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Veterans of '60s Voter-Registration Drive Reflect


It's been 40 years since the US Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making good on a section of the US Constitution that had long been denied to far too many people. The 15th Amendment had guaranteed black Americans the right to vote when it was ratified in 1870, but many counties throughout the South had imposed poll taxes, literacy tests, pop quizzes and other contrivances to deprive blacks of that right. Such discouragement was often backed up by intimidation, threats and violence.

But young civil rights workers, black and white, helped bring about a revolution of faith in the idea that all Americans could and should vote. In the summer of 1965, Bruce Miroff joined hundreds of white northern college students in a voter registration campaign called SCOPE. He and other volunteers went to James Island, South Carolina, 40 years ago this summer and returned this year. Reporter Nick Miroff sends us some recollections from that group, starting with his father's.

(Soundbite of voices)

Mr. BRUCE MIROFF (Former SCOPE Civil Rights Worker): When we first came to James Island and were going door-to-door, I remember a small child knocked on the door, saying, `Mom, it's the insurance man,' because the only white people they ever saw were insurance men collecting premiums. By the last week, we were working--we were so familiar to the community that a child answered the door and yelled back to his mother, `Mom, it's the voting man.'

Unidentified Man #1: That would be extolling...

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, maybe 20 people...

Ms. MARION C. BENNETT(ph) (Former SCOPE Civil Rights Worker): My name is Marion C. Bennett.

Unidentified Man #2: No, no, no. No, they were saying that.

Unidentified Woman: Maybe you could just get us a...

Ms. BENNETT: In the summer of 1965, I was in between my junior year and senior year at Harvard.

(Soundbite of voices)

Ms. BENNETT: The summer of '65 was a year after Philadelphia, Mississippi, with the murder of Chaney, Goodwin and Schwerner. We all knew the stories of people who got arrested in the South. You got arrested, you might never again be heard of. If you were a woman, you could be raped. People were taken from jails and killed. So I didn't want to be a part of any of that. I was willing to work on the movement, but I very much valued my life. I wanted to live.

Unidentified Man #3: What provision is that?

Unidentified Woman #2: What kind of person is Lefty?

Mr. MIROFF: We asked people to go into Charleston to register. You could only go in to register the first Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of each month. And I and my fellow volunteers had come out of an idealistic sense to take part in the struggle, but the people who lived here had a far deeper and more fundamental struggle.

Unidentified Man #4: ...of anybody here. I'll report to...

Mr. ISAAC WILLIAMS (Former SCOPE Civil Rights Worker; Aide to Congressman James E. Clyburn): My name is Isaac Williams. I'm a district aide to Congressman James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Sixth Congressional District. You know, the question of race and racial equality is one that's always going to be on the plate. The problem is whether we're going to continue to be committed to the same truths that we were committed to as young college students. And some of them, because they have a different ethnicity, can move in and out of the struggle at will. If you're white, you can put on your Brooks Brothers suit, cut your hair, shave your mustache, and you can move on Wall Street and life goes on as normal. But if you're black and you're Southern and you're underprivileged and you have been denied your rights, it's a daily battle, and you've got to be committed beyond just one event.

Unidentified Man #5: We all have a plan.

Mr. MIROFF: I do miss the connection to the black community. It was something I only had briefly. And I think it's very hard for most whites, even those most sympathetic to the cause of racial justice, to have completely transparent and comfortable relations. Race is so powerful in America. It's everywhere. It's a subtext of almost every encounter between whites and blacks. And I think it was only in that brief period for me as a civil rights worker where blacks were your colleagues and your supporters and the people you admired, and in the South, whites often were a source of danger. It was only when I felt safe in the black community and unsafe in the white community that I ever felt the kind of comfort level that I think Americans ought to hope some day they have between the races.

NICK MIROFF reporting:

And you never experienced that again?

Mr. MIROFF: Not really. I mean, I've had a few black friends over the years, but that sense of being in touch with a community as opposed to a few scattered individuals is something I've never experienced again.

SIMON: The voices of former civil rights workers at a 40-year reunion in South Carolina where they registered black voters in the summer of 1965. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Miroff