Voter Education Project
Established in 1962, the Voter Education Project’s (VEP) mission was to register African Americans to vote. By the time Lewis took over, it had registered over 1.5 million Southern African American voters. However, there was still a lot of work to be done. Millions more Southern African Americans were not registered to vote and despite there being 102 African American majority counties in the South, there were few African Americans holding elected offices or trying to do so. Lewis’ goal was to get African Americans more involved in politics at all levels. He immediately began “spearheading get-out-the-vote drives, presenting seminars for young black people interested in politics, and offering technical and financial assistance to black community groups interested in political education” (413). He then commissioned a poster depicting “two strong black hands, one pulling cotton from a boll and the other putting a ballot in a box, with the words “HANDS THAT PICK COTTON NOW CAN PICK OUR ELECTED OFFICIALS” emblazoned at the bottom” (413). The poster was so successful ten thousand plus copies were distributed throughout the South and displayed in places like beauty parlors, barbershops, schools, and churches. Gathering “visible public figures, black leaders and politicians” like Julian Bond, Virginia senator Doug Wilder, Alabama representative Tom Reed, Alabama legislature leader Fred Gray, Coretta Scott King, and Ralph Abernathy, and sending them “into little villages and hamlets, places where people had never seen a black elected official” (414) Lewis “took them all over the South, to Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana” (414). Their presence during VEP tours helped the cause. Without them, it would have been harder to motivate people to become politically active. Lewis did not just rely on them though. He was on the frontlines making “ten or twelve stops in one county” or “covering ten counties in one day” (414). In fact, “during one eight-day stretch in 1971, he made thirty-nine speeches in twenty-five counties” (414). His efforts paid off. In 1972 Andrew Young became the representative for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District and the Deep South’s first African American congressman of the century. That same year, Barbara Jordan won a congressional seat in Texas.
Subsequently, Lewis shifted his focus, “doing door-to-door canvassing in places like Dawson, Georgia; Ville Platte, Louisiana; and Soul City, North Carolina” (415). He visited the town of Waterproof, Louisiana, which was still segregated in the 1970s. At the meeting he held, “150 people showed up, most of whom were not registered to vote, many of whom were nervous about even being seen at a gathering like this” (415). None of the city’s elected officials were African American, but when Lewis returned three years later, Waterproof had an African American mayor and the majority of the city council was also African American. The city had made an impressive turnaround, and Lewis later said, “the basis of the VEP’s efforts was to allow people who had been left out and left behind to catch up” (415). When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expired in 1975, the VEP’s funding plummeted and its staff shrank tremendously. Determined to not let it fail and to not let the Voting Rights Act be destroyed, Lewis presented evidence and gave testimonies to congressional subcommittees advocating for a renewal of the act. On August 6th, the tenth anniversary of the original signing, the act was renewed. When Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential election, African American support was a significant factor in his victory. As Lewis puts it succinctly, “the hands that picked cotton had now picked a president” (417). Most importantly, Lewis and the VEP were responsible for creating Carter’s African American support. Without their efforts, Carter would not have won. The fact that he did is proof of how meaningful Lewis’ work at the VEP was. When he left the VEP in 1977, Lewis had organized and registered four million African Americans to vote in the South. In other words, he had demonstrated his devotion to the empowerment of African Americans by empowering four million Southern African Americans. Why did he leave? To run for office. In 1977, Andrew Young vacated Georgia’s Fifth District congressional seat to become United States ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis wanted his seat.