Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edwin Caldwell, March 2, 2001. Interview K-0202. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Decision to register voters

Caldwell describes how he became involved in the civil rights movement and his decision to focus on voter registration.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edwin Caldwell, March 2, 2001. Interview K-0202. 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

How I got involved in education, was there were not many potential black leaders coming back. I was college educated, people always looked up, that I would be a leader, I guess, because of my family. So I came back and before I knew it I was put on every advisory committee and every committee and so forth. A person by the name of Rebecca Clark and some other key leaders thought I ought to run for the school board. At that time Reverend Manley was on the school board and he was not going to run again, so they were looking for somebody to run. I was not really qualified, I was coming back, I didn't know politics, I didn't know very much of anything. But I ran, and almost got elected. From that I found myself being put on a lot of, asked to volunteer for a lot of, committees and so forth. I got involved in politics because that was the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were already chosen. The Civil Rights Movement was moving at its own steam and I did not feel that there was a place for me in that. I did not agree with some of the tactics that they were proposing. Many of the leaders and so forth, there were some from Chapel Hill, but there were quite a few leaders from other places that were calling the shots. One specific thing that I disagreed with was they wanted to put some of the older people out front in a march. It was reported that people were coming up from Georgia. Mr. Maddox had sent some people up from Georgia with axe handles and so forth. So therefore it had the potential of being not good. I stood up and said the older people that you are asking to lead the march were parents of some my classmates, they were people I always looked up to. I don't agree with that. I voiced that. I guess the fact that I stood up-there were quite a few of the adults that said, "no since Ed said that, I don't think I want to go out there." I think the young people took the leadership role. I don't think anything happened, but the police were waiting, they had things under control. So I began to look for places that I thought I would be effective. I decided to get involved in voter registration, I felt that it would be nice to break down barriers of segregation and public accommodation, but I also thought that we needed a certain power. I didn't think we could muster economic power, but we certainly could begin to have some political power. At that time the business merchants ruled the town. There was about a hundred business people and they were on every board, they pretty much controlled the elections and so forth. I said to myself, "hundred some people control politics." I had worked with a person by the name of Tony Mason. Tony Mason was a white student, I am not quite sure if he was in high school or in college, may have been his first second year of college. Tony wanted to be in the civil rights movement, his parents were a little afraid that he may get hurt so they tried to look for other places for Tony to work. Tony and I co-chaired a voter registration campaign and we registered a lot of people. I have a lot of respect for Tony because he did a super job. I learned a lot from him even though he was young. He was fearless. We did it right. We selected block captains, on every block that we used to find out who was registered or whatever. We used block captains very effectively. We printed a newsletter. We did a lot of surveys and found out who was registered and who wasn't registered. We worked with them to get them registered. The person didn't read very well we helped them go over what they had to read to get registered. In those days it wasn't easy to get registered. The registrars were a little hostile to anybody black coming into the courthouse. I remember the first time I registered I just didn't feel comfortable going in there. Just the hostility and how the questions they asked you and whatever, and I was college trained. I think I had to read the constitution of North Carolina or something. After I became registered we went around and we registered a lot of people. I think Tony must have gone back off to school. Therefore, I continued to work in voter registration. We were very successful in registering a lot of people.