Running for office with hopes to reshape the South
Inspired by her husband's unsuccessful runs for a congressional seat in the early 1960s, Clayton ran herself in 1967. Her goal was, in part, to spur African-American voter registration and demonstrate the significance of political participation to African American progress. She, and other African-American candidates, also wanted to remake their region so the river of migrants flowing north might one day reverse its course.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Eva Clayton, July 18, 1989. Interview C-0084. 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
- KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Except for more that I'm interested in what the dynamic was related to
civil rights in each community. It might have varied widely. So,
actually I'd be curious now about this 1968 period, because that, if I'm
right, launched your interest, at least formally, in electoral
- EVA CLAYTON:
Yeah, well, my being in congress, is a result of my activism in voting
registration. I had four, maybe three or four years, prior to that,
[when] my husband and I had helped voter registration workshops
throughout the county. And my husband had run.
- KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Oh, I wasn't aware of that. When did he run?
- EVA CLAYTON:
He ran for the state house in 1964, probably '65, because you don't run
even years. So it was probably '65 and '67, or either '63 and '65, but
he had run twice. In fact the first time he ran he was able to call for
a runoff. He wasn't a leading candidate, but out of that effort and that
participation, I was encouraged to run for Congress. Now I didn't expect
to win, but I obviously you run to win. In fact I did considerably
better than I ever thought I would have, and probably if I knew all that
I know now I probably wouldn't have run.
I was really interested in voter registration
and they really needed someone, a candidate, to focus that, to get
people excited, why wouldn't you take the next step, if you're really
committed to voter registration? I learned an awful lot in that process.
I think I learned how important symbols were to people. Voter
registration in Warren County increased by 25 percent. Voter
registration in the second district increased by some 12 percent. It was
the highest significant registration increase they've ever had in either
the county or the district, even since then. But that still wasn't
sufficient enough to get blacks at a local level, or blacks
substantially at a regional level. I wasn't alone in running. I
indicated there was Reginald Hawkins running for governor, there were
persons running for county commissioners in our county and other
surrounding counties, [also] school boards. So there was an emerging
recognition that political participation was the way if you're going to
have equality, that you had to have people in positions to make the
decision. Now some of that was successful, some of it wasn't, but I
think there was a commitment by the leadership and people did take the
risk——yes, I'll be a candidate. Even when you knew
there was a possibility that you wouldn't be. I think that was there.
There was, in places like Warren County prior to my running and prior to
my coming to the county, just a great outward migration for very good
reasons. There's a book called Chickenbone Special. It
was about the trek from the south to the North for people to find jobs
and a better way of life. The event of our running,
or other people running, the community found just an outpouring of
people expressing hope that one day their communities would be the kind
of community where they could come back home. Now, all that hasn't
materialized, but the sense of pride that something happened somewhere.
So I think, those were some of the expectations and the feelings that
were going on during that time. After the 1968 involvement, I indicated
earlier that I had to learn a lot and I had gotten involved. My
involvement, my desire to want to be a missionary, is continued not in
terms of being a missionary, but my involvement in church. I received
substantial support both from several interdenominational [groups], as
well as some foundations. Groups said they'd help in voter registration.
There were sources out there available, there was a need, and we
organized something called Eastern North Carolina Development
Corporation, I think it's called, EDC, yeah, EDC, Economic Development
Corporation, Eastern North Carolina Development Corporation. Out of that
we established day cares throughout eastern North Carolina, and some of
those day cares are still there. In fact, there's an Eastern North
Carolina Day Care Association headed by Alice Ballance and one done in
Bertie County and Ahoskie, Battleboro, which grew out of that process,
which foundations had given. That was the social end of that. It was
harder to get a handle on the economics of it, but that's truly where it
is. Politics is the road to improve the economics. That has not happened
in the main, but why participate in politics if you're not trying to
improve the economics and liveability of the people
who are there? Surely there needed to be efforts, and there still need
to be efforts in working with ecomomic development in that area. I think
that's sufficient response to that question.