Striving Toward Democracy. Report of the Southern Regional Council, 1980-1982
Vol. 5, No. 3, 1983, pp. 5-16
The Southern Regional Council, the South’s oldest biracial organization, consists of 120 Council Members in eleven Southern states. The work of the Council is supported by foundations, labor unions and corporations and by the contributions of individuals and institutions as Council Associate Members. The Council maintains a small staff in Atlanta where it carries out research, provides technical assistance and offers educational programs which address primarily the issues of poverty, ignorance and racism in the American South. Through its work, the Council also attempts to develop regional leadership concerned about these enduring problems.
Begun in 1944, the Council has served as both a forum and a vehicle for Southerners of good will in education, labor, business, community action, religion and government to “work constructively for a better South and a better nation.” From the time when Atlanta newspaperman Ralph McGill, Fisk University president Charles Johnson and Atlanta University president Rufus Clement signed its papers of incorporation, the Council has conducted activities and projects designed to promote equal opportunity, civil rights and equitable development in the South. Its past and present members include Julian Bond, Brooks Hays, Hodding Carter, Marion Wright, Frank Smith, James McBride, Dabbs, Josephine Wilkins, Ray Marshall, Barbara Jordan, Andrew Young and many others.
Vernon Jordan, John Lewis, Leslie Dunbar, Harold Fleming and Wiley Branton have served on its staff. Recent presidents have included banker John Wheeler, physician Raymond Wheeler, Clark College president Vivian Henderson, former assistant secretary of state Patricia Derian, and lawyer Julius Chambers. Tony Harrison, a deputy chairman of the National Democratic Party, currently serves as Council president. Council members have come from many backgrounds with differing political, social, and economic views, but they share a common devotion to solving the historical problems of the South.
In its nearly forty years, some major accomplishments of the Southern Regional Council have included:
Creating the first network of biracial, state councils in the South that provided in the 1950s the major Southern support for public, integrated schools.
Instituting major research and demonstration projects in the field of voting rights (including the Voter Education Project) which helped document the need for the first federal civil rights act in this century and which registered more than two million black Southerners.
Documenting the need for the first federal executive order in this century barring racial discrimination in employment.
Providing a clearinghouse to document and monitor racial violence and intimidation during the late 1950s and 1960s. This work justified federal intervention that protected the lives and safety of civil rights workers.
Sponsoring the Citizens Boards of Inquiry that documented the prevalence of poverty and hunger in the region in the late 1960s. This work focused the attention of. the public and Congress on the problems of poverty and spurred the first national legislation to address the problems of hunger in America.
Creating a Southwide governmental monitoring project in the early 1970s that documented the failures of the Nixon Administration’s new federalism in protecting the interests and rights of minorities.
Carrying out the first regional demonstration project that successfully placed more than five hundred black women in managerial positions in the South. This project became the model of job placement for the federal Department of Labor.
Sponsoring the Task Force on Southern Rural Development in the late 1970s which offered direction to state governments and the Carter Administration on developing a national rural policy.
The Council acts as a multi-racial forum for Southerners to think and act together. It sets up networks to develop and provide information, expertise and advocacy. The Council is also an innovator of new approaches and strategies which, if successful, become models for other groups. All told, the organization provides information, analysis and technical assistance to a wide range of decision-makers.
In the last few years the Council has continued its tradition of important work for the South. These recent accomplishments include:
Helping Deep South state governments find new ways of responding to the needs and problems of poor and blacks.
Sponsoring a series of reports that led to the adoption of the first equal opportunity plan for employment in the history of the US courts.
Providing technical assistance to local and state groups in almost two out of three of all administrative actions taken by the US Department of Justice that stopped racially-discriminatory voting practices in the Deep South.
Providing key research and technical assistance demonstrating the continued need of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Developing fair models for redistricting of local and state governments which will enable more than seventy-five new, black elected officials and an even larger number of more responsive white officials to take office by 1985.
Supporting local self-help efforts, especially in the rural South, for the unemployed, the untreated sick, the marginal farmer and the elderly.
Finding ways to tap private economic resources to assist in providing basic services and job opportunities in the poorest areas of the South.
Offering one of the few regional magazines which provides critical reporting and analysis.
Initiating a major, experimental project to assist blacks, women, the poor and others in capturing the opportunities of new technologies in the field of communications media.
Creating regional radio programming about the problems and promises of Southern life especially in its tradition of civil rights.
Continuing to monitor segregation academies in the South and providing documentation and research used in briefs filed before the Supreme Court.
Convening or holding conferences and forums for more than six hundred Southern leaders to explore common interests and to develop new strategies on the issues of the 1980s.
While the Council’s membership is limited to 120, any number of individuals may become associate members participate in the functions of the Council and receive its regular publications.
Southern Legislative Research Council
In 1980, the Southern Regional Council began the Southern Legislative Research Council (SLRC) as a special project to provide research, analysis and technical assistance to state legislators who represent the interests of black and poor citizens in Alabama and Georgia. Upon request, the SLRC assists both black and white legislators, effectively increasing their capability to use information and analysis in state government.
The SLRC was founded on the view that state legislators with large numbers of black and poor constitutents must have more available resources if governmental institutions are to be responsive to constituents’ needs. These legislators usually have the least seniority, the smallest amount of public resources and the greatest demands from large numbers of poor and black people across the states. Moreover, as in the last few years, the responsibilities of all legislators will continue to enlarge with the changing role of state governments. The Southern Legislative Research Council offers a unique experiment in determining how these responsibilities can be met by all state representatives.
The strength of the SLRC has come from its ability to combine four components–a reference service, an intern program, an expert network and an information exchange–to aid “client” legislators and, at times, community groups. The project has gained recognition for its accurate and thorough analysis and dependable and reliable research. Without advocating positions on legislative proposals, the project’s staff works only to respond to requests for hard data and objective comparisons that are not often available from advocates or other legislative services.
During the first two years of the SLRC, legislators in Alabama and Georgia have shown remarkable growth in their knowledge of issues and effective representation of the interests of the poor and blacks. As these legislators have begun to establish increased expertise on issues, their credibility among colleagues and the legislative leadership has increased. Just as important, there has been a growing awareness between black and white legislators who represent poor and black citizens that they share the same constitutents and, therefore, must address the same concerns.
In Georgia, the last two years have brought noteworthy progress in the General Assembly for poor and black constituents, especially in light of hard times across the nation. Evidence of this progress includes:
Increased funding for Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1981 and 1982, accomplished to substitute in part for loss of federal funds.
State funding in both 1981 and 1982 for the new medical school at Morehouse College, a predominantly black, private institution, approved for the first time. Morehouse is only the second black medical school in the South.
The Opportunities Industrialization Centers Program–a national group working on joblessness, funded in the 1981 budget in order to replace partially the loss of federal funds.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives–a self-help organization working with
small farmers, especially blacks, throughout the South, placed in the state budget in 1982. The appropriation was the first allocation of state monies for such a community-based economic development organization anywhere in the South.
Small increases in the budgets of health programs providing non-institutional and preventive health services, provided while other state monies replaced funds lost in federal cutbacks in Medicaid.
Legislation passed in 1981 setting up a commission to study Georgia’s statutes and regulations for sex and race bias.
A Community Care Act passed to encourage increase use of state monies for preventive and non-institutional services to the elderly.
A nursing home bill of rights enacted to insure that high standards are maintained in nursing homes throughout Georgia.
During the same two-year period in Alabama, there was significant legislative progress benefitting poor and black citizens:
Increased state funding for elementary and secondary public educational programs.
An increase in salaries for personnel in public schools, passed in a state where teacher salaries have been ranked very low nationally.
Funding increases for the two predominantly black institutions in the Alabama state university system; for the first time, these increases were roughly equal to those achieved by white institutions.
Full funding for the Maternal and Child Health programs and other public health programs serving rural poor and minority constituents.
Legislation adopted for the first time in any Southern state to prohibit discrimination in insurance coverage against sickle-cell anemia victims.
Legislation passed guaranteeing funding of independent Community Action Program (CAP) agencies in the state’s federal bloc grants; this action assured that essential services to the poor in Alabama will continue and that control of the agencies will remain with independent boards of directors composed mostly of community leaders and the poor.
Also, in the last year, both states implemented, begrudgingly at times, reapportionment plans which increase the number of majority black legislative districts in each legislature.
These recent developments stand in vivid contrast to a long history of neglect and inaction on the part of legislatures in the South for the interests of the poor and blacks. Ten years ago the Alabama legislature’s overall performance was ranked the worst in the nation, a status only slightly below that of most other Southern legislatures including Georgia. As late as five years ago political analysts saw no “common philosophy” or action that bound the interests of black legislators in Georgia. The last two years may signal a turning point in the unchecked history of unresponsiveness by these two Southern state governments for the needs of their most disfranchised citizens. The Project has helped to set in motion a decided change in the Deep South, where, perhaps, the trend would have been least expected, at a time when the role of state government in the nation is enlarging.
The Southern Legislative Research Council’s structure consists of four major components:
A Reference Service provides primary research and analysis on specific issues, policy questions, and related matters; surveys of practices and policies in other locales relating to identified issues; drafting and analysis of legislation (especially budgets). These services are provided through the SLRC’s permanent staff although some documents and material are developed by interns or the project’s expert network. In each session, for example, the project has developed a detailed analysis of department budgets for health care services, welfare and social service programs, programs for minority economic development, and capital expenditures. The analyses of such programs included past expenditures and proposed future outlays, comparisons of a state’s expenditures with those of other states in the region and estimates of possible services within the proposed budget.
The Intern Program provides an opportunity for students to assist legislators by monitoring daily legislation and committee processes, analyzing pending and proposed legislation, providing summaries of activities and background materials, and gathering related information about other events and developments in state government. During the sessions, interns closely monitor legislation and committee proceedings and keep “client” legislators informed of legislative actions on targeted issues. Also as part of their assignment, interns keep in contact with specific community groups to assess
their positions on issues and to exchange information.
The Expert Network includes experts, scholars, specialists, and other researchers from college, government, and private institutions across the South who offer technical assistance in preparing materials and documents and who provide an ongoing exchange of information relating to legislative developments, events, people and issues. In the last two years, the expert network has primarily been useful in the preparation and review of model legislation and specific research documents.
The Information Exchange consists of various mailings and bulletins to client legislators and others about events, reports, decisions, and developments relating to the legislative process. It enables the project to keep legislators and community groups appraised of legislative actions on specific issues on a timely basis and offers research and information not available from any other sources to client legislators and their constitutents. In addition to a weekly publication of the Legislative Bulletin during the sessions in both states, the project publishes special mailings and assists with inserts in Southern Changes, the SRC bi-monthly magazine.
Although the project’s major work has been in Alabama and Georgia, it has provided some limited assistance to other legislators and state officials throughout the South. The Legislative Bulletin is sent to all black legislators and the legislative leadership in all Southern states. In the last two years the SLRC staff has helped with regional meetings of the National Organization of Women and the National Caucus of Black State Legislators. The project has also supplied research to legislators, community groups, and the governors’ offices in Florida, Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, and Mississippi on issues such as voting rights, election changes, reapportionment, health care, and bloc grants.
Southern Justice Program
While the federal judiciary has played an essential role in the developments of reforms benefiting both blacks and whites in the South, most federal courts in the region during the last few decades were hostile to major changes in the legal status of blacks. The basic obstacle was simple and clearly stated in the 1966 SRC report Southern Justice: “Dual justice survives because presidents continue to treat federal judgeships as political rewards and pacifiers. It survives because the Justice Department fails to exercise the power that it has to correct abuses. It survives because the judicial network, federal, state, and municipal, is one of the most segregated institutions in America.”
While the judiciary in the South and the nation has changed in many ways over the last fifteen years, the root and branch of the same problems of the courts that existed as obstacles to equal and fair justice in the South in the 1960s remain in large measure today.
In addressing the major issues of justice in the South and the nation, the Southern Regional Council has issued three reports in the last few years on the state of the judiciary and judicial appointments. Widely distributed, these reports influenced general public opinion and have been responsible for important changes in policies.
In late 1978, an SRC report, Blacks Women in Southern Federal Courts, showed that no more than six percent of all Southern court employees were black in a region with a twenty percent black population. Women were found to be employed largely in low-paying positions. After the Council released its reports, it was forwarded to all federal courthouses in the South. In June 1979, the Subcommittee on Constitutional and Civil Rights of the US House of Representatives began hearings on federal court employment in light of the SRC’ findings. On invitation from the subcommittee, the Council presented its testimony. Later, the SRC and twenty national civil rights organizations petitioned the federal court system to adopt an affirmative action plan for employment in federal courts throughout the nation. In 1979, the federal judges met through the US Judicial Conference, the administrative arm of the courts, and acted for the first time in history to guarantee equal opportunity in its hiring practices. In March of 1980, the Conference adopted a model affirmative action plan to apply to all courts, a plan which the courts have now begun to implement.
The SRC, report on court employment was released two days after the passage of the 1978 Omnibus Judgeship Act. Six months later the Council released its status report on the appointment process. This report found that “politics is still king and race is still a burden in the appointment of Southern federal judges.” Although the Democratic Attorney General at the time said he was “tired of reports that made no contribution,” the Council’s thorough fact-finding stood unchallenged. As the only study of its kind, the report identified developing trends in the process of appointments in the South and is credited with helping to double the number of black judges appointed under the Act.
Another Council report, Crisis of Conscience: Federal Judges in Segregated Clubs, released in 1980, showed that_ almost sixty percent of all federal judges sitting in the South (and probably a majority in the nation) belonged to all-white segregated clubs. In March 1980, the Judicial
Conference decided that it was inappropriate for someone sitting on the federal bench to belong to clubs that practiced “invidious discrimination.” Shortly after the 1980 elections, however, the Conference effectively revoked its March decision.
In the last two years, the Council has continued to pursue these issues. It has provided technical assistance to local groups and lawyers attempting to increase the employment of blacks and women in Southern courthouses through monitoring and litigation. In Georgia, for example, the Council provided a local group with a “model” employment plan to improve upon the local court’s proposed plan. In New Orleans, a small group of black employees in the court system requested assistance in developing a strategy to document the hiring practices in the courthouse and compliance with the equal opportunity procedures. In Alabama, a white federal judge asked the Council for aid in finding his first black and female law clerks. And, the Council also has continued to monitor the nominations and appointments of federal judges in the South in the Reagan Administration.
In order to further its initiatives in the area of justice, the Council is continuing in the task to collect and analyze the annual employment reports in all federal courts that have been filed at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts since 1980 and to prepare and release a second report on the status of employment in the federal courts.
Not since the passage of the original Voting Rights l Act in 1965 has political participation been at so critical a stage in the South as in the last few years. The passage of the Act was endangered for almost a year, and while the Act has been renewed once more for a temporary extension, this renewal will probably be the last; moreover, critical changes have been made in some of the legislation’s provisions, and these as well as the unchanged sections must be interpreted and applied rigorously by the US Justice Department and the federal courts if the Act is to sustain its major force for equal suffrage. In addition, most legislative bodies, including state legislatures, have been reapportioning their districts which will set in stone the structures of government in the region for the next ten years.
To meet the critical needs relating to voting rights, the Southern Regional Council has carried out a program of research and technical assistance for the enforcement of the preclearance provision of Section 5, the review of reapportionment plans for local and state legislative bodies in the South, and the assessment of the past level of enforcement and influence of the Voting Rights Act.
For the last three years the Council has maintained the only organization that systematically monitors Section 5 compliance in the Southeast. The project’s work is designed to examine changes submitted to the Justice Department that affect voting in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. When potentially discriminatory changes l are identified by the project, contacts are made with local community groups and copies of the full proposals presented to Justice are obtained. Working with local leaders. the Council then carries out an analysis of the effects of the proposed change on the local system of elections and voting. When the analysis shows racial discrimination in effect or purpose, the Council assists the local group in requesting the Justice Department to interpose an objection to the submission. At times, the Council itself files such a document on behalf of the local group.
The importance of the Council’s work in this field has been evident. In Alabama, for example, the Council’s staff has been involved in three-fourths of all the objections which Justice has issued to halt proposed changes in that state since 1980. Its accomplishments in other parts of the South have been almost as impressive and widespread: nearly two-thirds of all objections rendered by Justice in ten Southern states in the last two years were cases in which the SRC participated.
In its review of the redistricting of legislative governments in the region, the Council has been involved primarily in activities on reapportionment plans for state legislative bodies and Congress in four states. It has suported activities in the remaining seven. In the redistricting of local county commissions, city councils, and local school boards, the Council has already been involved in drafting and analyzing nearly twenty-five plans in seven states. The Council has also provided information and technical assistance about the processes
of reapportionment and redistricting to hundreds of officials and community bodies in two major conferences held last year.
In North Carolina, for instance, the Council has participated in activities in and out of the courtroom to develop a redistricting plan for the statehouse and the Congress which protects minority voting strength. In fact, it was the Council which originally assembled various groups in North Carolina who continue to improve legislative redistricting there. The Council has carried out detailed work in Georgia and Alabama through its legislative research project (SLRC) and has done important work for other groups in South Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee. On the local level, the Council has been working on several plans for redistricting in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. In its coverage of Southern state reapportionment, the Council’s magazine, Southern Changes, has also been a principal vehicle by which a large number of Southerners have kept informed on this issue.
All in all, there may be as many as seventy-five new black elected officials and an even larger number of new, more responsive white officials by 1985 as a result of the Council’s reapportionment work.
Apart from its work on Section 5 enforcement and reapportionment, the Council began, in 1981, to research the impact of the Voting Rights Act, providing strategic data and analysis to a wide variety of decision-makers in the South and in Washington. First, the Council kept civil rights organizations, local community groups, and activists in the region informed about events and developments relating to the status of the Voting Rights Act as it traveled through Congress. This task required periodic “updates” that outlined current issues and how they related to the local concerns surrounding voting.
By the spring of 1982, the Council began hosting the voting rights research working group, a body composed of organizations undertaking major research or educational work on voting rights in the South, so that the different efforts could be focused and coordinated. In addition, the monthly meetings permitted major groups in and outside the South to discuss issues of strategy and policy as the Act journeyed through Congress. As convenor of the working group, the Council also set up a clearinghouse through which information, news, and inquiries were funneled from and to different parts of the region.
The Council provided technical assistance to a number of organizations and individuals on a wide range of issues relating to the Voting Rights Act. SRC staff members assisted several witnesses who were invited to appear before the House Senate subcommittees and who requested SRCs information and analysis. These witnesses include Julian Bond, S.C. state representative Robert Woods, Fred Grey, and Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In all, the Council briefed upon request more than twenty-five witnesses from across the South before they appeared at hearings held by the Congress in Washington and in the South. In the same vein, the Council responded to numerous journalists and reporters with current analysis and specific information about voting rights abuses and trends.
With other members of the Southern working group, the Council also held the major regional conference on voting rights in the South in August, 1981, and followed it with a second meeting in the winter to provide key activists with another opportunity to assess the activities and strategies employed by Washington organizations during the House action on the Act. Over 350 representatives from eleven Southern states and a few from outside
the region attended the first conference.
The primary research which supported the Council’s technical assistance was aimed at determining the extent of compliance by local and state governments in the South with the Act and the nature and prevalence of existing barriers to full political participation by blacks. Part of the research was a review of all laws passed by six Southern state legislatures from 1965 through 1980. When completed, the project showed a list of acts affecting voting in six Southern states that exceeded one thousand state enactments that had not been submitted to Justice as required by law.
In addition to this research on non-submissions, the Council undertook to document the status of voting rights in Southern states by a series of reports which analyzed detailed information on voter registration and other relevant indicators of political participation. Finding only minimal gains in black political participation outside of Georgia’s urban areas in the last decade, the Council’s report, entitled Status of Voting Rights in Georgia, demonstrated wide differences between voter registration rates for blacks and whites in most South Georgia counties. Together with other working documents of the Council, these reports constituted the basis for testimony before congressional committees considering the Voting Rights Act. Because of the SRC’s research in this area, the Foundation News reported in late 1982 that the Council was one of seven key organizations whose work helped insure continuance of the Voting Rights Act.
In the months ahead, the Council will be adapting its data to address questions of enforcement of the Act and to promote greater political participation. The analysis of the more than a thousand non-submissions in Southern states will be put before federal courts and the Justice Department by the Council and the litigation groups with which it works. The data on the state of voting rights in different Southern states also will be used to develop both priorities and strategies for coordinating and applying resources to increased meaningful political participation in the region.
The Southern Regional Council’s efforts to support public education in the region continued in the last few years in the face of mounting, complex problems. Of special concern in our work have been the historical problems of the rural South where expenditures for education have always been low and racial antagonisms remain high.
In 1980-81, the Council embarked upon a study of the changes in public education in the rural South over the last decade. In April 1981, the Council released its report portraying a decade of frustrations for the children of the South’s Black Belt. Through case studies and statistical analysis, the story of public education in the rural, predominantly black schools of the Deep South demonstrated continued failure in support for school financing, equal treatment, integration, and improved programs. At times the failures were striking. For example, in 1970, expenditures for major repairs to Black Belt public schools were reported in twelve of twenty-two Georgia Black Belt school districts; however, over a four-year period through 1977, expenditures were made in only three districts each year.
The SRC study found that “while local resistance to integration in the Black Belt was transformed to local neglect, state and federal standards for all educational systems and black control of school boards in majority-black school districts have been responsible for almost every major improvement in education in the Black Belt in the last ten years.”
The Council has also continued its general monitoring
of segregation academies, those private schools which grew up as courts ordered the desegregation of public schools in the rural and suburban South. Because of the Reagan Administration’s changes in existing policies concerning the enforcement of regulations on tax exemptions for segregation academies, the Council’s existing and past research in this area became valuable to several decision-makers. Upon request, SRC submitted a brief report to Congress on the history of the growth of segregation academies in the South. General trends indicate that prior government policies barring tax exemptions for segregation academies may have had an influence in decreasing the enrollment in private schools. The Council’s statistics also found their way onto the pages of briefs filed before the Supreme Court in the case that challenged the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University.
Pilot Employment and Training Programs
The Solar Greenhouse/Employment Project was started in 1979 to develop a series of models for the construction of solar greenhouses onto residences and other buildings as a means of increasing employment skills, decreasing fuel costs and providing year-round fresh food in areas of high poverty. With the increased recognition of solar greenhouses as an alternative means of generating heat, the project enabled small farmers and rural youth to secure supplemental income as contract workers and trainees. The project demonstrated that, especially in rural areas, the skills that were acquired and the involvement among the working poor and the elderly made the approach viable. In 1981 the project became a separate entity. It now concentrates on a few selected, small communities.
The Rural Black Women’s Employment Program addressed the problems of joblessness and poverty among black women in the rural areas of three Deep South states–Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. It offered established groups of rural black women technical assistance in developing their capacities to use federal job and training programs to promote the self-sufficiency of their organizations. The program helped secure federal support for several demonstration projects and identified a large number of local black women who are potential leaders in their own communities.
The Agricultural Marketing Projects have existed in a few Southern states since the mid1970s in order to establish food fairs where small farmers can sell their produce and develop bulk markets. These “self-help” approaches, often combined with part-time jobs, have enabled hundreds of farmers to earn enough supplemental income to stay on the farm. The Council helped l establish the marketing project in Georgia and assisted many of the projects in other states with matters of administration and finance. Now, many of the weekly summer food fairs are arranged entirely by the farmers themselves and, therefore, some of the marketing projects have gone out of business.
Student Health Coalitions are student-run projects which set up “health fairs” each summer in rural communities where there is no primary care facility. These fairs give examinations to the poor and offer a vehicle for local communities to organize together to address local problems. Since the college students who run these coalitions in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas change yearly, the Council has assisted in prior years in maintaining continuity and effectiveness by supporting the work of Dr. Bill Dow as a convenor and counselor of the projects. Dow was the founder of the first project in Tennessee.
Coop Democracy and Development
In many areas of the eleven Southern states, one would be hard pressed to find much evidence of the boom economy which has led, in the past decade, to the South’s public reputation as “the nation’s number one economic region.” Especially in the historic Black Belt, improved economic conditions have been isolated and, in contrast with other areas of the South, incredibly small.
Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, local cooperatives and community-based developments have formed the backbone of most efforts to address economic and social barriers in the Black Belt. One cooperative venture, however, has been in the rural South since 1935. In that year the Roosevelt Administration created the Rural Electric Administration to “take the kerosene lamps off the farmers’ tables.” Today, the rural electric and telephone cooperatives in the South probably have six billion dollars in assets, own forty percent of the distribution system for electricity, maintain twenty percent of the phone systems and serve most rural counties.
With the increases in fuel costs during the last decade, the role of the utility in the rural community has become considerably more visible and important to households. Not well known, but increasingly important, are practices of utility coops which go beyond providing electricity and telephone service. In the past several years, coops have begun to make substantial investments in economic development. They have financed the construction of homes, schools, parks, golf courses, swimming pools, resorts, hospitals and even factories in their own service areas and have invested funds in similar projects in other parts of the country. “The coops, usually the largest single business organizations in their communities, have a corporate-citizen interest in this whole matter,” according to the general manager of the I National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Perhaps the most non-traditional role of a utility coop
offers the most sweeping promise for the Black Belt and similar areas. Coops have the capacity to act as a prime financing agent for local economic and social development. With standing assets of more than six billion dollars and operating revenues of close to four billion dollars, electric and telephone coops in the rural South have a reservoir of financing power that could be used to invest in local development.
The Council’s Coop Democracy Development Project is designed to achieve cooperative democracy and development among rural utilities. The project develops and executes strategies that support efforts of local residents to make utility coops more responsive to issues of survival, self-help, jobs and economic improvement.
More than twenty electric membership cooperatives have been targeted for project activities in eight Southern states. Areas were chosen based upon community interest, the percentage of minority population, socioeconomic profiles and the availability of technical resources which would be useful as communities attempt to redirect coop activities and policies.
Southern Changes, the bi-monthly magazine of the Southern Regional Council, exists as a forum for ideas and opinions on the issues and events of the South. Articles, essays and commentary in Southern Changes examine issues of racial, class, and sexual inequality. Southern Changes also seeks to address issues and values beyond equality, in the realms of justice and good will.
In his essay from the April 1982 Southern Changes (the first issue of a new format for the magazine), Leslie Dunbar pointed to two patterns of national failure which join the predicaments of the American South with a world larger than America. His statement suggests much of the guiding concern of Southern Changes. “From the great nuclear plants at Oak Ridge and Savannah River to the Pantex Plant in the Texas Panhandle where the bombs and warheads are assembled,” writes Dunbar, “the South is deeply imbedded in preparation for nuclear holocaust. From the hollows of Appalachia to the migrant farm labor camps of Florida, the South is still the poorest of regions. Here, if anywhere, is the place to redirect America ….”
SRC Special Reports
While reducing the number of its special reports, the Council has continued its tradition of releasing some research and analysis through this means. The following major reports have been issued since 1980:
The New Federal Budget The South ‘s Poor–(1981). The first detailed analysis of the Reagan Administration’s changes in the federal budget and their effect upon the South’s poor. This research project received extensive coverage on the front pages of many Southern daily newspapers, wire services, and national television and radio networks. Perhaps coining a useful phrase, the conclusion of the report was that “the national government’s budget has now transformed the war on poverty of 15 years ago to a war on the poor today.”
A Decade of Frustration–(1981). An examination of the conditions of education in majority-black rural school districts in the Deep South. Focusing on Alabama and Georgia, the report compared data of the last ten years and found that in most of these schools the quality of education as measured by plant facilities, training teachers, and special programs for the needy had declined. Local financial support had also fallen behind support elsewhere in these states. At the same time, school districts which were controlled by blacks in these rural areas were always among the few systems which provided the largest financial support, a high quality of education, and evenhanded treatment for students. Distributed to community groups and leaders, the report has also been cited by a legislative fact-finding committee and in briefs of civil rights lawyers.
Too Poor for Food Stamps–(1980). A status report on the federal food stamp program which the Council issued in order to illustrate the success of new federal regulations which no longer required the poor to purchase food stamps.
Bloc Grants Before Congress–(1981). A special paper produced for community groups who were attempting to understand the effects of proposed bloc grants on their own federal funding and on programs which were vital to their constituents.
Other reports issued by the Council included three on the status of voting rights in different Southern states and one on the status of voting rights in different Southern states and one on the status of rental housing for the poor. Special reports underway include one on industrialization in the South in the 1970s and changes in the South’s Black Belt population in the twentieth century.
The Council’s own archives will also be published in microfilm in 1984 as a result of an agreement reached among the Council, Atlanta University, and the Microfilming Corporation of America. The Council is foregoing any royalties from the publication of these archives so that Atlanta University Library may increase its own collection of archival materials.
The Atlanta Media Project, Inc.
The Atlanta Media Project, Inc. (AMP), was established in 1980 to find new ways to address the major problems of access, employment, and the effective use of the electronic media by blacks, the poor, and others. In partnership with predominantly black Clark College’s school of communications, the project was created by the work of the NAAC P of Atlanta and the ACLU of Georgia, represented by the SRC in negotiations with national broadcasters. Responsible for securing more than one million dollars in commitments for the construction of Clark’s new school and its own future operations, AMP began operations in late 1981 when the Council housed its temporary offices.
Historically, the absence of blacks, women, and Hispanics from the airways in the South has been paralleled only by the paucity of programming about the primary concerns of these groups. During much of the last two decades, the principal efforts by civil rights advocates to remedy these problems were aimed at regulating the conduct of broadcasters and cable companies. With breakthroughs in communications technology and increasing deregulation, AMP represents a unique enterprise which will help capture the opportunities that technological and regulatory changes are bringing and develop new ways to redress the historical exclusions from the airways.
In its first year, AMP helped Clark College construct its school of communications in the new library building at the Atlanta University Center. (The school is the only private college in the South that graduates a substantial number of blacks with degrees in communications.) Also, in late 1981, the project applied to the Federal. Communications Commission for a license to operate a low-power television station in Atlanta.
In the next two years, the project will develop a model internship program for students at Clark College; operate a center for the production of public service announcements and public advocacy messages for community organizations for use on cable, broadcasting, and radio; administer a modest grant program for minority video and film producers; explore emerging technologies such as special services networks and teleconferencing for use by community groups; and hold a national video festival to recognize the outstanding work of blacks and women in the field. The project will be fully staffed by mid-1983, and SRC’s executive director continues to serve as AMP’s president.
In the last two years, the Council has begun to explore the creation of a regional radio network that will offer programming including news, analysis, public affairs, documentaries, musical entertainment, and coverage of special events through contracts with existing commercial broadcast stations and cable systems. In addition, the organization has started the planning of a major special radio series documenting the civil rights movement of the Deep South.
These efforts point to the changing means that the Council is engaging to educate Southerners about. themselves and their neighbors and to reach the hearts and minds of a larger audience. For more than two decades, studies have documented consistently the enormous influence of the electronic media in shaping the views and values of Americans. This new direction should soon permit the Council to continue the tradition of four decades for careful analysis and reasoned opinions through more direct and widespread channels of communications.
The network will broadcast programs in formats which include topical news of regional events not usually covered by local or network new organizations. A public affairs program might include biographies of well-known politicians, leaders, lawyers, writers, or the rich folklore of narration and song in the South. Blues, spirituals, and religious music can be woven with narration for powerful statements about past and present life. Programming may also include explorations of the migrant traditions and ethnic communities throughout the South. The network probably will produce documentaries looking in-depth at regional issues, people, and places and include occasionally a special taping of regional theaters, musical entertainment, “Mark Twain” storytelling, folk tales and drama.
The special series on the civil rights movement is being developed separately to spotlight activities in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. While it shaped much of the region’s recent history, the civil rights movement has received little attention in traditional
scholarship and among the major means of communications in the region. People, places and events that helped change the mores, customs, and laws of the region and nation are relatively unknown to most of the black and white citizens of the South. School children in the sixth grade or below today were not yet born when Martin Luther King, Jr. died, and less than one-seventh of the South’s people are old enough to remember the events of the late 1940s and early 1950s that started the recent civil rights movement.
When completed in the next two years, two separate series will portray the civil rights history through the events in the five Deep South states. In each, the focus will be largely on local people and activities who were part of local events and struggles. After these statewide radio series, a five-part regional radio series will be broadcast. And, after these broadcasts, the audio material will be adapted and edited for use as cassettes as a part of a historic tour guide of the recent civil rights movement. These cassettes may be accompanied by a small booklet providing maps, pictures, and a brief text for use in touring the sites of each city’s civil rights struggles. Tapes of the broadcast series and the tour guides could be made available to the general public through local governments or public institutions.
Forums for Discussion and Action
A community of “Southerners of good will” is important to the region, and the Council continues to foster cooperative efforts, meetings, and discussions which bridge a wide range of groups onto common purposes and activities. At a time when many government actions are stayed and easy answers no longer are accepted as solutions to complex problems, the job of examining, rethinking, and developing practical strategies to accomplish enduring goals is increasingly important.
In the last two-and-a-half years, the Council convened and helped set up several conferences and forums for joint strategies and action:
The Southern Roundtable: Convened by SRC, this forum is the only regular opportunity for activists and civil rights groups in the region to meet and share ideas, information, and plans. In its first year the Roundtable, which meets monthly, focused on the Reagan Administration’s proposed changes in the federal budget and the development of bloc grants. Members of the Roundtable now includes representatives from more than fifty Southern groups.
Southern Rural Alliance: In 1982, five organizations–ACLU Southern Office, Emergency Land Fund, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Southern Regional Council, Inc., and the Voter Education Project–joined together to map out plans and strategies for joint undertakings to promote increased political participation and renewed economic development in the rural South. While anticipating an expansion of the membership of the Alliance to other regional organizations concerned about the rural areas in the future, the members of the Alliance are uniquely suited to start this effort to plan and act in concert on rural problems. The ACLU Southern Office is a leader in developing and implementing the law on voting rights; the Emergency Land Fund and its association of landowners have a wide rural network of independent black leaders; the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has more individual members involved in economic activities in the Deep South than-any other organization; the Council has a long-standing capacity for research and technical assistance on issues of political and economic development in the rural areas (and was the host of the Task Force on Southern Rural Development that set the agenda for Southern rural development in the late 1970s); and the Voter Education Project has more experience than any private group at registering and educating black voters in the South. A coordinator of the Alliance has been hired and its chairman is Leslie W. Dunbar, former SRC executive director.
Freedom Movement Symposium: In 1981, the Council held a series of meetings to review the strategies that have been used historically by Southern “freedom” movements and to explore their application today to other movements, especially that of the handicapped and disabled. Veterans of the civil rights movement and the poor people’s movement from six Southern states met with leaders of the movement for the disabled from these three states to exchange ideas and thoughts about their problems and situations. Several encouraging developments followed: leaders of two distinct, but often similarly situated, constituencies met for the first time in the South; civil rights activists found themselves reflecting on strategies which they had not questioned in years; and the first elements of an agenda for common, supportive work was developed. In the coming months, the Council will set up a network of these groups to encourage the refinement of that common agenda.
National Organization in Support of Community-Based Organizations: Created in 1980 to monitor the investigation of groups such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives by the federal grand juries, this ad hoc national coalition intervened on behalf of the Federation within the U.S. Justice Department. The Council was an active member attempting to negotiate a resolution to the federal investigation with the local U.S. attorney and to raise funds for the Federation’s legal costs.
The Atlanta Committee for Responsive Philanthropy: The Council acts as the convenor and host of this group composed of local and Atlanta-based non-profit groups attempting to examine the patterns of philanthropy in Atlanta and to organize efforts to establish an alternative
and broader base of concerns by philanthropy.
The Council’s executive director and past president participated in the 1981 national task force that examined the increase and causes of racial violence against blacks in the country over the past few years. The Council also sponsored and held conferences on voting rights, reapportionment and public health care for more than six hundred community leaders in the region during the last two-and-a-half years.
SRC Annual Meetings: Each year the Council hosts a meeting of its friends, members and other decision makers of the region. The Lillian Smith Awards are given for the best books on the South at a luncheon and the agenda of the annual meeting is usually topical and long. In 1982, Harry Ashmore, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and William Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees were guest speakers.
Assistance to Southern Groups
Because diversity of local, state, and regional groups is essential to the livelihood of a community of good will in the South, the Council attempts each year to attract financial support for others in the region. During the last two-and-a-half years, the Council assisted-almost twenty organizations or groups in raising more than two million dollars for their own work throughout the South.
Striving Toward Democracy
The last two years of the Council’s work have produced some new approaches and emphases which consider the changed circumstances of the region and nation. These efforts have shown encouraging, tangible results and promise a greater return in the future. Still, the Southern Regional Council’s major concern remains as it was in its first biracial meeting of men and women in 1944: “to make human relations democratic in the South.”
In late 1984, the Southern Regional Council will celebrate its fortieth anniversary as an organization whose steadfast belief in democracy ha kept it in journey seeking the best of Southern ways and American principles. The anniversary will offer ;’n opportunity to celebrate past achievements. reflect upon the hard lessons of failed efforts and reaffirm our resolution to continue the search until the South can offer to its own people and its neighbors elsewhere the benefits of both beliefs and practices.