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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Encouraging voter education, participation, and local leadership

Lewis offers his thoughts on the role of voter registration within the civil rights movement at the time of the interview in 1973. As Lewis argues here, the emphasis needed to move beyond voter registration to include more of a focus on voter education and participation. According to Lewis, national and local race organizations needed to encourage citizens to vote and to run for public office. In addition, Lewis addresses the issue of leadership within the movement, stressing his belief that "indigenous leaders" would continue to be important to the success of civil rights measures. As elsewhere in the interview, Lewis uses Alabama as an example of what was happening in the South more broadly.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
As white registration and participation is going down can you see black registration and participation going up?
JOHN LEWIS:
I think it will go up. It must ho up because on the other hand if you have dramatic voter registration in the black community, highly publicized registration effort that will also inspire, sure to inspire white registration.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
When do you think that you have reached of participation and registration levels?
JOHN LEWIS:
We would like to see all of the people of voting age registered. In the South there's stil more than two and a half million blacks of voting age that are unregistered. That may be probably impossible. Maybe it will be almost impossible for an organization like VEP to get all of those people registered. I think we can only do so much in terms of registration. We get to a point and you have to have a sort of cut off in terms of the registration effort. Even the people that you get registered, there must be a continued on-going process of political education. We have a situation in the South with black voters and I think it's the same problem with white voters, particularly low income white voters to a certain point. Primarily with black voters who have been kept out of the political process, they have been excluded. And some people are registering and voting for the first time and they have got to get into the habit of voting and the habit of participating. So I think we have sort of an obligation or responsibility to follow through, not to just any process of registration. To carry on some form of voter education, citizenship education or citizen participation.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
By that you mean identifying the potential black leaders and getting them to run for office?
JOHN LEWIS:
I don't think VEP can necessarily encourage people to run for office, as an organization under our present tax status. But I do think that we can create a climate, the situation where people feel that they should run. I think we have an obligation to educate people to that pont where they will go out and vote and not vote on the basis of race, but there are issues involved and educate people to the duties and responsibilities of a particular position.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Are there national organizations or statewide organizations or local groups of blacks that tend to identify other blacks to run and encourage them to run for office?
JOHN LEWIS:
There is one group based in Atlants, the Southern Election Fund, on a small scale it's trying to do some of that-to identify communities where the potential for blacks being elected and trying to identify some potential candidates.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Jack gave me a name of someone there . . . .
JOHN LEWIS:
But you don't have anything like that on any type of significant level.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
There's some concern about that. Suppose if by encouraging a lot of blacks to run for office or creating a climate for which they can do so, you encourage people who are incompetent and then you have that judgement to look at. My point is, when I came down South from Michigan and worked in Louisiana and North Carolina and some other places, the white politicians were sections of the black community-was just that. it was a modelitic structure and the top two or three leaders were generally ministers or pastors. Then you had the key to that voting block. In most stages where I have done studies of the blacks I find there is no modelitic structure. I mean, since there is no national leader, in many cases there are no state leaders and what you have is a fragmented structure. But you got a group of white politicians who perceive it otherwise.
JOHN LEWIS:
I agree with that. That's why I think it's dangerous. It is a danger for any organization, for any group and hopefully VEP will never get in a position of trying to suggest who should run and who should not run. In the final analysis that candidate or that person become elected must be responsive to the people that elected him. In the state of Alabama we have various black political factions there. We'be been trying to do some things there to bring people together, the black leader in a particular city, state, or on a national level. Even here in this city, the last election I think destroyed the whole idea of a group of black people putting together a ticket. And I think too long in the South, white politicians have placed some their political future in the hands of a few ministers of a few name leaders. They give them five hundred dollars, two thousand dollars to put their names on a ticket and some of these guys-even in a city like Atlanta- live from one election, to theso-called black leaders and church people live from one election to the next election by getting a piece of money here and there. They are literally throwing their money away.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Isn't this a reflection of what happens nationally since Dr. King? There really isn't anybody identified in any national black organization as the black leader. This fragmentation of power which really started in '68 is now continuing and I guess you suggest it's going to continue and instead of going back to just one or two national prominent or state-wide prominent leaders you are going to continue to have more and more leaders of the local level.
JOHN LEWIS:
I think we are going to see a continuation of indigenous leaders, whether on a local level, country-wide, city-wide. Local organizations will not be necessarily a national plan or national strategy. It will not be any type of national group coming together. In the state of Alabama for example, you have the conference of black mayors under the leadership of . You have the Alabama Democratic Conference based in Montgomery with Joe Reed. Then you have the National Democratic Party of Alabama. John Cashin and some of those guys would not sit down in the same room together. John Cashin saying black people shouldn't runas Democrats. they should run in the general election on an independent ticket. Joe Reed and some of the other people saying that they should run in the Democratic primary . . . .
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Doesn't that seem to suggest that instead of solidifying the black movement by electing more and more black leaders
JOHN LEWIS:
I think more and more black people must be and will be elected in spite of and divisions. And in my estimation, it might beahelpful thing to have no one leader no spokesman speaking out of Atlanta or New York. To have people dealing with their problems in their own communitites, in their own neighborhoods, in their own counties, in their own congressional districts in all the states. I think black people too often in the South during the days of the Civil Rights movement, got the feeling that some Messiah is going to liberate them, going to free them. Some communitites in the South literally were left untouched by the the Civil Rights movement and they must start from scratch.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Didn't the death of Martin Luther King sort of frighten-up that illusion
JOHN LEWIS:
I think it destroyed it to a certain degree. The leadership and the symbolic leadership of Dr. King, no question about it, played a very important role. It gave many many people a great sense of hope that change is possible but I still think too many people in the South are waiting for somebody to come into their communities.