Vivian Malone Jones and the VEP: From Integration to Voter Registration
By Christena Bledsoe
Vol. 1, No. 2, 1978, pp. 8-10
Sometime in her youth, Vivian Malone Jones decided she wanted to go to college. That wouldn’t have been such an unusual decision except that her family was poor. Her father was a laborer. She was one of seven children. She lived in Alabama. It was the early 60s. And she was Black.
“I just knew I was going to college,” she says, her voice rising with inflection as she remembers. “It was one of those things that – I just knew.”
It was 1961 and she was 18. She set her sights on becoming a certified accountant. She applied to the University of Alabama and was told “no,” due to a crowded enrollment situation. An unspoken reason stood out though. The school was all-White and accepting her would have meant integrating the university where Alabama’s well-bred White families for generations had sent their young.
She was admitted to the state’s Black school, Alabama A&M, where Alabama tradition said she belonged. She majored in business education, the closest available field to her career choice, and attended for two years. But she wasn’t satisfied. She wanted more: she wanted to be able to pick the school where the education received would help accomplish her goals. She persisted in trying to get into the University of Alabama. She sought advice from NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York and two years later her admission was ordered by a court.
She was, however, throwing herself and her family into an emotionally charged, possibly dangerous situation. Several other Black students changed their minds about entering the university after a man who identified himself as a representative of the state of Alabama spoke to their families.
” ‘You know,'” she recalls his words, “‘there’s going to be trouble here and we can’t guarantee your child’s safety under these conditions. Are you sure you want your child to go in there?'”
Her family believed she should stick with her plans. They received threatening phone calls and had police protection for six months. “But nobody ever bombed the house or burned a cross. That’s pretty good considering,” she says now.
The day finally arrived: June 11, 1963. She waited silently in a car, along with fellow would-be student James Hood, while U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach confronted Alabama Governor George Wallace. at the school door.
The TV cameras glowed, the pencil press recorded and the event became etched in the memories of Americans everywhere. It was a flamboyant extravaganza – some say staged so that Gov. Wallace could have his show – testifying that the South was reluctantly changing, that racial barriers were going to be broken and that doors to education and the social mainstream were opening for Southern Blacks.
As she sat in the car, she concentrated on how she would fare academically. “I was in. I knew that. I worried about maintaining grades with the pressure I anticipated would surround me.” She decided to push fear out of her head. “You can’t afford to let it dominate your thoughts. There are other things a lot more important that you need to think about as opposed to, ‘My God, what happens if someone fires a shot?’ You just don’t deal with that kind of thing. If you really are that concerned about your physical safety and security, then it’s probably not for you to be in a place like that.”
Today Vivian Malone Jones finds herself part of the Southern legend of change, safely chronicled in the pages of history. She went on to become the first Black to graduate from the University of Alabama. From there she moved to Washington, D.C., where she became a research analyst for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and later an employee relations specialist for the Veterans Administration’s central office. While in Washington, she also pursued the M.S. Degree in Public Administration at George Washington University.
She keeps a front page clipping as a memento of her admittance to the University of Alabama in an office drawer, but at 36, she’s too young to be content with memories from the past. Today she finds herself in a world swirled by the ’60s promise of change that was never fulfilled.
Today Jones sits near a poster that proclaims, “Hands
that picked cotton now can pick our public officials,” and discusses her work. She now is the executive director of the Voter Education Project, a non-profit corporation based in Atlanta that has striven to promote change through the political process.
She assumed the VEP directorship in August of 1977, after former director and civil rights figure John Lewis was appointed associate director of ACTION, the federal voluntary agency. She came to VEP after several years as director of the Civil Rights and Urban Affairs Division for the Environmental Protection Agency. Widely acclaimed for its work, VEP, which began as a special project of the Southern Regional Council but became a separate entity in 1970, has assisted the voter registration of almost 3 million Blacks throughout the South.
The Black vote now counts. In 1976, Black voters, particularly in states like Mississippi, assured the election of the President. Just I1 years earlier, a U.S. president had used his office to secure passage of a Voting Rights Act designed to eliminate illegal barriers interfering with Black citizens’ right to vote.
The turnabout sounds dramatic and is. It is also misleading. Southern Blacks are far from being full partners in the political process. Despite spectacular gains such as winning the majority of Atlanta and New Orleans, they are underrepresented at the statehouse level, in the county commission and city council chambers of the South and in the U.S. Congress as well.
VEP faces a massive job ahead if the majority of Southern Blacks ever are to register and exercise their right to vote, thereby shaping a political system responsive to their needs.
Right now those prospects don’t look good. Statistically speaking, VEP’s job is half-done at best. Millions of Southern Blacks have not taken advantage of the right to register to vote, perhaps three to four million in all.
“The problem that we’re running into is that once you’ve registered all the people who are eager, willing, or at least the only thing they needed was a little motivation, then you get down to the hard-core group,” explains Jones, a tall, poised woman with a collected air.
Youths, aged 18 to 25, constitute the largest number of unregistered Blacks. Their interests tend to be scattered and they see little reason to register or vote unless an issue specifically touches them.
In rural areas where older Blacks dominate, they often don’t vote. “They’ve been accustomed to things as they were 15, 20 or 30 years ago and really see no hope for getting out of that situation.”
Another problem is that many who registered earlier failed to vote. Their names have been purged from the polls. “We’ve got the age-old problem of educating people about why it’s important to vote.” VEP attempts to pass the word that in other similar communities Blacks registered and were able to put into office officials that represented their interests.
That, ultimately, says Jones, is what voter registration is about. It’s a complicated task. It takes learning issues, learning which candidates represent your interests and lending campaign support.
“Once you’ve satisfied your basic needs of food, shelter and clothing you can concentrate on some of those more sophisticated areas. It’s difficult to get someone to contribute even a dollar when they’re looking for work,” Jones assesses.
VEP provides funds and technical assistance to registration projects run by community groups, such as the NAACP or SCLC. The work is being hamstrung by inadequate finances. Like many non-profit corporations, VEP was dependent on foundation support that sharply dwindled in the mid-70s recession. Despite efforts to expand its financial base, VEP hasn’t yet fully recovered. Its budget, a maximum of $457,000 this year if sought after funds are received, is half its early 70s size. Permanent staff has shrunk too. “We have to turn down maybe 12 requests for every one that we’re able to fund.”
Given the combination of complex field work and financial restrictions, Jones is reluctant to set a timetable for when most Southern Blacks will be registered. “I think we’ve done very well with what we’ve had,” she responds. “We’re dealing with large numbers of people who have never voted in their lives, their parents didn’t vote. When you think about the political process and how long it’s been in effect, then 16 years (VEP’s existence) represents a very small period.”
Among projects underway, VEP is funding a Florida project designed to register the handicapped and a pilot Georgia program, Project 23, the results of which later may be applied to other states.
Project 23 takes its name from the 23 Georgia counties where the majority of the population is Black. Most are located in middle and southwest Georgia, a few are spread elsewhere.
Many of the counties have no Black elected public officials. “If you’ve got a majority of 75 percent and 80 percent in some cases, and no Black elected officials, then something’s wrong with the process. “It’s like South Africa almost,” she says, diminishing with a small laugh what to some might be an unpopular analogy.
What VEP has done is to go into the 23 counties and look
for impediments that keep Blacks from registering or running for office. A commonly found situation was that of confining voter registration to the courthouse, despite the ready convenience of widely frequented sites such as grocery stores or shopping centers.
Often the hours set for registration were so restricted that Blacks had trouble taking advantage of them. VEP experienced difficulties also in getting deputy registrars appointed to assist the registration of Blacks. In a few instances, restrictions were extreme. Jones speaks of situations where registration was held in a White home and Blacks were told to enter at the back of the house. She also speaks of a “couple of cases” where ballots were marked so that it was known who voted for whom. “This can lead to intimidation if you don’t vote for the right person.
A number of the counties now have expanded registration sites and hours and some elected officials more representative of the population. In one area, more than 99 percent of the Black populace has been registered. But problems remain. VEP frequently gets calls from area people concerned about “how the votes were counted or what happens to the ballots . . . As long as those kinds of things are still happening, we will continue Project 23.”
As she views the South from the perspective of the 60s, Jones says she would have expected much more change.
She lives in a neighborhood undergoing transition from White to Black. This is the second neighborhood she has lived in where for-sale signs have appeared on White owned homes after Blacks began moving in. She expects her current Atlanta neighborhood to be 75 percent Black within a year. “I expected that by now people would not be running when Blacks moved into the neighborhood.”
She expected that a system would have been developed by now which would have eliminated the poverty still affecting masses of Southern Blacks. In her field work, she looks around and often exclaims, “My God, this is just as it was when I was growing up.”
She recalls a recent conversation with a Black neighbor that illustrates both a lack of change and a reluctance to push the status quo.
As a point of curiosity, she asked what the fee was for the nearly private country club. “The person I was talking to said, ‘Oh, I’ve been wanting to join, but they don’t allow Blacks to join.’
“I asked, ‘Have you applied?’
“No, she hadn’t.
“This is the same kind of mentality we’re talking about when I talk about someone not going down to register or not running for office because ‘Blacks don’t do this.’ ”
Recent events, Proposition 13, the Bakke Supreme Court case, and decisions favoring the seniority system, disturb her.
“I think that some of the kinds of problems that are cropping up are the result of a settling process. It will be interesting to see which way these things go because I think it can set us back considerably if this trend continues.” She believes the country will be in for “a lot of turmoil and disruption if that happens.” She declines to speculate on the form of turmoil though, doubting that anyone could have predicted the riots of the 60s. She advocates protest through the ballot box. “That’s when it is being used properly.”
If change indeed occurs, what kind of society would she like to see it produce?
“If you’re talking about the ultimate – what I consider to be the kind of situation where we’ll say ‘Yes, we’ve arrived and things are really great.’ I think that’s the time when people can truly move into society without the overriding factor being race or sex.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see this in my lifetime. I really don’t. I doubt it.”
Nonetheless, she appears determined to work for change, as determined as when she won the right to enter the University of Alabama. She notes that James Hood, who entered with her, recently said he would not go through the harrowing experience again.
“I feel just the opposite. If I had to do it again, I would. There is absolutely no question in my mind … I couldn’t accept that condition anymore today than I could back in 1961 when Wallace was saying I couldn’t go to that school.”
Christena Bledsoe, a former newspaper reporter, is a free-lance writer living in Atlanta.