Brooklyn Boro

Former volunteers, now in Brooklyn, recall Summer Voting-Rights Project of 1965

April 23, 2015 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Despite the prohibition against race discrimination in public accommodations in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not much had changed by 1965 in Abbeville, Ala.  The "colored entrance" was still at the back of the store. Photo by Jo Freeman

The Mississippi “Freedom Summer” of 1964 is well-known to most Americans, thanks to the tragic murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, as well as the movie “Mississippi Burning.”

Not as well known, however, is a voting-rights project that took place during the summer of 1965 that also used college-age volunteers. It was called Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) and was sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

At least four former SCOPE volunteers now live in Brooklyn.  Organizers of a reunion, which will take place October 1-4 in Atlanta, hope to find more. Most of the volunteers, despite their youth at the time, had a history of activism and were deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement.

Jo Freeman, a lawyer, professor and writer, moved to lower Park Slope in 1979 after she was admitted to NYU Law School and has lived in Kensington since 1985. She was a student at the University of California, Berkeley when she answered the call from SCLC. “I had been arrested twice in the spring of ’64 [for civil rights protests]—the reason I did not go to Mississippi Summer in 1964 was that I had a trial coming in July for my second arrest,” she said.

The project’s objective was to register Southern black families to vote and to educate them about the voting process. When it was introduced on March 17, people assumed that the Voting Rights Act would pass by the beginning of summer — it already had the necessary number of votes. However, due to delaying tactics by Southerners, it was signed on Aug. 6, 1965, not in June as had been expected.

Other volunteers had similar stories to Freeman’s. Tom Rothschild, an attorney who has an office on Court Street and lives in Downtown Brooklyn, was a University of Michigan student. “I grew up with social justice issues,” he said. “I signed up to volunteer in 1964, but my mother asked me not to go.” He got his chance in 1965, when he signed up with SCOPE and was sent to Newberry County, S.C.

Mike Brown, a retired physician, has been in Park Slope since 1978, but in 1965 he was a student at Wayne State University in Michigan. “I grew up in Detroit,” he says, “and was involved with the Newman Club [an organization of Catholic students]. We had two progressive priests in that club, and there were nine of us from that group who went [down South].”

Diane Crothers, an attorney and fiction writer who now lives in Flatbush, was a student at Jackson College for Women, the now-defunct women’s college affiliated with Tufts University outside of Boston. She grew up in Connecticut, but her mother was born in Mississippi and grew up in South Carolina.

“My mother never believed in the system of segregation,” said Crothers. “She had black friends as a child and didn’t understand why she was told not to play with them on Sunday, because older people said, ‘You’re judged by who you play with on Sunday.’” Later, Crothers’ mother got into trouble because she invited a black maid to sit down and have a conversation — the Southern etiquette of the time dictated that you should only speak to a black servant while standing up.

The volunteers usually stayed with black families and collaborated with local African-American organizations and individuals who were involved in the struggle. SCOPE targeted six states, said Freeman — NC, SC, VA, AL, GA and FL — and deliberately avoided Mississippi.

Feelings of local whites varied and were less hostile in South Carolina than in Alabama. “Local blacks were welcoming in both states, though I think there was more fear in Alabama,” says Freeman. “The county registration boards made it more difficult to register in Alabama than in South Carolina,” she added.  Still, everywhere, registering people to vote was difficult because in most Southern rural counties, you had to register at the courthouse — which had “registration days” only a couple of times per month.

“Alabama law specified that registration days were only on the first and third Mondays of the month in rural counties,” Freeman explains. “South Carolina required registration on the first Monday, and left it up to each county’s registrars as to whether to be open on other days.”

Freeman, who was sent first to South Carolina and then to Alabama, says, “The attitude of registrars varied from place to place. They could be hostile, they could be uncooperative, they could take long breaks, or they could not. Before the Voting Rights Act was passed, they made you write out long sections of the Constitution to prove you could write. In Alabama, you had to provide the names of one or two registered voters who could vouch for your identity. This made it difficult in counties with few blacks already registered because whites wouldn’t vouch for blacks.”

Freeman recalls a great amount of hostility. “A volunteer in Henry County [Alabama] who came from Massachusetts had brought her car down with her. The sheriff told all the gas station owners not to sell any gas to her.” The authorities, Freeman adds, “would ticket people for nothing. In Alabama, they instituted a rule, for example, that if they stopped you, your driver’s license had to be the same state as the car you were driving.”

But in Newberry County, S.C., where Rothschild was staying, the “power structure” had decided that they didn’t want any trouble, negative publicity, huge lawsuits or violence, Rothschild says. “I opened a bank account [for the volunteers] about a week after I came, I walked into the bank, and I didn’t have any trouble.”

Another time, Rothschild recalls, he was stopped by a police officer as he was starting to make an illegal left turn. The officer actually cautioned him politely — rather than waiting for him to turn and then arresting him. Still, he says, “I did not go wandering downtown at night.”

Rothschild, incidentally, got a copy of the Voting Rights Act mailed to him by longtime Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Celler. He showed it to the local authorities, who wanted to know how to comply with it and whether the county fell under the new law’s jurisdiction.

Brown was sent to the aforementioned Henry County, Alabama. When trying to register black voters, he and his fellow volunteers came face to face with the “fear factor.” “The deputy sheriff’s car was always in back of us, at the end of the block, so if someone opened their doors [to let them in], he would know.”

One African-American minister, says Brown, wasn’t intimidated and held meetings at his church — but those meetings were poorly attended. When the courthouse did hold a registration day and the volunteers brought people to register, “there were constant delays, lunch breaks, other breaks, people [registrars] going outside”— all deliberate.

Crothers was sent to Fairfield, Ala., near Birmingham. Local volunteers were headquartered at Miles College, a historically black college. “Birmingham was known as ‘Bombingham’— people were used to bombings,” she said. “It was the headquarters of the National States Rights Party, and they had a billboard saying, ‘Impeach [Supreme Court Justice] Earl Warren, Keep America White.’”

“It was obvious that the people in the town and the police knew who we were,” she said. There was so much hostility, she said, that “We were surprised to live through the summer.”

Another perspective was provided to the Eagle by Jackie Epps of Columbia, S.C., who in 1965 was an African-American teenager from Whitmire, S.C., who was active in the movement. Epps recalls that the volunteers, by and large, had to stay in the black community — one went downtown, started talking to people and was beaten unconscious.

Epps has two Brooklyn connections — he was named after Jackie Robinson, and his son lives on Berkeley Place in Brooklyn and works for JP Morgan.

The volunteers’ experiences profoundly influenced their lives. Freeman, for example, went to law school because she realized “for the type of social-justice work I wanted to do, I needed to be an attorney.” Crothers became a feminist in part because of the example of the women she met in the South who worked tirelessly for the cause.

The Voting Rights Act did not only apply to the South. Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan came under the law’s jurisdiction in 1968 — in part because historically, literacy tests in New York City had discouraged Hispanics from voting.

If readers know of any more SCOPE volunteers or SCLC staff who are living in Brooklyn, or elsewhere, Freeman asks them to email [email protected].