Summer, 1965-66: Sussex County, VA
Lanny Kaufer

See SCOPE Summer Projectfor background & more information.
See also Southern Christian Leadership Conference for web links.
See also:
      SCOPE Documents & Reports
      SCOPE Articles

In the spring of 1965, Rev. Hosea Williams, representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), came to the University of California at Santa Barbara recruiting students to work in Dr. King's Summer Community Organization and Political Education Project (SCOPE). Ivan Rasmussen, Phil McKenna, Robert Waterman, Mickey Bennett, Paul Raymond, Eleanor Mackey, Gary Imsland and I accepted the call. A local SCOPE chapter was formed and fundraising began for our departure just two months later. Before leaving by car for the South, we were joined by two young women from another UC campus, Elke Wiedenroth and Peggy (last name unknown).

Orientation in Atlanta, GA included speeches by SCLC leaders including Dr. King himself. There were freedom song sessions and many workshops and trainings on Southern culture, the Civil Rights Movement, voting laws, organizing skills, door-to-door voter registration, and nonviolent techniques.

After orientation, our UCSB group was assigned to rural Sussex County in southern Virginia. SCLC's Field Director for Virginia, Herbert V. Coulton, accompanied us from SCLC headquarters in Petersburg to Waverly where we were introduced to local church leaders who had volunteered to house us for the summer by rotating us through several homes. Some of the local men who, along with their families, played key roles in leading the voter registration movement in Waverly were Mr. John Barrow, Mr. Roland Parham, Rev. Jacob Turner and Mr. Willie Mitchell. Phil McKenna, Peggy, and I were assigned to Waverly and the others to Stony Creek and Wakefield.

I can vividly recall my first night at the dinner table in the Parham home. As we ate and talked I struggled to understand what they were saying, unaccustomed as I was to their Southern dialect. All the while, their young son was staring at Phil and me. Finally, Mrs. Parham told him that it wasn't polite to stare. He replied, "But, mama, they eat just like we do." The next day as we walked the streets and introduced ourselves, several young children wanted to touch our bare forearms, upon which they exclaimed, "Your skin feels the same as mine!"

To appreciate the need for our project, one must understand the sociopolitical makeup of Sussex County in 1965. In essence, Sussex County was "ruled" by one man, Mr. Garland Gray, an avowed segregationist who was the State Senator from that region from 1942 to 1971 when his son Eldon took his seat and held it until 1992, a stretch of 50 years of political power for father and son. Senator Garland Gray chaired the Gray Commission in 1955 that codified Virginia's segregationist reaction to Brown vs. the Board of Education. He also owned the lumber mill and attendant logging leases, providing the primary employment for blacks, many of whom lived in company housing. In addition, he employed many in the peanut fields and, to top it off, he was president of the local bank. Needless to say, many black residents were hesitant to get involved with the movement for fear of incurring his wrath.

Our first assignment was to organize a rally within the black community. Other than the stalwart SCLC supporters who had welcomed us, most residents did not want to be seen with us. A notable exception was the teenage population. So we began to teach them the freedom songs we had learned in Atlanta. We soon staged a singing march through the black neighborhood exhorting those on their porches to join us at the upcoming rally. The teens did their part, encouraging their parents to check it out. Our rally was well attended and we were on our way.

Our next step was to initiate an Improvement Association in each of the communities in which we worked. This was the "CO" in SCOPE: Community Organization. The first president, Mr. Parham, was able to assume a leadership role as he was employed outside the area and owned his own home, freeing him from the control of Senator Gray.

Next we tackled our most difficult challenge; convincing the county registrar to open the office more than two hours a month (between 1:00 and 3:00 PM on the first Monday). After exhausting the usual channels to no avail, including collecting signatures on a petition from those unable to register, we organized a march to the courthouse to protest the restrictive hours. The local newspaper estimated over 100 locals attended, so one must assume the number was much higher. We marched there on a Monday so that eligible potential voters could symbolically go to the registrar's door, even though we knew he wasn't in until the following Monday.

That first Monday protest was followed by daily picketing and a larger rally on Saturday. Then, on the next Monday, the official registration day, a number of people, estimated at over 140 by the same local paper, crowded into the hallway to be registered. All of this was our way of demonstrating that, in fact, many blacks did want to register, contrary to the registrar's assertion that the hours were sufficient because no one showed up anyway at the specified day and time.

We felt our demonstrations had been hugely successful, first by motivating the local black populace to a previously unheard of level of militancy, and second, by illustrating the abovementioned point to the bureaucracy and the media. Nevertheless, the registrar refused to budge. So we went to the Justice Department (Washington, D.C. was less than a day's drive) and pleaded our case. The Justice Department contacted the local government and threatened to send federal registrars. Additional hours were soon added and we began the laborious process of going door-to-door from the steamy paved streets by the railroad tracks back into the swampy mosquito-infested pine forests, spreading the gospel of voting as the way to equality.

As mundane as our everyday job became, the summer did not pass without incident. The first confrontation involved a locally owned restaurant in Stony Creek where several SCOPE workers and some local black teens sat down and waited to be served. They never were. Instead, the owner, seeing the integration writing on the wall, told them she was closing and promptly shut her doors for good. She mounted a large sign outside that read, "Closed on Account of Niggers!"

Soon thereafter, Phil McKenna and I went into the white part of Waverly to use the local laundromat. As usual, some of our young black friends and co-workers accompanied us. Once our clothes were in the machines an angry man burst in the door, his face a shade of scarlet that clarified the meaning of "redneck" for me. Apparently, one of his customers had called the owner complaining of the integrated group in his establishment. Unloosing a stream of profanities, he pulled our clothes out of the washers, threw them on the floor, and poured disinfectant into the machines as we tried to remain calm in our seats. Then he locked and barred the door so that we couldn't leave. This confused and unnerved us because we thought he wanted us out of his place, not trapped inside. Once we were his prisoners, he proceeded to walk up to each adult male in our group, grab him by the collar and raise his fist, as if about to unleash a mortal blow. We continued to speak calmly, drawing on the phrases and approaches we had learned in our orientation. Finally, we convinced him that he was, in effect, kidnapping us, and faced serious penalties if we chose to press charges. He relented and let us leave.

A more serious incident occurred late one night on a dark and lonely country road. Gary and Elke were returning from one of the many weeknight church meetings we attended when two cars got in front of their car and the men in the two cars shouted obscenities, stuck the barrel of a gun out the window, and ordered them to pull over. When Gary refused, the two cars then raced ahead and set up a roadblock. He bumped over the divider strip, and escaped in the opposite lanes. Once Gary and Elke drove under the streetlights in town, they identified one of the cars in pursuit as well as its driver and filed a complaint with the police. To our surprise, a suspect was charged with assault and a trial was held but, once in the courtroom, I began to feel that it was we SCOPE workers who were on trial, not the attackers. After the charges were reduced to "obstructing traffic," I experienced an odd mixture of relief and anger when the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Although our SCOPE workers were able to identify the car and its occupants, they could not state, for the record, the exact year, make, and model.

Several of us returned for a few weeks the following summer. Thereafter, I stayed in touch with John Barrow who kept me apprised of the progress being made. When I returned in 1988 to visit John and the others, I was told over and over what a difference the SCOPE Project and the Improvement Associations had made. To begin with, after we left, the teenagers who had worked with us all summer decided they no longer wanted to be bussed way out into the forest to attend the one school serving all the county's black students. Under the leadership of Waverly's young Horace Jones, who later found his calling in the ministry, they organized their own march on the first day of school that fall and successfully integrated the schools. Eventually, with the aid of the votes gathered that summer and in the following years, blacks entered the town councils, the county board of supervisors, the police department, and other historically segregated bodies. Mrs. Maggie Turner, wife of Rev. Jacob Turner and one of the more outspoken and articulate members of the local movement, went so far as to become a magistrate on the local court circuit.

When I returned to visit Waverly in 1988, the Improvement Association was still functioning and had been credited with many advances over the years, a testament to Dr. King's strategy and a counter to critics who claim that we came in, caused havoc, and left. As of 2012, the Improvement Association of Sussex County had grown into a successful nonprofit organization with a budget of $3 million and a staff of 35.

As for me, my life was profoundly affected by my association with Dr. King (whom I was privileged to meet that summer), his staff, and the opportunity to live and work alongside some of the friendliest, most hospitable, and most courageous people I've met, the African-American community of Sussex County, VA.

I am currently a member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee of Ventura County and an Associate Member of the Ventura County chapter of Veterans for Peace. Please contact me about my musical multimedia presentation on my experiences, "Martin Luther King and the Spirit of the 60s" for your school assembly or community program.

January 25, 2013

Copyright © Lanny Kaufer. 2013

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