quo. During that period, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assigned the Rev. Hosea L. Williams, SCLC Director of Voter Registration and Political Education, to lead the SCOPE Project. Rev. Williams, had received leadership training as a World War II Army Sgt. in General George Patton's Black tank brigade, and was a decorated combat veteran. Rev. Williams later went on to found and lead the Chatham County Crusade for Voters (CCCV) which, in addition to registering Black voters, organized large-scale protests against segregation in Savannah, Georgia in 1963.
Dr. King announced the SCOPE Project in a speech at UCLA on April 27, 1965 and his visit resulted in the recruitment of twenty UCLA students, including the late Joel Siegel, who later became the film critic for Good Morning America and Rick Tuttle, who worked with Rev. Hosea Williams and Rev. Andrew Young and spent two months in a Savannah jail as a result of his Movement activities before he was released. Tuttle's case won the right to use property bonds for civil rights workers' bail. Later he would serve 16 years as Los Angeles City Controller. The SCLC staff sent regional recruitment teams to visit colleges and universities nationwide. Mrs. Gwendolyn Green, the executive director of the Western Christian Leadership Conference joined Dr. King at UCLA and was temporarily assigned to the Atlanta office to serve as the Assistant SCOPE director, reporting to Rev. Hosea Williams and Dr. King.
Initially, the SCLC had hoped to recruit 2000 volunteers, but due to the danger involved with the civil rights movement in the southern states, college students from the north and west did not respond in the hoped for numbers. Eventually about 500 predominantly white college volunteersb — representing nearly 100 universitiesb — were deployed in 90 of the 120 counties the SCOPE Project targeted across six southern states. Some students were re-deployed and assigned to more than one county.
The SCOPE Project began on June 14, 1965, with a week-long Orientation at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which was led by Mr. Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March On Washington. The "faculty" for the orientation included: Vernon Jordan of the Urban League; Ralph Helstein, president of the meatpackers union; John Doar, Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights; Michael Harrington, author of The Other America; civil rights lawyer Charles Morgan, Jr., as well as Dr. King, Rev. Andrew Young, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Junius Griffin, Rev. James Bevel, and others on the SCLC Executive Staff.
SCLC-SCOPE leaders also conductedanother Orientation for local activists and leaders in May of 1965. The local activists and leaders had asked SCLC to partner with their on-going efforts, or to help them organize newcommunity organization and voter registration activities. These local activists provided the infrastructure and leadership for theSCOPE college volunteers when the students were deployed on June 19/20, 1965, throughout the ten week project whichofficially concluded on August 28, 1965. About 50 SCOPE volunteers continued to work in thesouth into the 1965/1966 including Fall andWinter movements in Crawfordsville, GA, Social Circle, GA, and Birmingham, AL, (as well as many, many other venues across the south). During the SCOPE Project, ongoing relationships were established between the college students and their assigned counties -- some of whichremain today.
The students were led by local African American leaders in the targeted counties and joined by Black community volunteers, including local ministers and large numbers of local high school and college youth. The SCOPE Project - in weekly reports from the county organizations to the SCLC office in Atlanta - documented approximately 49,000 new voters through the combined efforts of the local community and the SCOPE college volunteers during a ten week initiative, from June 14 - August 28. In addition, SCOPE educated thousands of citizens in political and voter literacy education classes.
The volunteers also tested and reported violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, John Doar, which led to U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations and the deployment of Federal voter registrars to counties that denied African Americans the right to vote. SCLC field staff and SCOPE volunteers also worked with the DOJ Community Relations Service (CRS), and engaged in nonviolent demonstrations to dramatize the denial of voting rights and the refusal to remove "white only" signs and desegregate public accommodations.
SCLC and other organizations bridged racial and religious barriers to forge a limited number of partnerships with both white Christian and Jewish groups , along with progressives in the Southern Regional Council and other liberal organizations. SCOPE volunteers were assigned to work with African-American community leaders who had requested the white college volunteers.
The students lived with African-American families, who were paid $15 a week for their room and board, which barely covered expenses. About 50 of the college volunteers were asked by Dr. King, Rev. Williams and his assistant, Mrs. Gwendolyn Green, to join the SCLC Field Staff. They were then paid a subsistence salary of $10 a week, with the African American community providing housing and meals.
Many veterans from other SCLC campaigns were assigned to the SCOPE Project including: Field Staff members Rev. Willie Bolden; Benjamin Van Clark; Jimmie L. Wells; Ms. Lula Williams; Lena Turner; Gloria Wise; Jewell Wise; Patricia Simpson; R. B. Cottonreader; J.T. Johnson; Tom Houck; Dana Swan; Rev. James Orange; Ben "Sunshine" Owens; "Big Lester" Hankerson; Leon Hall, Bruce Hartford, and many others. Both Albert Turner and Stoney Cooks worked closely with Hosea Williams in statewide leadership roles.
SCOPE volunteers experienced violence, tear-gassing, harassment and threats with guns (and shots fired) on numerous occasions, according to "incident reports" from the project's administrative records. For example: On June 18, 1965 in Camden, AL, 18 SCOPE workers were arrested in a church for "illegal possession of boycott materials." One SCOPE worker, Mike Farley, was beaten in jail by a white prisoner, who was reportedly both bribed and threatened by a jailer.
The SCOPE Project continued into the Fall of 1965 and the Spring of 1966. Some of the white college volunteers returned in the summer of 1966, and a few enrolled in Black southern colleges and continued community organization activities beyond the spring of 1966.
The SCOPE volunteers were profoundly impacted on a personal level by the inter-racial experiences throughout their lives, as were the host families and communities. Press accounts termed the SCOPE volunteers "the freedom corps." They were a part of a generational vanguard of about 3,000 whites and many thousand Blacks who, between 1961-1966, were willing to put themselves in harms way during the movement struggle in the South.
Among the those who have added to the legacy of the SCOPE volunteers are:
Father James Groppi, an outstanding activist Catholic; Dr. Barbara Jean Emerson, a college administrator who helped organize an anniversary of SNCC staff while at Queens College; Elizabeth Omilami, actress and current CEO of Hosea's Feed The Hungry and Homeless Inc - -a non-profit that provides food and assistance to the poor in Atlanta; Rabbi Moshe Shur, Hillel Rabbi at Queens College; international educator Peter Geffen, founder of the Abraham Heschel Day School in NYC; Dr. Dean Savage, chair, Dept of Sociology, Queens College; Dr. James Simons, M.D., Oncologist, Kaiser Hospital, Oakland, CA; Judy Van Allen, Institute For African Development, Cornell University; Dick Reavis, professor; Lanny Kaufer, punlic school teacher and multimedia historian; NC State University; Dr. Bruce Mirhoff, professor, SUNY; Bruce Hartford, founder of this Civil Rights Vets website; Sherie Labedis, inner city teacher and author; Beth Pickens, attorney - NYC and many, many, many others (with contact and career information available on this website).
John Lewis, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Chairman from 1963-1966 (later a U.S. Congressman representing Atlanta), welcomed the SCOPE volunteers as "brothers and sisters in the movement," who were willing to put their lives on the line for freedom. Mr. Lewis was jailed with white SCOPE workers, along with local African American SNCC and SCLC volunteers, in Americus, Georgia on August 1, 1965, after attempting to integrate to local churches.
It was during this late July-early August 1965 period that four local women in Americus (Mary F. Bell , Gloria Wise , Mamie Campbell , and Lena Turner18]), were arrested for "standing in a white women's voting line", which led to mass demonstrations and marches led by SCLC-SCOPE senior staff Hosea Williams, Rev. Willie Bolden, Ben Clark, and Jimmy Wells, along with very experienced Sumter County SNCC activists and leaders -- such as Sammy Rushin and Sam Mahone, Jewell Wise, David Bell, Lena, Turner, and Gloria Wise, and many others working in conjunction with the local ministerial committee, led my Rev. Campbell. The actions of these leaders in Americus were a key catalyst in the final push to get the 1965 Voting Rights Act through the obstructionist tactics of southern-based members of Congress who for almost six months had blocked passage of the bill. President Johnson finally sign the bill into law with a strong enforcement clause on August 6, 1965.
As Lewis said during a question and answer session, in 2006 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, "The SCOPE volunteers were no different than Freedom Summer workers, we were all together that summer of 1965, and we all took the same risks. The SCOPE volunteers stood shoulder to shoulder with us in our struggle for civil and voting rights."
In assessing the courageous contributions of the SCOPE volunteers, Rev. Andrew Young, who went on from the Civil Rights Movement to serve as a U.S. Congressman, United Nations Ambassador, Mayor of Atlanta, Co-Chair of the 1996 Summer Olympics and CEO of GoodWorks International, told a King Holiday audience in Atlanta "The volunteers in SCOPE knew that some of the Freedom Summer workers had been killed the Summer before, but they came anyway." On another occasion, he told a reunion of civil rights Movement volunteers, including SCOPE veterans "Most of you were taking your lives in your hands by associating with us. It made us truly a national movement, when the students came. Their parents had to learn about the South."
The Southern California SCOPE college chapters held a organizing and evaluation program with Rev. Hosea Williams on Novemeber 20, 1965, hosted by UCLA SCOPE. The UCLA 22 minute student film, first cut, "Be Somebody", about SCOPE in Macon, Perry and Americus, GA by the late Dr. Fred Hoffman was shown for the first time to the acclaim of all attendees.
In the letter of invitation that I wrote to all California SCOPE college units (including involved faculty), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s thank you letter to all student volunteers was excerpted:
"We were part of a hitory making enterprise which has gripped us all in its infinite garment of destiny ...(breaking) ... much new ground and (laying) a solid foundation upon which we will continue to build for years to come. This foundation may soon become the cornerstone of our democracy."
[Note: the fuil text transcription of this letter will later be posted on this website].
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Copyright © Willy Siegel Leventhal. 2012.