NOTE BY HUNTER GRAY [3-5-02] This has been published on the website of Anti-Racism Commission of DSA: Our Struggle/Nuestra Lucha
ORGANIZING AND VOTER ED: TOUGH, TEDIOUS, AND VITAL
By Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] Micmac / St Francis Abenaki / St Regis Mohawk
The post mortems on the Florida electoral situation of a year ago have been virtually endless. Calls for "reforms" -- generally statutory and Federal in nature -- have been frequent. All well and good but, to me and to many others, effective grassroots organizing is still the most basic dimension in achieving substantial victories -- whether political or otherwise.
In the realm of political action, this certainly applies whether one is functioning, say, within the Democratic Party or the Green movements or from a Left related independent perspective.
As I see it -- and I've been a consistent social justice organizer since 1955 -- systematic and enduring grassroots organizing is Genesis. It's tedious, wearing, frustrating -- and absolutely crucial in the "Save the World Business." [Our very large social justice website -- www.hunterbear.org -- has much that relates to bona fide social justice organizing.]
An effective organizer seeks to get grassroots people together -- and does; develops on-going and democratic local leadership; deals effectively with grievances and individual/family concerns; works with the people to achieve basic organizational goals and develop new ones; and builds a sense of the New World To Come Over The Mountains Yonder -- and how all of that relates to the shorter term steps. An effective organizer has to be a person of integrity, courage, commitment. And a person of solidarity and sacrifice.
Let's take a look at the Florida situation -- recognizing that in that setting, as elsewhere, there has been nothing in recent times comparable to the massive obstacles to voter registration and voting that existed prior to the Civil Rights Movement [and many associated efforts] and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: terror, economic reprisals, poll tax, "interpretation" requirements, "literacy" tests. There were obstacles in Election 2000 -- but nothing even remotely like the Bad Old Days.
In Florida [and in some other settings], the NAACP and comparable civil rights groups did an excellent job in registering new voters and they did a first-rate job in getting people to the polls.
But -- they fell down badly on the "middle piece" --i.e., providing intensive voter education for the newly registered voters. They may have done a little of this but, frankly, not very much at all.
That piece of it -- intensive and thorough pre-election voter education -- is hard and tedious. It involves everything from a massive, paper tornado of how-to-do-it-stuff and a flood of sample ballots, to role-playing, to basic and specific discussion of civil rights violations and what to do effectively about those. It's a matter of working very directly with the new registrants themselves -- but also training key community leaders -- e.g., clergy, teachers, civic organizational spokespersons, union leaders -- in order that they, too, can themselves provide accurate training directly to the new voters at the most basic grassroots level.
The other dimension involves developing an intricate network of trained poll-watchers and liaison people [the latter linked to private attorneys and Federal officials] in order to deal swiftly -- and as preventatively as possible -- with violations of voter rights.
And another piece is responding to the anticipated large turnout by effectively demanding, well in advance, that state officials set up additional polling places -- with up-to-date voting machines -- and to do whatever else is necessary to ensure that the election runs smoothly and fairly on all counts.
The adversaries will use every device and trick to void ballots and to otherwise sabotage the fairness of the election process. It's incumbent on our side to utilize every resource at our command to reduce this as much as possible -- and then to have the solid basis for effective legal and other protest in those instances where violations of voter rights do occur.
I initially learned about much of this, especially the voter registration part of it, when Arizona was using "literacy tests" and other devices to keep Chicanos and Native Americans from registering and voting -- a practice which was ended only by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I cut my teeth on this as a kid at and around Flagstaff, where my parents were always very actively involved in these issues and battles.
And I personally learned a great deal about all of this -- hard-fought voter registration and education and related issues -- from the always excellent, very democratic and egalitarian, and quite radical International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in settings where much of our membership was Chicano and there were also significant numbers of Apache and Papago Indians, and some Navajo people.
And I learned an enormous amount about voter registration and voter education -- over many years -- under extraordinarily difficult circumstances in the Southern Movement.
One of several cases in point: In one of a number of hard-fought Southern campaigns -- focused initially on a very hard-core Klan-infested Blackbelt county [Halifax Co., N.C.] where virtually no Blacks or Indians had been able to register and vote since Reconstruction, we used a wide variety of resources. [I was the Field Organizer for the Southern Conference Educational Fund: grassroots civil rights and anti-Klan organizing.]
During an eight month period, I spoke to at least 250 meetings; we ran a large number of non-White candidates; used top-flight lawyers to win a major Federal voting order and forced the Justice Department into the situation; and we disseminated many thousands of pieces of mimeographed and printed literature.
We registered several thousand brand-new voters -- people who, certainly through no fault of their own, had never voted before in an official public election anywhere.
A major effort of ours focused on voter education: we brought the SCLC Citizenship School staff in from Savannah to help train local leaders to conduct grassroots gatherings on how-to-vote-effectively. We put out thousands more copies of our own material and used a great deal of stuff contributed by the AFL-CIO. During the various voting days -- two primaries and one general election -- we had, in addition to our own people as poll-watchers and "crisis runners" -- a large number of law students from Georgetown and Yale.
The "other side," of course, had a historically accumulated majority and our candidates did not win at that point. [But those tangible electoral victories certainly did come later.] What this effort did was to register thousands of new voters in one of the most repressive Southern counties and get them to the polls to vote in a series of elections -- with very few spoiled ballots.
We also used economic boycotts and militant nonviolent direct action on other, related issue fronts: e.g., segregated and substandard facilities, employment discrimination, police brutality, Klan terror, cheating of sharecroppers, surplus commodities for poor people -- and much, much more.
This campaign not only opened up Halifax County -- but was the major initial wedge of our intensive and broad-based campaign which then moved effectively across the geographically far-flung, multi-county Northeastern North Carolina Blackbelt.
We did this extensively in Chicago multi-issue block club organizing in the '70s -- where formal obstacles were not the problem but outright fraud certainly was -- via the Daley Machine. [I was Southside Director for the Chicago Commons Association, a large private social justice organization.]
But we had significant successes -- including dumping a Daley Alderman and very careful voter education -- was the consistent key to victory. Another key was building bridges based on mutual goals, mutual respect, and enlightened self-interest between the various "ethnicities of the fewest alternatives" -- especially Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican.
There are many models for effective political action -- registration, voter education, voting: a myriad of effective organizing approaches over the epochs [settlement houses, unions, multi-issue community organization, some of the more tenacious radical groups, etc.]
Notable efforts specializing in this with respect to the Opening South of the 1960s and beyond involved the aforementioned Citizenship Schools pioneered by Mrs Septima Clark of SCLC, the Voter Education Project administered through the Southern Regional Council, and the veteran and still very much around Highlander Research and Education Center based in Tennessee [which, in its historic Southwide education campaigns, had initially trained Mrs Septima Clark herself.]
Next time around in this New Century, I'm sure there will be, All Over The Land, extensive voter registration and voter mobilization and organization and, in all great likelihood, very intensive voter education campaigns, and all of the other related dimensions that need to be pursued and pushed. But let's make absolutely sure this time -- and well in advance!
In Solidarity, Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
Hunter Gray is a regional coordinator of the Anti Racism Commission.