When I first made the decision to travel to the South to join the voter registration drive, I had my doubts. At the time, I was 35, married, and had two young sons. Violence against blacks, and whites who were sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement, was rampant. However, with the understanding of my wife, I made the trip under the aegis of the NAACP and arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 22, 1965.
My first impression on meeting other volunteers during an orientation session was that we were on a college campus. Virtually all were youngsters in their late teens or early 20s, from all over the country. We were split up into small groups and were bused or driven to different neighborhoods, where we knocked on doors and tried to convince the people to register to vote in the next election. The goal of the voter registration drive was to enroll 100,000 new voters in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
It is important to understand that in Alabama in 1965, only about 24 percent of Negroes were registered versus about 80 percent of whites. The major reason for this disparity was that Negroes were discouraged and/or threatened when they attempted to register. It was against this backdrop that we were trying to convince them to exercise their rights as citizens of the United States.
The truth is that progress was slow, impediments many, and danger a constant companion. However, I will cherish my memories of the camaraderie of the volunteers I worked with. I will never forget the kindness and gentleness of people who had very little, but opened their homes and their hearts to us. And I shall ever be grateful to those ministers who, at great physical risk to themselves, asked us to use their pulpits to bring our message to their parishioners.
In the greater scheme of things, my contributions to this effort were minimal, but I did manage to discover that there was a purpose in my being there that I had not anticipated. As we were constantly being harassed while driving, walking, eating, and even while sleeping, security and other logistics became paramount. A number of volunteers had been beaten and threatened with further harm. On many occasions, volunteers did not return to headquarters on time. No one seemed to know where to find them, as they were given loosely worded instructions as to what streets they should canvass. In some cases, they wandered off into other areas or simply got lost. I wrote a report that contained recommendations on security, job knowledge, field coverage, transportation for prospective voters, compliance with local customs, and a few other plan-ahead details. I was told that this material was put into pamphlet form and subsequently used with new volunteers.