Tom Wahman
(1938 — 2016)


As remembered by Wally Roberts
May 2, 2016

Tom Wahman obit
February 28, 2016

This obit is based on a Nomination Statement Mr. Wahman wrote in 2007 to win a Martin Luther King, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award from his alma mater, Dartmouth College, and was edited by Wallace Roberts

Thomas W. Wahman, who was one of the chief strategists behind the contentious 1982 renewal of the Voting Rights act and who worked for many years at several major foundations arranging tens of millions of dollars in long-term financial support for local, regional, national and international organizations in the fields of civil rights, economic justice, and global warming, died on February 26, 2016 of pneumonia, in New York City, after struggling for several years with a traumatic brain injury.

Most of Mr. Wahman's work was in a low-profile, behind-the-scenes, line staff capacity at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) and the Rockefeller Family Fund (RBF), and to a lesser extent, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

From the late 60s through the early 80s, Mr. Wahman developed and managed the RBF's Southern Strategy. The Fund was widely acknowledged for the significant, but quiet, role it played during this period. Later he turned his attention to preservation of American farmland and environmentally related issues, and was the program officer responsible for the Fund's first grant concerned with global climate warming, made long before it became a prominent issue.

Mr. Wahman's role in organizing the lobbying campaign that led to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 deserves special mention because it was a major achievement against formidable odds almost as long as the original Voting Rights Act (VRA) faced in 1965. Indeed, the odds may have been even longer, given the public's widespread support for the VRA in '65 as compared to the much diminished support in 1982, a reflection of the growing backlash against civil rights.

After the renewal of the VRA in 1975 for seven years, the backlash against civil rights continued without letup. As a result, in the voter law area, for example, minorities seeking relief in the courts now had the impossible burden of proving the "intent" of lawmakers was to discriminate against minority voters, whereas previously plaintiffs only had to demonstrate the discriminatory "effects" of voter laws. Under these circumstances, Mr. Wahman invited his staff counterparts at the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, to discuss what could be done to improve the prospects of voter law in the U.S. The three program officers agreed it would be necessary to develop a strategy to go on the offensive and to host a consultative meeting of all the principal voter law and voter registration leaders and representatives of 10-12 foundations to assess the lay-of-the-land, hear the leaders' thinking about steps-to-be taken, and obtain suggestions as to what foundations should do during the 1979-82 period.

The upshot of the conference was an informal agreement that included these elements: 1) multi-year support for a host organization, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, to undertake policy research, maintain regular consultation among all groups via bi-weekly meetings, and development of an outreach plan to broaden the constituency for the renewal of a strengthened VRA in 1982; 2) additional financial support for all organizations participating in the process coordinated by the Joint Center; and 3) periodic reviews by foundations of progress and additional funding where needed.

Of this effort, Mr. Wahman later wrote, "In addition to establishing a broad agreement on what the provisions of the proposed renewal should be, the collaborative process did an extraordinary job of communicating its agreement to, and obtaining feedback from, the broader civil rights constituency, such as churches, labor unions, especially the United Auto Workers union which was active in the passage of the VRA in 1965, and others. Surprisingly the collaborators also won the backing of many influential corporations, which signed on publicly and lobbied for the VRA renewal for the first time."

As a result, the renewal of the VRA in 1982 was successful on nearly all fronts, including inclusion for 25 years of the pivotal Section 5, which required any proposed election law changes in jurisdictions with a history of minority voting violations be "pre-cleared" with the Department of Justice and the US District Court, with the burden of proof being on the governmental body to establish that a proposed change did not have a retrogressive purpose. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Section 5 was unconstitutional.)

Mr. Wahman traced his interest and commitment to social and economic justice issues to his participation in the activities of the Dartmouth Christian Union (DCU) during his four years at the college (where he was also an All American hockey player), including weekly visits to veterans of World Wars I and II and the Korean War at the Veterans Administration Hospital in nearby White River Junction, Vt., chopping and storing wood for winter use by the elderly, and youth activities for teenagers of the "hidden poor" outside of Hanover.

After college, he enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in New York where, he worked in some of the poorer areas of Manhattan, such as the Church of the Sea and Land on the Lower East Side. During this period, he participated in civil rights demonstrations in New York in support of sit-in activity in the South and against discriminatory hiring practices in New York. His first sit-in in 1963 was at the South African Consulate to the United Nations to protest and publicize the infamous events of the Sharpeville Massacre Mr. Wahman and two fellow Union students were arrested along with six members of Local 1199, a health care workers union.

In the spring of 1964, Mr. Wahman joined the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project organized by the country's major civil rights organizations and was selected to be the Statewide Coordinator of the Freedom Schools. He conducted orientation and training sessions for newly arriving volunteer teachers and helped organized more than 25 K-12 Freedom Schools for African Americans students. He also helped organize the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which challenged the seating of the delegates of state's regular Democratic Party to the party's national convention in Atlantic City.

He later wrote, "Living in Mississippi was an eye opener, to say the very least. By the time the summer was over, I had encountered institutional racism at its worst (at least in America), systematic repression of African Americans, and the most closed society in America. I had also witnessed, and was inspired by, great courage, respectful solidarity, and an abiding movement for social justice largely led by African American ex-sharecroppers who had been thrown off the land. The mass media followed the volunteers into Mississippi and many in America were shocked by what they read and saw. The volunteers came out of Mississippi with deeper insights into the pervasiveness of institutional racism and personal commitments to help dismantle it, not only in Mississippi, but in their home communities as well."

That fall, he accepted a position as the Coordinator of Religious and Civil Rights Activities at the Bronx campus of New York University, where he created a tutoring program for poor and minority public school children and organized several bus trips to Washington, D.C., for students and professors to lobby against the U.S. war in Viet Nam and for the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other civil rights policies, and served as a sponsor and organizer for the nation's second Teach-In in the US on the Viet Nam War, following the University of Michigan's teach-in a week or so earlier. The Heights Freedom Movement, in association with other student and faculty groups, conducted an all-night educational event attended by over 500 students.

This event became a springboard for a follow-on lobbying event in Washington, D.C. where Mr. Wahman recruited several NYU students and faculty members to attend the Congress of Unrepresented People in Washington, D.C. in 1965. Since Congress would not debate the pros and cons of the Viet Nam War, a mass rally was held on the Capitol steps to protest the silence of Congress. This was immediately followed by an attempt by approximately 300 protesters, including Mr. Wahman, to march into the Capitol Building to start a debate in the Rotunda. All 300 protestors were arrested, jailed and charged with "unlawful assembly." Receiving nation-wide publicity, this civil disobedience event probably contributed to the escalating series of anti-war marches, demonstrations and civil disobedience actions in many parts of the country.

In 1966, he accepted an offer from the New York Foundation to become a program officer where he researched and recommended a series of grants in support of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Since massive resistance was impeding the implementation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) in the South, her persuaded the New York Foundation to focus much of its Southern grant-making in the enfranchisement area and annual grants were made to the Southern Regional Council for its Voting Rights Project (VEP), a program led by Vernon Jordan, who funded independent voter registration efforts throughout the South. Similar grants from the New York foundation were made to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in support of their lawsuits to help enforce the 1965 VRA and strike down illegal voting registration procedures.

The New York Foundation's civil rights grants made at Mr. Wahman's urging were part of an informal grant-making collaboration among The Field Foundation, Aaron Norman Fund, New World Foundation, and a few other New York-based, social justice-oriented foundations that were committed to supporting the work of the Civil Rights Movement. The older and larger foundations, such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller philanthropic organizations, were not yet numbered among those who were substantial contributors to the social justice-oriented Southern movement, nor to similar activities in New York, preferring instead to support education, medical services, and social welfare activities on behalf of the disadvantaged. That would soon change.

In early 1968, Mr. Wahman was recruited by the Rockefeller Family Philanthropic Office, which managed the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), the newly organized Rockefeller Family Fund, and other Rockefeller grant-making entities. He accepted the offer subject to a commitment by RBF's executives that the fund would present to the Board a proposal to create a "Southern Program" in support of civil rights and related issues. Nearly two full years later, the Southern Program was finally presented to and approved by the RBF Board, but only after Mr. Wahman threatened to resign because of the Fund's failure to comply with the agreement.

It was an important decision because Rockefeller philanthropy in general, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in particular, carried considerable influence in foundation circles, particularly among the larger foundations. The endorsement value of their grants often far outweighed their monetary value. Rockefeller philanthropy was also noted for its long-standing commitments to many interracial and African American organizations, such as in the field of education, Morehouse and Spellman Colleges being good examples.

As director of the RBF Southern Program, RBF awarded several million dollars over the 1970 — 1983 to support for the Southern Regional Council's region-wide Voter Education Project (VEP), the ACLU's work to overturn discriminatory election laws in several Southern states that effectively prevented Blacks from holding elective office, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's cooperating attorney training and placement program in the South, and the ACLU Foundation's "Operation Southern Justice," project to integrate the instrumentalities of Southern justice, the staffing patterns in the courts, police forces, juries and law offices. The strategy behind this latter program was to overcome one of the principal weaknesses in civil rights legislation, namely, the absence of African Americans in the implementation and enforcement of civil rights law, which was almost exclusively in the hands of the Southern white majority.

Later, the Southern Program's interest in voter registration was expanded to the national level, and multi-year grants were made to the Southwest Voter Registration Project, National Movement for the Student Vote, NAACP Special Contribution Fund Youth Citizenship Fund, and the League of Women Voters.

Mr. Wahman also steered annual grants to community economic development and job-creation organizations in the South, most of them African-American led, including the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (Alabama and region-wide); Southern Development Foundation (Louisiana); Delta Foundation (Mississippi); Virginia Community Development Foundation; New Communities (Georgia); Penn Community Services (South Carolina); Rural Advancement Fund of the National Sharecroppers Fund (North Carolina); the Southern Regional Council's Task Force on Southern Rural Development; and the Center for Community Change in Washington for its support of community and economic organizing in the South.

He also saw to that RBF provided multi-year support in the early and mid-70s for the Washington Research Project (WRP), Marian Wright Edelman's initial policy and advocacy organization that was established to help meet the need for effective representation in Washington, D.C. on behalf of African Americans and low-income people in the South. Focused primarily on increasing federal and state government support for programs that benefited disadvantaged children, WRP eventually broadened its mission to the entire U.S. and became the Children's Defense Fund.

Complementing the Southern Program at the RBF was the Fund's more traditional, national interest in the areas of social services, educational advancement, business formation, and employment services for the disadvantaged. During the 70s, this national program area gradually became more oriented to social and economic justice and was renamed the Equal Rights and Opportunities Program. Under the direction of Mr. Wahman and two other RBF program officers, this program provided several millions of dollars to new organizations and special projects, including multi-year support for new civil and human rights organizations that extended and adapted many of the strategies developed by the ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other RBF-supported organizations to new constituencies which included: the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund; Native American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Appalachian Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and DNA Legal Services (Navahos).

At Mr. Wahman's urging, RBF also supplied multi-year grants in support of: welfare reform, both at the organizing and state levels led by the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), and at the national policy level where the National Urban Coalition proposed significant improvements in national welfare legislation; the planning and launching of the Development Training Institute (DTI) ( to serve Black, Latino and white low-income communities; National Congress for Community Economic Development, National Council of La Raza, Center for Community Change, and the National Rural Center for litigation, monitoring, advocacy and policy revision to correct gross imbalances in federal and state funding programs as experienced by African Americans and Mexican Americans.

In other work at the Rockefeller Foundation, Mr. Wahman was instrumental in starting the Southern Elections Fund. Directed by Julian Bond, the Fund provided small grants to individual African Americans, mostly in poor rural areas, who were willing to face the risks of violence and loss of employment to run for public office. In many instances these small grants to candidates complemented the VEP grants that were distributed to local groups for voter registration and get-out-the vote drives. The need for the Fund was crystal clear: where there were individual candidates willing to run, the voter registration and voter participation turnouts were considerably larger than in places where there were not Black candidates.

During the early and mid-80s, when the RBF was phasing out the domestic- oriented Southern and Equal Rights and Opportunities Programs, Mr. Wahman started working in the international arena to identify and support ways of: 1) reducing the accelerating destruction of natural resources in areas of the world where many of the world's poorest people live and need those resources to survive and 2) creating linkages between relatively well-off conservation and environmental organizations in the developed world and their poorer counterparts in developing countries in support of more sustainable use of natural resources in development.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Mr. Wahman did similar consulting work for the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation and the John D. and Catherine M. McArthur Foundations, as well as run the Resources Development Foundation (RDF), a small organization spun off by RBF in 1985 to work on environmental issues.

Mr. Wahman is survived by his wife, Susan Tabor, and two daughters, Jessica and Gwen.


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