The Voter Education Project

By Courtney Chartier, Project Archivist, Voter Education Project Collection

The Voter Education Project (VEP) was formed in 1962 as a program of the Southern Regional Council (SRC). It was the brainchild of then U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who wanted to establish a government funded voter registration program that would eliminate the need for public protests by civil rights organizations. Kennedy went so far as to ask several of the leading civil rights groups to cease protest activities for a short time; while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) agreed to this, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) did not.

The early VEP was planned in 1961 by Leslie Dunbar, the director of SRC. The VEP did not directly engage in any voter registration activities, only granting funds to civil rights organizations to support their voter registration drives and any voting related research. The VEP became an official program of SRC on April 1, 1962. The first Executive Director of the project was Wiley Branton.

Initially, VEP was meant to be a pilot program lasting only two and a half years, supported by donations from the Taconic Foundation, the Field Foundation and the Stern Family Fund. Among other grants, the VEP funded the 1962-1963 SNCC run voter registration project in Selma, Alabama. This program led directly to the 1965 Selma protests, bringing Martin Luther King, Jr. to the state for the March on Montgomery.

In 1964 SRC proposed a permanent program with expanded goals, including maximum voter registration, citizenship education, and leadership training. The second Executive Director of the program, Vernon Jordan, established VEP offices in several southern states. From 1965-1970, the VEP continued to channel grant money to various voter registration projects in the 11 Southern states.

In 1969 VEP became an independent organization from SRC. The separation was due to a 1969 tax bill, limiting the amount of money that VEP could receive from a single organization to 25% of its total budget. Since SRC received more that 25% of its funding from a single organization, the easiest course of action was to separate VEP. VEP became an independent organization on June 1, 1971, under the leadership of its third Executive Director, John Lewis.

Although the VEP primarily targeted poor, Southern, African-American communities, it was not exclusive, and awarded grants to many organizations throughout the country. Both under SRC and independent of it, the VEP remained a non-partisan organization. VEP also functioned as a research center, and was known as an authoritative source for statistics on Southern elections and voter registration in general, as well as trend analysis, studies on specific issues and statistics broken down by race and gender. VEP emphasized the collection of evaluative statistics for its own programs and the communication of their findings and results to the public.

The economic recession of the early 1970s severely curtailed VEP’s activities and severely reduced office staff. During this time, the organization began holding benefit dinners, streamlining administrative functions and created an executive committee, while expanding the Board of Directors and increasing their direct involvement in programming as strategies for the survival of VEP.

In the middle and late 1970’s VEP participated in several national voter registration campaigns, expanding into radio and television. In 1977 John Lewis resigned and was replaced by Vivian Malone Jones. 1977 and 1978 were low points for funding for the VEP, and staffing and programs were cut. Jones resigned in 1978 due to poor health, and Sherrill Marcus became the fifth Executive Director of VEP.

VEP’s financial problems continued throughout the 1980’s, and the organization was close to folding in 1981. In 1982, Geraldine Thompson took over as Executive Director, serving without pay for several months. Thompson led a campaign to salvage the organization, attracting funding by expanding the purview of VEP, coordinating major voting initiatives with other Southern and national organizations, including the Black Women’s Vote Project and the Southern Women’s Civic Education Project and holding workshops all over the South.

Due to a lack of funding, the Voter Education Project closed its doors in January 1992. At that time Executive Director Ed Brown was the only employee, and served his last months in that position unpaid. His last act was to transfer the records of VEP to the library at Clark Atlanta University.

The Voter Education Project Organizational Records (1962-1989) are held by the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc. The records consist of administrative and financial documents; project files for each of the grants awarded by VEP; research files on various Southern elections; printed and published material produced by the Voter Education Project and other voting rights organizations; and photographs, as well as video and audio material. The records are currently closed to researchers for processing.

“Working for Freedom:  Documenting Civil Rights Organizations,” is a collaborative project between Emory University, the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, and the Robert W. Woodruff Library of Atlanta University Center to uncover and make available previously hidden special collections documenting the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta and New Orleans.  The project is administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

For more information about the collection described in this post, please contact the Archives Research Center at Atlanta University Center, archives [at] auctr [dot] edu