The 39th Year Report of the Southern Regional Council, 1983
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1984, pp. 16-20, 22-24
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, racism and ignorance in the American South. Through its work, the Council also attemps to develop regional leadership concerned about these enduring problems.
While the Council’s membership is limited to 120, any number of people may become associate members, participate in the functions of the Council and receive its bimonthly magazine, Southern Changes.
During 1983, the Southern Regional Council has continued to work for a better South through a number of projects.
Not since the passage of the original Voting Rights 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 reserach 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 four 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 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 to purpose, the Council assists the local group in requesting the Justice Department to object to the changes. At times, the Council itself files such a document on behalf of the local group.
In 1983, the Project reviewed over 175 Section 5 submissions. This was done by contacting community leaders in affected jurisdictions and seeking their impressions of proposed voting changes. The bulk of our monitoring involved redistricting because of the amount of local redistricting which occured in Louisiana and Mississippi.
We were involved in twenty-six Section 5 cases either by assisting community groups in contesting discriminatory changes or representing them directly in the administrative process.
Representation of client groups meant doing extensive research and community analysis and preparing detailed comment letters to Justice Department officials. The project prepared twelve comment letters in 1983. On the basis of these letters, the Justice Department imposed objections in eight localities.
We have been called on by community groups throughout the South to supply model redistricting plans for city and county governing bodies–plans which would increase the potential for blacks to elect candidates of their choice. We drafted seventy-eight plans in 1983 and had requests for at least twenty-five more. (See “Drawing the Lines” in Southern Changes (October/November, 1983) for a discussion of the process of drawing reapportionment plans.)
In 1983 the Voting Rights Project continued to provide information on voting and election issues to requesting parties throughout the nation. Inquiries ranged from wanting to know the number of black elected officials in a particular area to developing a list of people to testify at public hearings during the national PUSH convention. Requests were received from attorneys, members of Congress and the press.
The work of the Project has taken its staff into many towns throughout the South, contacting voters leagues, NMCP groups, concerned citizens’ organizations and individuals.
In the last year in North Carolina, the SRC has continued activities in and out of the courtroom to develop a redistricting plan for the state legislature which protects minority voting strength.
All in all, there may be as many as a hundred 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.
Southern Legislative Research Council
A continuing concern of the Southern Regional Council since its founding in 1944 has been the removal of restrictions against the right to vote and to hold public office. Beginning with its first published research on the all-white primary and literacy tests in the South, the Council has documented the barring of black citizens’ participation in both elected and appointed positions. The Council has also provided technical assistance to community groups and to minority elected officials over the years on a wide range of problems and issues including education, employment, health care and housing.
Despite these efforts and the work of others, the impact of blacks, women and other elected officials representing poor and minority constituents remains too limited; often their first problem is the reality of small numbers. For example, blacks comprise less than ten percent of the Georgia General Assembly in a state that is twenty-seven percent black. In Alabama, blacks represent less than fifteen percent of the state legislature, while comprising twenty-five percent of the state’s population. In Mississippi,
almost forty percent of the state’s population is black, but less than ten percent of the state legislators are minorities.
Although limited by numbers, the impact of these legislators is further reduced by the lack of support available to them for the performance of their duties. In more than half of the legislatures outside the South, staff and office space are provided to both house and senate members; but in most Southern states resources are severely limited. In Alabama, the access to research and secretarial staff is directly controlled by the house leadership. In the senate, only committee chairs have access to even secretarial staff, and this is generally limited to the session. Any research needed on a specific piece of legislation or the budget must be done through the individual members’ own resources, or by staff directly controlled by the house and the senate leadership. In the Georgia Senate, each senator shares a secretary, and a year-round research staff is available to that body. However, the research staff is directly answerable to the president of the senate and the staff to legislator ratio is one staff person per twelve senators. Some Southern states have intern programs, but these are often limited to assistance during the session only, and directly controlled by the governor and legislative leadership.
The decade of the 1980s has brought a substantial increase in demands on legislators representing poor and black constitutents in the South. To meet the challenges, these legislators must develop their own expertise on issues and lead the way for changes. They must comprehend the issues and the legislative process itself, and understand how to use the process to benefit their constituents.
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 requests, the SLRC assists both black and white legislators, effectively increasing their capability to use information and analysis in state government.
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 three 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 1983, the work of the SLRC paralleled the concern of the Georgia and Alabama legislatures with the state budget and the loss of government money for social, educational and health care programs. In both states, the SLRC staff introduced new legislators to the budgetary process and carried out analyses of state appropriations. Among the successful proposals for which the project provided research assistance was Alabama’s approval of funds for kindergarten. In Georgia the legislature underwrote a sickle-cell program and supported the operations of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. The SLRC also monitored the progress of a federal court desegregation order under which the Georgia state university system is currently operating.
Additional work involved developing research papers and model legislation on employment discrimination. In Georgia, the legislature did pass a comprehensive act covering this subject. The Alabama staff of the SLRC compiled a report on the impact of hiring practices in the governmental departments of that state. Staff assistance in Alabama in 1983 also went into the analysis of options for the final state legislative reapportionment plan. The plan result in the election of twenty-four blacks, including five senators (the largest number of blacks serving in the Alabama legislature in modern history).
The Southern Legislative Research Council also assisted the Legislative Black Caucuses of Georgia and Alabama in developing formal structures. During 1983, both caucuses have incorporated. In Georgia, a caucus clearinghouse network and a committee structure have been organized as well as a yearly legislative weekend to meet with community groups and state department heads. In early October, with the SLRC’s assistance, the Georgia Caucus held its first major fundraising event, netting over $25,000 to be used to
hire a full-time legislative staff within the next calendar year.
The SLRC is also developing ways that will allow its research, analysis and technical assistance to be used beyond Georgia and Alabama. We have a list prepared of the most helpful documents produced by the project and will distribute this list to legislative bodies in other Southern states, and to individual legislators or community groups, upon request. In addition, the SLRC is developing a list of experts within our legislative network who can provide assistance to legislators representing poor or black constituents throughout the South. The project is also attempting to identify persons who can provide long distance written research, expertise and analysis on a timely basis on a specific issue that is widely viewed as important.
At the request of client legislators, the SLRC is planning a series of Southern conferences of legislators. These meetings will bring together legislators, experts, and community groups from throughout the South to discuss issues as well as the legislative process. The initial conference will focus on the ways that legislators can be more effective in the legislative process, especially the budget process. The second conference, planned for the late summer or fall of 1984, will focus primarily on such issues as taxation, education, and economic development.
The initial conference probably will be limited to black legislators, and will attempt to identify general goals and objectives of black legislators throughout the South. The second conference, focusing on prevailing legislative issues will include other legislators and community groups representing poor black constituents.
The SRC’s Cooperative Democracy and Development Project is designed to work with community-based organizations in the rural South that are attempting to develop and execute strategies of legal activities, technical assistance and organizing to achieve democratic control of utility cooperatives. 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. Few private or governmental institutions play a more important role than electric coops in the lives of the poor. These coops constitute the largest, corporate citizens in the rural South and are the largest non-governmental employers in the area. Coops not only provide electricity, they also have an important role for developing new models for conservation and job-creation. Unlike investor-owned utilities which have huge, standing plants, electric coops are largely distributors of electricity and have a self-interest in finding ways of conserving energy and creating jobs.
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 prime financing agents for local economic and social development.
During the last twelve months the Coop Democracy Project has worked with coalitions of leaders in more than twenty different areas of the rural South in their efforts to make cooperatives lower the cost of electricity to low-income consumers; to redirect financial resources to provide for local job-creating industries; to finance low-cost, energy efficient housing in poor areas; and to undertake similar developments with the coops’ own resources. Primarily, the Project is aimed at accomplishing these efforts through supporting local groups who wish to elect alternative members to the boards of directors of the coops.
As a result of Project activities over thirteen hundred consumer-members were for the first time directly involved in community-based efforts to elect minority representatives to six coop governing boards in North Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia, Louisiana, and Georgia. Community leaders received training and information on the electric coops and their potential in these states and in Arkansas, South Carolina, and Alabama.
The process of bringing about democracy in electric coops has been both difficult and, at times, dangerous. Earlier this year in Mecklenberg, Virginia one of the local black leaders who supported a challenge to the local coop spent much of her evening at the coop’s offices observing the election and returned home to find her house broken into and flammable liquids poured around several rooms. The intruder had departed hastily.
The activities of the Coop Project have not yet succeeded in changing the control of very many coops. The Project however, has made some important progress. It has informed a number of consumers for the first time about their rights as members of the coop and of the potential of the coop to deal with their problems. In a few instances the coops have made some changes as a direct response to challenges. In Mississippi, a black staff member is finally inside the Greenwood office of the Delta Electric Power Association because of activities and allegations against the coop. In North Carolina, information presented to community leaders is now being used in negotiations with the coop to garner support for a financial investment to save black land loss. In other instances the Project has been partially responsible for the election of alternative boards of directors such as in Louisiana with the Dixie Electric
Membership Cooperative. We have established a sizable body of legal research which will be helpful to the Project and others in protecting and exploring the rights of coop members. And, the Project has documented the widespread patterns and practices of coops in the Deep South through extensive research at the Rural Electrification Administration offices, the supervising federal agency for electric coops, and through monitoring of coop meetings. All of this effort has established an important base of information and interest for ongoing activities.
The last year has also evidenced a wide range of primary techniques and maneuvers available to coop management to manipulate and frustrate the efforts of challengers. These techniques include the denial of access to vital information such as membership lists, financial data, and bylaws; the changing of by-laws and procedures to fit the management’s immediate needs; and the use of coop resources— telephones, personnel, trucks, and mailing facilities— to recruit support for the incumbent management. All of these maneuvers rest on the coop management’s control of information and resources.
The Project’s experience has also revealed the most vivid examples of bedrock racial hatred which still persists in this area. In places suc!1 as Mississippi, coops have gone to extraordinary trouble and expense to bar any possibility of even one or two black board members on a coop. Of the more than 750 coop board members in Mississippi, none is black, even today. In Mecklenberg, Virginia, the mere possibility that three of twelve black board members would be elected prompted more than two thousand whites to turn out at an annual meeting where fewer than seventy people had attended over the past fifteen years. In every place, “race-baiting” has been used as a primary tool by which coop management spurs white support when faced with challenges.
The Project and local community leaders have also faced resignation and hopelessness among poor black coop members. Although concerned with increasingly high utility bills and the need for jobs, many members feel little urge to attend annual coop meetings. Nonetheless, the first year o. full activity for the Coop Democracy and Development Project has seen the beginnings of a base of strength and experience.
Lillian Smith Book Awards
Lillian Smith, Georgia thinker, activist, author and Southern Regional Council Life Member, died September 28, 1966. The SRC created the Lillian Smith Book Awards to honor her life, her work,: and her commitment, and to recognize in her name those who have contributed to our understanding of the South, its people, its strengths, problems and weaknesses. The Smith Awards are given each year to fiction and non-fiction works which best carry on Lillian Smith’s vision of the South.
Civil Rights History for Radio
Moving toward a final stage of production is a series of twenty-eight radio broadcasts documenting recent civil rights history in five Southern state capitals. A phase of this project, completed in January of 1984, involved the preparation of scripts and/or in-depth treatments for five programs in each of the following cities: Jackson, Little Rock, Columbia, Montgomery and Atlanta. This first phase also called for three scripts or treatments for the region as a whole.
The Project’s inital efforts focused on staff organization and administration, and included the organization of five person advisory committee, and several part-time re-
searchers and consultants; review with radio consultants of recording procedures and standards for broadcast; acquisition and testing of sound equipment suitable for broadcast quality tape recordings; development of a plan for field interviews, office procedures and transcriptions; and planning execution of two meetings with advisory committee scholars for reviewing the progress and focus of the project.
The balance of the Project’s work has been in four major areas: interviewing, transcribing tapes, researching, and writing, and writing.
The Project staff has recorded more than forty field interviews in Jackson, Columbia and Montgomery. Preliminary interviews have been conducted by phone in Little Rock and Atlanta.
The interviews have included participants at all levels of the movement, from those who marched in the bus boycott to those who sought early admission to segregated schools, from picketers to policemen who arrested picketers, from ministers to lawyers, from teachers to insurance salesmen. (For examples of these interviews see Southern Changes for October/November and December, 1983.)
In order that the approach to and understanding of change could be more readily compared from place to place, the interviews have been structured so that each interviewee would be asked a consistent set of questions. To be sure that the spontaneous responses which make good radio were brought forth, the interviewees were also asked appropriate background questions that allow them to place their personal histories and experiences in the context of the civil rights movement.
About one-third of the interviews have been fully transcribed and extensive notes have been taken on the rest. All tapes were reviewed several times in preparation for scripting. This process has been tedious and time-consuming, but the range and volume of material and volume of material covered by the project demands that the tapes be transcribed to allow for careful scripting. Transcription has also proved necessary because of the historical value of the recorded interviews to other researchers, writers, and producers. On going field and library research during the Project has been necessary to verify and amplify the outlines of the planning phase. Project workers have conducted an extensive review of documentary materials and scholarly research related to the civil rights movement so that the interviewers could ask better questions, and so the writers of the scripts and treatments would be better able to know when the oral histories given by the interviewees needed support or when other sources should be sought for clarification.
The Civil Rights History Project expects to finish production in 1985 and to distribute the programs around the region by 1986.
Southern Changes is the bi-monthly magazine of the Southern Regional Council. It is one of the nation’s few publications which provides reporting and analysis with a regional perspective.
One issue of Southern Changes in 1983 prompted author Kurt Vonnegut to write: “When I was a boy, my father promised me that if this became a better country, it would have to do so without the help of Southerners or Catholics. That was a long time ago. How wrong he was.”
The Council is exploring 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. A marketing survey and demonstration tapes have been completed and in the next year the Council will seek financing and contractual commitments from radio stations throughout the South.
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 NAACP 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 to develop new ways to redress the historical exclusions from the airways.
AMP was a co-sponsor with the Southern Regional Council in producing the Southern Network. Other projects in last year including the production of professional quality public service announcements for the Voter Education Project, Inc.
In a unique experiment in cable television and public affairs programming, the Southern Regional Council and the Atlanta Media Project coordinated the coverage of the presidential primary election campaigns in Florida, Georgia and Alabama for cable television systems through a temporary Southern Network. Some ten hours of coverage per week began in late January, 1984 and ran for two months. Each participating cable system set aside time for the Southern Network programming on one of the system’s local origination channels. More than forty cable systems in the three states carried the programming of Southern Net–a potential audience of one million households. Southern Network programs featured gavel-to-gavel speeches by each candidate, discussion programs with news reporters covering the campaigns, debates by candidates’ representatives and in-depth examination of candidates’ positions on issues.
Surveys by the Southern Network showed that at least one in four households watched some of its programming. In late 1984 the Network may provide coverage of the general election. Other experiments in cable may be initiated in 1985.
Southern Rural Alliance
The Southern Rural Alliance was created to pool together the planning, strategies, and resources of its members–the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the Emergency Land Fund, the ACLU Foundation Southern Office, the Voter Education Project, and the Southern Regional Council–to enable more rapid political and economic change in the rural South.
In 1983, the Alliance’s efforts were focused on three counties in Alabama–Choctaw, Greene, and Sumter. While this limited and targeted effort represented a major revision in our original scope of work, the Alliance’s efforts in one, limited location was designed to demonstrate the impact and viability of the organization’s cooperative approach to political participation.
The first task of the Alliance was to obtain a complete and accurate picture of black voter participation for Greene, Sumter, and Choctaw counties. The results of the analysis were at times revealing to both the Alliance members and to local leaders:
* While there is room for improvement, voter registration in the three-county district is not the major problem. Indeed, over 75 percent of persons 18 and over are registered to vote. The difference between blacks and whites is small.
* The larger problem for this district is the level of voter turnout. Voter participation levels among blacks for the three-county area is somewhere around 60 percent In Greene County, the level is somewhere around 49 percent.
* In several boxes and beats, past elections show significant support for white incumbent candidates who were in races against well-respected black candidates.
Using the results as a guide, the Alliance began its work. The Alliance was somewhat successful in developing a comprehensive list of precinct leaders for the target counties. It was this list that was used in putting together a people’s nomination convention. A number of workshops were also conducted with the precinct leaders from the three-county area. The thrust of these workshops has sought to identify strategies for getting out the vote. Demonstrating the past election results, participants were asked to analyze the causes for such poor turnouts and to explore methods for increasing the turnout. While registration was not the largest problem, efforts were aimed to improve the level of registered voters in some low beats. The recent appointment of two blacks to the local board of registrars in Greene County has permitted the Alliance to
counsel those officials about methods to increase voter registration.
The primary election analysis shows that voter registration and voter turnout did increase in the November election probably as a partial result of the Alliance’s work.
Maps of the South
Using data from the 1980 census, the Council worked in 1983 to prepare multi-colored maps of the South, showing–county by county–the distribution of poor and black population. The maps are accompanied by state reports on changes in population and poverty since 1970. Both maps and reports are scheduled for release in late April 1984 and are available to the public.
Agricultural Marketing Project of Georgia
The Agricultural Marketing Project of Georgia provides a means by which small, marginal farmers can develop and maintain markets for their produce and low-income consumers can have fresh food at low costs. Since its inception in 1979, AMP-G has operated under the the administrative and financial controls of the Council.
In 1983, Project activities reflected a changed emphasis of work, away from food fairs and toward consumer work in the Atlanta area, associated with the Atlanta Produce Exchange. Because the various farm groups which the Project has established was running food fairs around the state smoothly on their own, primary assistance was no longer needed.
Most staff time was devoted to the development and the operation of the Altanta Produce Exchange which is now independently incorporated, with its own board, whose members include two farmers and three consumer group representatives. The Exchange is designed to operate as a broker between small farmers and buying clubs and other bulk purchasers of fresh produce. It is set up to function entirely in the future on revenues generated by the sale of produce.
Each month representatives of regional groups and state coalitions meet in Atlanta for the Southern Roundtable, an opportunity to discuss, question and explore common or emerging issues, problems and concerns in the South. More than fifty groups receive the Roundtable mailings and attend meetings in Atlanta. The Council hosts the Southern Roundtable.