The Most Important Skill We Never Teach Organizers

At the end of the George W. Bush administration, in my first week as a full-time organizer, I learned a new word: deliverable. 

I opened up an email from the national campaign that was moving us a few thousand dollars each month to support our immigration reform work. We needed to do a press conference, presenting a bouquet of flags to Senator Susan Collins’s office, ahead of the Fourth of July, reminding her that supporting immigrants was patriotic. They also wanted us to get volunteers to hold signs on bridges, with such questionable slogans as, “Immigrants Mow Our Lawns”—yikes. Of course, there were reports, paper work, and conference calls that went along with all of that. In the Midwest Academy Organizing manual, I didn’t find guidance on how to deal with emails like this one.

I knew that the funding allowed me to have a job, but I also knew that standing on a bridge holding a sign that said “Immigrants Mow Our Lawns” was a terrible idea. I thought the press conference was harmless, but it seemed like a distraction from ideas our coalition generated in-state that everyone felt would be more effective. This was my crash course in how funders relate to organizing strategy—an essential skill for any community organizer, even though we don’t have a training for it.

Fortunately, we are far from the first generation to deal with these issues. Historians are shedding new light on how leaders in the long civil rights movement negotiated these challenges. Megan Ming Francis’s article,The Price of Civil Rights: Black Lives, White Funding, and Movement Capture,”[i] and Evan Faulkenbury’s new book, Poll Power,[ii] show how funders and the movement influenced each other, from pushing the NAACP down the path that eventually led to Brown v. Board of Education (Francis), to moving from protest to Black Power at the end of the sixties (Faulkenbury).

By understanding the details of these histories, organizers can see that they have more choices than simply taking money from funders or leaving it on the table. Fundraising, rather, is a contested field of movement strategy, where day to day decisions on everything from grant reports to program design have as much significance for movement strategy as the public facing tactics that target elected officials. Eventually, movement leaders figured out how to take money and still advance their own priorities, as well as when to walk away when their organizations had grown strong enough to do so.

Similarly, funders can benefit from the clarity afforded by historical hindsight. Micromanagement, particularly of America’s greatest leaders, particularly when it causes racial violence to go unaddressed for another century, is not a good look. While it is almost too obvious to write, it still unfortunately must be said: philanthropy, by definition, cannot be the center of devising social change strategy; the role of philanthropy is to support changemakers. Attempts by philanthropists to become the “grand architects of progress,” to borrow Francis’s phrase, are doomed to fail, simply because only the organizations actually executing the plan have all the information necessary to make good strategic decisions. Yet funders can play a crucial role in helping organizations build their power to reach new levels of impact—by moving resources, not dictating strategic decisions.

Below, I summarize the histories that Francis and Faulkenbury write. Everyone should read these fabulous histories for themselves, but—for busy organizers—hopefully the key details summarized below can be immediately useful. And even for those who do read the article and book themselves, I try to connect these histories to the broader strategic choices movement leaders made, a background essential to understand to appreciate their wisdom.

Finally, one term, not used by Francis or Faulkenbury, was essential in weaving together this story: “moral suasion.” It describes the particular strategic theory that philanthropists, across many generations, almost always reflexively push onto their grantees. Ibram Kendi describes it as the (erroneous) belief that racism can be eliminated by educating people, one by one; that changing the minds of individuals precedes building power to force structural change. It’s such an important concept that—although Francis and Faulkenbury don’t use the term themselves—I found it impossible to make the connections between the two histories without it.

The punchline, as Kendi makes clear, is that moral suasion strategies have been tried over and over again, from the days of abolition to the present, and they always fail. Francis and Faulkenbury highlight the unique role that philanthropy has played in propping up these rigorously disproven strategies, and how movement leaders can still alter the course of American history, even and especially when trying to work with funders that simply don’t share the same theory of change.

When funders consider themselves the “grand architects of progress”: shifting the NAACP’s priorities from anti-lynching to school desegregation

Francis’ story starts in 1916, when the NAACP launched a massive campaign against lynching. Dozens of Black people were losing their life every year at the hands of white vigilantes enforcing racial hierarchy.[iii] Just six years later, funded mostly by their members, the NAACP won passage of an anti-lynching bill in the House of Representatives, but could not secure passage in the Senate. The next year, however, a different strategy yielded a major victory: the Supreme Court’s Moore v. Dempsey decision. Declaring that mobs could not violently intimidate local courts, the court eliminated a major obstacle in punishing the perpetrators of lynching. Today, it would be the equivalent of the Supreme Court ruling decisively in favor of a person of color shot by the police, opening up the possibility of greater accountability for law enforcement across the country.

That success established the NAACP as the nation’s premier civil rights organization, attracting the attention of the Garland Fund. Founded when Charles Garland refused to accept his million-dollar inheritance, choosing instead to funnel it into resourcing militant, multi-racial labor organizing, the Garland Fund quickly made grants to the NAACP, by far the largest donations the organization had ever received. An edgy new foundation and an edgy new organization began to mature together.

At first, the Garland Fund abstained from influencing the agendas of its grantees. The NAACP received general operating support, and continued to focus on lynching. Yet, with its assets diminished during the Great Depression, and frustrated with slow progress in the conservative 1920s, the board reversed its policy, creating subcommittees that outlined strategies their grantees must adopt. In particular, they demanded the NAACP deprioritize lynching, and focus on education instead. 

Previously, the NAACP prioritized lynching because, obviously, it was a life and death issue for African American communities. Not only was it morally horrific, it intimidated Black communities from asserting their economic and political rights, enforced Jim Crow rule across the South, and thus blocked nearly every other road to progress. Thus, the NAACP pushed back at the new guidelines from the Garland Fund.

The pushback seemed like it could be successful, because the Garland Fund did not appear to be just another establishment player. It sincerely employed militant, even Marxist-sounding reasons for prioritizing education. Education was the key to “a carefully worked out and consistent propaganda for economic and social emancipation” (Francis, 290). They knew race had divided the working class, and believed that education could be the silver bullet, uniting workers in a multi-racial left that could finally enact sweeping social change. The architects of moral suasion, as Kendi notes, from abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison forward, often adopt the mantle of a radical analysis, particularly when it comes to race. But when it comes to strategy and tactics, that radicalism quickly fades.

Earlier, educational campaigns about lynching had fit the bill. But because the Garland Fund increasingly believed that transforming the “self-consciousness and self-respect” (Francis 294) of Southern Blacks would “inevitably tend to effect a revolution in the economic life of this country,” they decided that education itself—ensuring more funding for Black education through desegregation—should actually become the main focus. Education must precede power, consciousness before revolution, not the other way around: this is the essential formula of moral suasion strategies. 

As activists on the ground, the NAACP knew that, so long as Black people who spoke out were simply killed, there really would be no way to make meaningful progress on other issues. Thus, Walter White, the director of the NAACP in 1929, dragged his feet and negotiated as best he could with the foundation. His best ally was James Weldon Johnson, the lone African American on the grantmaking committee, who argued for continued support of anti-lynching campaigns. Unfortunately, the NAACP lacked the power to force the change in policy.

The Garland Fund would not budge, and the enormous gift—$1.5 million in 2020 dollars—was too big to be refused. It had the potential to turn the NAACP from an up-start organization into a major, stable institution. Thus, the NAACP changed its agenda, and was now set on the quarter century-long path that would lead ultimately to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Breaking school segregation, not racial terrorism, would become the main line of attack against Jim Crow. Francis tallies the dramatic increase in the discussion of education in the minutes of NAACP board meetings, and the decline in the discussion of lynching, following the acceptance of the Garland Fund’s gift.

She persuasively argues that philanthropy must reckon with the role it played in perpetuating violence against Black people. The reader is left to imagine what history would have been like, had a major court breakthrough in the 1950s occurred on racial violence, not education desegregation. It’s easy to imagine being in a better place—particularly on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform—had the NAACP been allowed to focus on racial violence, uninterrupted, over the past hundred years. And, as Faulkenbury shows in his story, the consequence of failing to address violence against Black people would continue to haunt the whole movement, including undermining the goals of other foundations, at key moments in the 1960s. It is thus easy to imagine how much more progress could have been made on other issues, from civil rights to other economic challenges, had the core issue of racial violence been addressed.

Furthermore, anyone who has dealt with foundations today can recognize frustrating parallels between the Garland Fund and contemporary, impatient philanthropists. With hindsight, it seems obvious that the NAACP—like every other progressive organization and labor union—simply had no political opportunity to pass anti-lynching legislation during the 1920s, a peak of conservative power in America. While the NAACP’s successes in the late teens and early twenties were indeed impressive, the progressive era was definitively over by the mid-twenties. It was simply unrealistic for the foundation to expect similar wins in such a hostile era. Rather than provide opportunities for its grantees to strengthen their infrastructure in anticipation of future opportunity, the Garland fund essentially blamed the NAACP’s priorities, and chose to view “themselves as the grand architects of progress,” to borrow Ming’s language. Once the Garland Fund saw themselves as smarter than their grantees, it became logical to force the NAACP to adopt different strategies. And of course, inviting one person of color to be the token representative on the board is still, unfortunately, all too common. These missteps all reflect the inability for a foundation to have the humility to see its grantees, not themselves, as the strategic center of the movement.

Of course, the foundation did not have the ingenuity to create a truly new approach to strategy. Rather, despite the foundation’s commitment to a “radical” (Francis, 285) politics, it dusted moral suasion off the shelf. This too remains a common problem. Strategies of moral suasion often cloak themselves in woke language, but in the service of conservative strategies that maintain racial hierarchy.

To be clear, Francis acknowledges it made good strategic sense for the NAACP to cash the check, as they made strategic lemonade out of philanthropic lemons. She hammers home, however, that this reinscription of racial hierarchy, of White funders over Black organizations,  is the core problem. Yes, the NAACP made good come out of a tough situation. But philanthropists exact too high a price from organizations working to build institutions with real power.

All fair: but what can we actually do? For the philanthropist looking to turn over a new leaf, how can they behave differently? For the organization struggling to raise its budget and stay true to the strategies it believes in, how exactly does this process of making lemonade work? When should organizations cash the check? When should they just walk away from the money? Thankfully, Faulkenbury’s story picks up where Francis’s leaves off, and—being a full length book— it has the space to shed light on exactly these issues.

Voter Registration: “education,” direct action, or both?

Faulkenbury’s story begins with a young, wealthy, white couple, Stephen Currier and Audrey Bruce. Apparently, the love lives of rich people really do have implications for the movement!

Currier came from a wealthy New York City family. His mother was a model-turned Vogue editor; his father, a painter; his step-father a financier and philanthropist. Bruce came from the Mellon family, perhaps the wealthiest (and most conservative) family in the United States. Needless to say, Bruce’s relatives did not approve of her new, liberal boyfriend. They worried that Currier would convince her to change ideologies, then use her share of the family’s wealth to fund leftist causes. As it turned out, that is exactly what happened. Like Garland, they were deliberate class traitors, quite open to a “radical” analysis of the world.

In 1955, just a year after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the young couple eloped. The secret marriage allowed them to finish their education at Harvard and Radcliffe without family drama. Three years later, after forming friendships with other wealthy leftists, like Marshall Field III and the great-grandson of the premier moral suasion abolitionist himself, William Lloyd Garrison, they became staunch supporters of “the Democratic Party, the New Deal, and civil rights for African Americans” (32). After Brown v. Board and the campaign to desegregate Montgomery’s buses, when Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. entered the national stage, the civil rights movement was clearly at another turning point, similar to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaigns decades earlier. Thus, Bruce and Currier founded the Taconic Foundation to support this rising tide.

A few characteristics distinguished the Taconic Fund from the beginning. They steered clear of arts, sciences, medicine, and investments that would stroke their egos, like naming buildings after themselves. They believed that more than enough of their wealthy friends engaged in this philanthropy. Instead, they wanted to support edgier political causes, where their money was more needed. They quickly began funding most of the large, national civil rights organizations, like the NAACP and the National Urban League. Critically, they also saw the foundation as not just a dispenser of resources, but an active participant in working for change. That willingness to participate in politics would prove critical in understanding Taconic’s role in unfolding events.

By 1960, just as the foundation began to hit its stride, Freedom Riders pushed for desegregating the interstate  bus system across the south, organized primarily by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). CORE was one of the the “Big Five” civil rights organizations. The others included the NAACP and the National Urban League (NUL), no longer the impetuous upstarts of the 1920s, but rather strong institutions that operated more conservatively than the new protest organizations that began cropping up in the fifties and sixties. In addition to CORE, the new groups were King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which formed out of a wave of lunch counter sit-ins conducted by young people. Thus, although CORE sponsored the Freedom Rides, like many of the flashpoints of the early sixties, all of the Big Five ended up participating—whether it was King giving a speech and attracting national media, or the NAACP providing legal assistance, or SNCC engaging young people.

Because the Freedom Rides, unlike lunch counters or local bus routes, clearly dealt with interstate commerce, the federal government had a harder time avoiding action as compared with campaigns that concerned more local issues. The Kennedys were basically sympathetic to civil rights, but not to the point where they wanted to risk the support of southern Democrats, the traditional base of the party. Nor did they appreciate America’s Cold War credibility being undermined abroad by domestic embarrassments like racist mobs. In this context, Robert Kennedy, appointed Attorney General by his brother, backed a sophisticated maneuver to push the movement onto terrain less threatening to the administration, hoping to convince civil rights leaders to stop putting the administration on the spot, while still making real—albeit incremental—progress towards reform.

The pitch was simple. No local civil rights gains could be sustained until Black voters flexed their electoral muscles. If movement leaders worked on voter registration, they could build the electorate necessary to safeguard their victories and even pass more. Cleverly, the Kennedys even held meetings with funders, particularly Currier at the Taconic Fund, to set up resources to fund organizations willing to go in that direction. They argued it was in the movement’s self-interest to shift to this strategy, in order to have long-term political power. In turn, it was also in the administration’s self-interest, because they felt that voter registration would cause less conservative backlash than school integration, which raised the specter of teenagers having interracial sex.

There was some truth to the Kennedy analysis. As Eric Schickler has recently shown in his study of public opinion from the 1930s through the 1960s,[iv] the new liberal base of the Democratic Party consistently favored civil rights when it came to issues that did not require direct racial mixing, like eliminating the poll tax, banning employment discrimination, and—ironically, given the history of the Garland Fund—anti-lynching legislation. Support was more tenuous for issues like fair housing and education that involved integration.

Of course, despite this change in issue prioritization, this strategy is still classic “moral suasion.” The Kennedys felt that direct action and forced integration of schools (ironically on the agenda, in part because of the early moves of the Garland Fund) was simply too much, too fast; much better to educate individual voters, one by one, of the value of participating in the “normal” political process through voter registration. Changing hearts and minds, through conventional political channels, had to come before “revolutionary,” substantive policy changes. Thus, access to public education became too aggressive for moral suasionists, as soon as it encountered political backlash. The only safe ground for them was yet another step removed: the smallest gesture towards procedural equality, educating people about voting—without really guaranteeing protections from violence while exercising that right.

Currier and the Taconic fund backed this plan, and—working with officials at the Department of Justice—lobbied civil rights leaders to get on board. Eventually, like the NAACP in the 1920s, movement organizations accepted the resources and committed to focus on voter registration. The philanthropists, with Taconic in the lead, agreed to pool resources in the Southern Research Council (SRC), who would then make subgrants to the Big Five. An organization of the same generation as the NAACP and NUL, the SRC was smaller and less powerful, known for writing reports on discrimination in voter registration, making it a trusted go-between, in part so that the foundations did not have to directly make the hard decisions of exactly how to split the money up between the Big Five. It also allowed the funders to credibly claim that, although the money would involve grassroots voter registration activities, its true purpose was simply to research voter suppression in the south, an important strategy in ensuring their donations could still be tax deductible.

Thus, the SRC created the Voter Education Project. It gave the project its own executive director. This time, however, movement leaders had more leverage.

For example, everyone agreed the new hire had to be Black, and well-trusted by the Big Five—a far cry from the Garland Fund giving only one spot to a token African American on its civil rights subcommittee. More interestingly, civil rights groups found ways to take the money, and still find ways to leverage it for strategies that were actually effective.

This was far from easy. SNCC had the fiercest debate over how to deal with this dilemma, and it is instructive for the whole movement. Over the course of endless back and forth during a multi-day staff retreat, SNCC nearly split, so intense was the argument around accepting the money. One side, the more religious, working class faction, coming mostly from Nashville where the lunch counter sit ins started, considered accepting the money as co-optation, a distraction from the kind of direct action tactics that got them this far. The other side, more secular and middle class, mostly from Atlanta, argued that lunch counter sit ins and freedom rides simply would not result in enduring, structural change if they failed to build a political program. They did not care about making life easier for the Justice Department, but they did recognize the long term political problem the movement faced. The gains of protest were uneven, and it was impractical to imagine they would be successful everywhere. Building electoral power seemed like a challenge they had to face.

Into this conflict came the clear voice of one of the few elders all the young people trusted: Ella Baker. She came up in the early days of the NAACP, and risked her life, going town by town, teaching local chapters what she called “spade work”: the basics of fundraising, membership growth, and running an organization. She had impeccable organizer credentials that even the youngest, most impatient radical respected. King’s SCLC hired her to run an early attempt at a voter registration campaign that was a total failure due to the pastors’ total lack of organization and a healthy dose of sexism (male pastors not able to take the advice of a woman). The younger generation of SNCC, however, truly valued every word she said, often because she said so little, only speaking when she felt she had to.

For the first part of the retreat she said nothing. But as the split within SNCC became worse, she feared that if she didn’t intervene, the whole organization could have come apart. She then skillfully brokered a compromise that organizers should study with as great care and detail as West Point cadets study the Battle of Gettysburg.

First, Baker laid out how divisions within the movement had been destructive to previous generations of organizers. Her historical perspective, coming from direct experience, gave her the authority to keep everyone at the table. She knew the Atlanta crew, though more eloquent and learned in their arguments, was just making Nashville side defensive. Everyone had to tone down their self-righteousness if the organization were to survive.

Then, she encouraged SNCC to create two wings: one, focused on direct action; a second, focused on voter registration. She correctly predicted that, once SNCC began voter registration in the most dangerous parts of the south, the distinction between voter registration and nonviolent direct action would evaporate; both would provoke white retaliation. Unlike Robert Kennedy, Baker understood that voter registration would threaten southern conservatives just as much as integrated schools (and interracial sex), because they both upset the balance of power necessary to maintain Jim Crow. Therefore, SNCC could construct a voter registration campaign that essentially worked the same way a nonviolent direct action did; instead of asking for a hamburger at a whites-only lunch counter, they would be asking to vote at a whites-only town hall. Either required enormous physical courage, both—contrary to the wishes of the Garland Fund and the Kennedys—were essentially strategies aimed at surfacing white violence and forcing the federal government to take action against it. In other words, Baker found a way for SNCC to pursue the core of its strategy, but package it in a way superficially met the terms of the Kennedy administration, Taconic Fund, and VEP.

Baker understood that anytime a foundation tries to co-opt a movement, the movement — if it’s smart — can co-opt them right back. Of course, there are times to just walk away from money, particularly when it isn’t large enough to help an organization make a leap to a new level of power. More on that below. But with a consensus based on Baker’s wisdom, SNCC, the most reluctant convert to voter registration, joined the rest of the Big Five and quickly became -- to the Kennedy administration’s chagrin — the most relentless registrars of voters in American history.

Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for the administration, and moral suasion philanthropists, to move the goal posts once again, now claiming that even this most basic education of voters was too much, too fast.

Baker’s strategy a success

But before we turn to the eventual conflict between the Big Five and the VEP, we need to keep the big picture clearly in mind: Baker’s strategy worked. It fused the energy of a movement with the electoral tactics necessary to create a level of Black political power in America unseen since Reconstruction. To understand why the VEP’s moral suasion strategy ultimately did not work, we need to first understand how Baker’s power-building strategy did.

In 1963, less than a year later after brokering this compromise inside SNCC, the violent crackdown against the voter registration campaign in Greenwood, Mississippi proved Baker’s point exactly. Voter registration provoked the same violent backlash as the nonviolent direct actions. Although technically a “failure,” because the Greenwood campaign registered few voters (and the movement could not get the Kennedy administration to protect civil rights), movement leaders felt like they discovered a winning formula, one they could modify to make work in the next round. They harnessed sympathetic national public opinion by provoking local violence against innocent citizens merely trying to exercise their right to vote. Even more than sit ins at lunch counters and riding interstate buses, registering to vote captured the essence of American citizenship, and the horror of its denial to African Americans.

That experience led SNCC to make a daring, strategic leap: next time, do the same thing, but bigger, bringing over a thousand white college students to the south to help register voters in the most dangerous rural areas. The federal government would have to act, they reasoned, because the college kids were white, some of them actually the sons and daughters of members of Congress. This decision too caused a major internal debate, with all the tensions one might imagine. For Black civil rights workers, importing white people, who knew nothing about organizing in the most dangerous parts of America, was a painful reminder of how little Black lives mattered. It also seemed like Black workers might spend so much time protecting inexperienced, young white kids that they wouldn’t be able to get real work done.

Again, SNCC held long meetings and hashed it out. They made plans to orient the white students to their surroundings in a reasonable amount of time. Most importantly, leaders like Bob Moses, head of the project, made it abundantly clear to the white volunteers that they were risking their lives. The decision had to be theirs to go. And, before the bulk of the students even arrived in the south, the deaths of three civil rights workers, two of whom were white, proved him tragically right.

Tragically, on June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were the casualties SNCC expected. Part of an early wave of interracial civil rights teams in Mississippi, they were murdered by local Whites, martyrs for the vision of change of Baker and others. Moses and the other leaders had to deal with the secondary trauma of knowing that they had made strategic decisions that led to the deaths of their friends. Again, the reality of racial violence was inescapable. This time, however, the movement had found a way to code all its campaigns--from sit ins to voter registration--in a way that could reveal it for the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, the nation was galvanized to action at the prospect of white college students murdered for their political beliefs, while southern law enforcement looked the other way. Combined with the historic demonstrations in Birmingham, led by SCLC the year before, these signature events grabbed the nation’s attention and forced the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. Furthermore, the generation of white, northern activists who participated in Freedom Summer, went on to become the leaders of a host of new movements—for women’s rights, peace in Vietnam, the environment, etc—that eventually formed the basic structure of the issue advocacy landscape that we know today.

Further, SNCC decided to hold an election parallel to the whites-only Mississippi Democratic Party primary, creating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative institution into which their efforts could culminate. In Greenwood, violence made mass participation in an election system run by whites impossible. Here, SNCC fused the logic of nonviolent direct action with electoral strategy, holding their own integrated primary. This created a crisis for the Democratic Party, threatening to make their nomination convention of President Johnson a hypocritical farce. The party of civil rights couldn’t even protect voting rights within its own organization.

SNCC’s voter registration strategy was nowhere near moral suasion at this point. Rather than try to convince people one by one to leave their racist ideas behind, they elected representatives in this primary to directly challenge the credentials of Mississippi’s segregated delegation to the Democratic National Convention in a presidential election year. Whether or not they had changed the hearts and minds of the leaders of the Democratic party, they now had the power to command national attention as they demanded a set at the table, even and especially because they were uninvited.

Technically, like Greenwood, they lost the battle. They wanted nothing less than the seating of their full delegation, and Johnson just wouldn’t agree. But, even in defeat, they captured the national spotlight, convincing Americans that the battle against Jim Crow was far from over, forcing another major legislative victory the very next year, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Furthermore, again like Greenwood, this failure pushed them to make even more strategic adaptations, leading to the early concept of Black power that eventually became what we recognize today.

Simply, SNCC decided it could not wait for the Democratic Party to be reformed. After careful research, they found clever ways to create their own political party, county by county, genuinely independent of the Democratic Party in Mississippi. The Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP) was born. The South would have meaningful, contested, multi-party elections for the first time since Reconstruction.

Because illiteracy rates in Mississippi were so high, each party used an image to symbolize itself on the ballot. They chose a black cat, or panther. In a county that was 80% Black, they obviously had the numbers to truly take real political power. The lead organizer was Stokely Carmichael.

Again, although they failed to win their victories immediately, they met their long term goals. The strategy of intense, local organizing that leveraged national policy change paid off. After the Voting Rights Act began to be enforced, the LCFP merged into the now-desegregated Democratic Party, and SNCC’s candidates won office in the 1970s Further, Carmichael became the chair of SNCC, and—based on this experience of synthesizing Baker’s vision into this particular strategy—coined the phrase “Black power” during a speech in 1966, capturing the self-confidence and political self-determination born of Baker’s vision. Finally, in California, when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale wanted to start their own political party, they reached out to the Mississippi activists that inspired their work, asking to borrow their symbol; the Black Panther Party was born.

None of this could have happened had Baker not found a way to simultaneously heal an organization on the verge of schism, while drawing down crucial resources to launch an organization into a far more sophisticated form of political action. She and SNCC found a way to use an infusion of new resources that allowed it to launch a program that gave it true national power. Although the details varied across the other Big Five organizations, they all benefited from essentially the same moves. Once they could stop worrying so much about paying their basic bills, they launched bigger strategies that opened more funding possibilities, allowing them to increasingly stray from the narrow confines of the moral suasion strategies into which the Kennedys, SRC, and the VEP wanted to confine them.

With this in mind, we can now turn our attention back to the VEP. As it turns out, although one might expect the VEP would have eagerly backed Freedom Summer, the most consequential voter registration drive in American history, they did not. Instead, they took the lessons of the “failure” in Greenwood, learned the opposite lesson, and doubled down on moral suasion, and avoided confrontational projects like Freedom Summer. This path, while certainly allowing the VEP to be helpful in secondary ways to the Big Five, ultimately led to its destruction. Its greatest fears, about being tagged as partisan and ideological, risking its tax exemption, eventually overtook the organization.

How the VEP and the Big Five agreed to disagree

So let’s go back to Greenwood and make it clear where the paths diverged. After violence broke out during the Greenwood registration campaign, initially the VEP supported Baker’s strategy, doubling down on registering voters, even though the absolute numbers of new registrants was low, and national media attention was putting the Kennedy administration in a tough spot. The new executive director of the VEP flew to Greenwood personally to help out with the campaign. It seemed that the local officials had to break sometime. When they did, it would become far easier to register voters across the South.

Unfortunately, the Justice Department did not hold up their end of the bargain. No one planned on this contingency. The entire premise of the voter registration strategy was the Department of Justice’s support on voter registration in exchange for the movement backing off from the trickier issues of integration. Instead, the DOJ cut a deal with the local White leaders of Greenwood.

Without federal protection, registering a meaningful number of Black voters would be impossible in difficult places like Greenwood—basically the entire deep, rural south. The problem of violence against Black people remained the central question of organizing for racial justice. But, rather than figure out how to stay in difficult places and build more power, to force the Kennedy administration to act, as SNCC went on to do, the VEP decided to double down on their old assumptions. They abandoned the hard places and tried to hit their goals of registering large numbers of voters where they would encounter less opposition, typically in more urban areas and in the upper south. By the end of the year, the Voter Education Project cut nearly all funding to projects in Mississippi.

The VEP unquestionably still made some valuable contributions. Faulkenbury details how, in the 1964 presidential election, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia all went for the Democrats, thanks to the tens of thousands of voters the VEP registered in those states. Still, that work did not determine the 1964 election, in which Johnson won all but six states. Further, VEP’s retreat from the front lines of the civil rights movement, where the Big Five were truly changing American politics in Birmingham and Freedom Summer, changed them into an organization of secondary importance to the movement.

Still, VEP and the Big Five found ways to work together even then. For example, in Albany, Georgia, two hundred miles south of Atlanta, the VEP helped SNCC continue deep organizing after the media spotlight went away. The VEP sent SNCC about $9,000 in three installments from 1962 – 1964, providing critical resources for their organizing infrastructure, so long as it was focused on registration, not direct action. (For a few months, when local leaders did want to focus on direct action, they suspended funding, but without hard feelings on either side. It easily resumed when attention turned back to registration.) These resources were crucial, because SNCC felt abandoned after SCLC and King’s celebrity left the campaign, threatening to destroy what local activists had built.

Thus, importantly, although VEP and the Big Five had begun to part ways on strategy, they had the mutual respect and maturity to continue to find ways to work together. Interestingly, SNCC, while the most ideologically radical, had the most enduring overlap with the VEP. Both organizations valued the same tactic—steady, quiet, grassroots organizing—though employed for different reasons. The VEP saw it as essentially an end in itself; SNCC saw it as the “spade work” necessary to build a grassroots base solid enough to challenge the federal government and Democratic Party.

For these reasons, perhaps one of the most important, underappreciated qualities of civil rights leaders was their emotional maturity. With so much on the line, with life and death experiences surfacing sharp disagreements in strategy, it can’t have been easy to constantly renegotiate these relationships. Yet because they did, important organizing could still occur. What made this possible were not the speeches and demonstrations that made the movement famous, but rather the humility that leaders like Baker embodied.

When the going gets tough, liberals worry about paperwork and tax breaks

Yet, the VEP and the Big Five did eventually part ways more permanently. Interestingly, on the surface, the VEP’s grievances with the Big Five were mostly over grant reports. The VEP’s grants (and tax exemption) all depended on producing studies that could quantify the dynamics of voter registration, removing concerns that it was trying to support a party in the elections by registering Black voters. Although the IRS rules were different than they are today, contributions to the VEP could only be considered tax deductible if the voter registration activities could be portrayed as mere “research” into the barriers faced by African Americans trying to vote. The reports, not the actual registrations, were really the final product that participating foundations needed to see. Yet the Big Five rarely sent in timely numbers.

No doubt a lot of conflict could have been avoided had the Big Five just created better internal systems, like most non-profits have today. By modern standards, it’s hilarious to see how little the Big Five leadership cared about the VEP’s paperwork.  Apparently, the SCLC only sent three reports to VEP, and its local leadership completely ignored the VEP policies. The VEP temporarily suspended funding to the SCLC right at the beginning of their historic Birmingham campaign—something that seems like a colossal loss of perspective on the part of a philanthropist. (“What would you have done if you lived during the Civil Rights movement? Suspend funding over paperwork!”)

Further, any organizer who has had the miserable experience of pouring their heart and soul into good organizing, only to find that none of it fits into the “metrics” devised by funders, can certainly sympathize with SNCC workers. They risked their lives, toiling every day asking people, door to door, to register to vote. They understandably complained about having to fill out daily reports that made it look like they accomplished nothing. So, by and large, SNCC blew off the reports. Although VEP did change the report template to include space for more qualitative feedback, it never resolved the underlying problem. VEP could not translate the work of those organizers into terms that fit the premise of the “research” on which their funding and tax exemption depended.

Eventually, VEP stopped funding all of the Big Five - at least their national organizations - continuing to resource a few local chapters. Instead, they invested directly in local, small organizations. Undoubtedly, the VEP had an easier time enforcing its reporting rules when the organizations it was funding had far less power, and their grants made up a larger share of the local group’s budget. It certainly gave the VEP more grassroots credibility. Just as the Garland Fund used “radical” rhetoric about a militant worker’s movement, the VEP could take pride in its grassroots veneer--even while employing more conservative strategies. But this play was an end run around the leadership of the civil rights leaders who, for the first time in a century, actually had real power to force structural change through Congress—and certainly enough power to disagree with the VEP on strategy and raise their budget elsewhere.

We know that this parting of ways was about more than paperwork, because Faulkenberry has great quotations from VEP staff. They (accurately) perceived that the Big Five “did not like being tethered to the VEP’s policies” and they “wanted money for their own uses” (79). Paperwork really is never about paperwork. It is a disciplinary mechanism to enforce political strategies, and—thanks to leaders like Baker—the civil rights organizations now had figured out how to play this game without the constraints of the VEP. Thus, although the VEP was essential for helping civil rights organizations make a jump in their power in the early sixties, the Big Five groups essentially did walk away from the money in the end.  They just did so after time and victories gave them the strategic upper hand.

Sadly, lawmakers turned on the VEP as well. As the decade wore on, southern Democrats wanted to find ways to break up what they (accurately) viewed as a conspiracy between foundations, labor unions, and civil rights groups to move the country to the left. Eventually one of them, House Ways and Means Chair Wilbur Mills, succeeded in attacking the tax exemption that the VEP used for its voter registration drives in the 1969 Tax Reform law. The amendment mandated that no more than forty percent of its resources could come from a single source, and the organization had to operate in at least five states simultaneously. In other words, the bill forced the VEP to have large scale program while undermining its ability to raise enough money to make that program possible.

By then, the Ford Foundation made up the lion’s share of the VEP’s budget, and reducing its contributions to meet the forty percent threshold would be a big blow. Several scandals, brought to the press by right wing organizations, had already made major foundations much more nervous about being perceived as partisan, including right wing media coverage of a $20,000 gift the Wolfson Foundation made to Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. Thus, after the tax reform bill passed, foundations and the VEP were already primed to panic. Vernon Jordan, then the VEP’s executive director, left the organization, and the fundraising landscape was bleak looking ahead.

Interestingly, John Lewis, who left SNCC before it collapsed at the end of the sixties, got hired by the VEP’s board as the new executive director. Faulkenbury does a nice job recording the progress Lewis made rebuilding the organization, particularly as it conducted over 400 registration campaigns between 1970 and 1976, and branching out to Latinx registration (Faulkenbury, 127, 132). Clearly, the VEP contributed to local victories, helping elect the first generation of Black lawmakers after the Voting Rights Act. Furthermore, Lewis clearly showed a path forward for the organization, and the self-destructive panic following the tax reform bill looks completely unnecessary in that light.

But the movement dynamism abated, and the VEP declined further after Lewis left to run for Congress in 1977. It fell prey to unscrupulous mail vendors, further attacks from the right, and a recession that diminished its funding. Eventually, another scandal about financial mismanagement within the organization, where a newspaper discovered the VEP had “no actual budget, no work plans for employees, no concrete goals, no research protocols, and almost nothing in the VEP’s bank account” completely discredited the organization, plunging it into the debt that would force it to close its doors by the early 1990s. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. The VEP, a nagging stickler for reports and paperwork, perished for its incompetence in that exact arena.

Clearly, the VEP had been proven wrong. Originally, they hoped that, by scrupulously adhering to IRS guidelines, dodging media attention, carefully avoiding confrontation with lawmakers and the White House, and—above all else--adhering to their faith in free, fair, and formal electoral system, their organization would thrive and realize its mission. In the end, it worked out exactly opposite to their intentions, with the right weaponizing all of those norms and institutions against the organization. Their misplaced faith in establishment allies should have been revised after the Greenwood campaign. But they could not bring themselves to let go of such a key part of their worldview, making it impossible for them to see how playing by the rules just was not enough to survive. The rules—whether IRS guidelines or simple norms of propriety—are all politically determined, and therefore can never be taken for granted. By trying to avoid politics, their fate was sealed from the start. Surely if they had found a way to confront actual racial violence, not run from it, they would have stood a better chance in dealing with the financial violence dealt by Congress. Ignoring issues seems easier, but often denial is fatal.

Uncannily, as a final coda, like so many stories of the 1960s, tragic deaths of individual leaders accompanied organizational collapse. In the era that saw the deaths of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X, Stephen Currier and Audrey Bruce perished when their plane disappeared on a 1967 flight to the Virgin Islands in the Bermuda Triangle. Like the death of, say, antiwar monastic Thomas Merton, the suddenness, suspiciousness, and irresolution of even tertiary movement figures further casts a pall over the naivete of moral suasion. Violence and death are not peripheral; for life and strategy, they are the basic facts.

Ironically, in the 1970s, in the first decade of the truly fair elections into which moral suasionists put their hopes, white conservatives ushered in an era of conservative rule unmatched since the 1920s (when the Garland Fund forced the NAACP to abandon its original anti-lynching strategy). They used the strategy of racial “dog whistling,” as Ian Haney Lopez describes, substituting outright racism for more coded attacks on, for example, school busing.

As it turned out, the elections of 1964, the year of Freedom Summer and the MFDP, the year activists disrupted the core of the national Democratic Party, the year the VEP began cutting ties with the Big Five, would be the last time the Democrats won a majority of the white vote. Rather than tear the country apart, the demonstrations, fused with political action in Ella Baker’s strategy, turned out to be the one thing holding the country together. Neoliberalism and dramatic partisan polarization increased rapidly thereafter. It turns out, the revolution was causing consciousness change—not the other way around. Changing hearts and minds, it turns out, was an outcome, not a strategy.

Lessons for today

We usually do not consider all the messy, complicated dynamics that the movement faced from 1960-1963—five feuding civil rights organizations, a sympathetic but cowardly White House, liberal foundations with a naïve theory of change—as a recipe for success. But any organization looking to make a jump in its power must reasonably find itself prepared to wrestle with these situations. It might seem morally pure to stay small and reject resources. But, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can see Baker’s wisdom in taking the resources, co-opting the funders, and parting ways when the organization can sustain itself on more secure footing. To that end, organizers ought to hone their ability to stitch together a strategy that reflects long term goals through short term, tactical alliances.

By the same token, having a few medium and large sized foundations truly committed to strategies beyond moral suasion, truly run by movement leaders of color, would be enormous progress. Program officers who can convince their organization to find ways to fund the core groups catalyzing change, even when the primary strategies of those groups make them nervous, will be essential. More must be done to grapple with the failure of moral suasion as the strategic ideology of the comfortable class — particularly when it maintains racial hierarchy.

To this end, we ought to revisit the notion of “deliverables.” While organizations are right to play this game for now, dutifully collecting exactly 100 post cards to pressure an elected official, even if only fifty would do the trick, allies within philanthropy ought to revisit the arrogant—and frankly silly—level of detail at which plans must be written. While absurdly detailed “metrics” give a ring of precision and rigor to a planning process, they have exactly the opposite effect.

Other disciplines recognize this immediately. Military theorists, since the 19th century Prussian commander Helmuth von Moltke, have remarked that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Good plans are simple and flexible, allowing easy adaptation as the campaign progresses. They avoid unnecessary detail predicated on assumptions about the future. If an organization writes a proposal eighteen months before the conclusion of a campaign, and then executes it exactly as written, they are surely operating ineffectively. By definition, effective tactics change the landscape in which everyone operates. Thus, their chief outcome is the creation of unpredictable change, creating a response from the opposition, meaning every subsequent element of the plan must be adapted accordingly. In the heat of a campaign, leaders must revise the plan every week, sometimes every day, in order to keep pace with events. Thus, “deliverables,” though they look precise, are third-order assumptions about the future, whose accuracy is undermined equally by success and failure.

Yet philanthropists must obviously still make decisions about who is worthy of funding and who isn’t. How can this be done without asking for detailed plans that can be scrutinized based on educated guesses about the future? Simply, philanthropists can only use the same decision making processes that every other leader uses. Nothing about money changes the situation. Leaders look for other promising leaders, those who make an impact on the world by acting strategically. By demonstrating long-term commitment, they can move resources that allow organizations to make a jump in their power.  Where mistakes are made, philanthropists can ask questions, help provide training and coaching, and otherwise try to support leaders in developing their own answers to the issue—not merely making their idea of a solution the deliverable of the month.

There are no guaranteed wins. Success has no formula. There is only the relentless, humbling, intense work of adaptation.

This points to the final lesson: the imperative to raise up leaders like Ella Baker. Leaders like her are not the ones that make the biggest speeches, or weave together the most brilliant stories in their foundation pitches. Leaders like Ella Baker are known by their work, the results they achieve in the world. They do not spend their time complaining about millennials or about “the establishment”; they spend their life listening deeply, pushing their ideas only when absolutely necessary, after building trust and credibility, artfully navigating the demands of our principles and the reality of the world as it is.

Unfortunately, typical organizing (and campaign) culture often does not produce these leaders — probably because many of our organizations trace their lineage back to Alinsky, not Baker. Grant commitments that only last a year, breeding obsession with short term results, fixed “metrics,” tactics without situational context are all things that Baker would consider nonsense. Acquiring the skills and experience, over the course of decades of passionate, disciplined, struggle, that amount to strategic wisdom, however, fits right within her tradition.

While all of this is obviously easier said than done, none of it requires brilliance. It takes practice. For my part, in that first week of organizing, my boss and some mentors coached me through some pretty modest decisions. We did the flag delivery—which did not take a ton of time, but built some goodwill with the national campaign and showed them we understood their needs. Like SNCC blowing off its grant reports, we did not do the “Immigrants Mow Our Lawns” signs; and the campaign let it slide, likely because they could tell we took the other deliverables seriously. Meanwhile, and more importantly, we found ways to continue building the immigrant rights coalition, such that over the course of three separate federal immigration reform campaigns, it could become its own, free-standing organization. None of this was revolutionary; we still have a long way to go. But perfecting skills like these seem like a much smarter strategy than refusing to build an organization with real power out of a misguided sense of moral purity, or — just as bad — clinging to naïve ideas that slowly and steadily we can follow a formula, coloring inside the lines, and meaningfully reverse any of the life and death threats that hold our communities hostage.

In the end, this path, outlined by Francis and Faulkenbury and a thousand other organizers before us, give a firm ground for hope. We do not need perfect foundations to make change, nor—therefore—can they be our excuse for not realizing our vision. Instead, we already have everything that we need. Fundraising is just one more part of strategy; and so long as we can think and act like Baker, we will always find a way.



[i] Megan Ming Francis, “The Price of Civil Rights: Black Lives, White Funding, and Movement Capture,” Law and Society Review, Volume 53, Issue 1, March 2019, pages 275-309.

[ii] Evan Faulkenbury, Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Press: 2019.

[iii] For a recent tabulation of lynching statistics throughout the United States, see “National Crimes: A New National Data Set of Lynchings in the United States, 1883 to 1941,” Charles Seguin and David Rigby, Socius, Volume 5: 1-9, 2019:

[iv] Eric Schickler, Racial Realignment, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2016: 164.


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sozanelson4_409February 17, 2020 - 19:40Great article, @BChinME, from beginning to end. Thank you for your leadership. Moving forward requieres tough decisions, also great organizers who can be strategic enough to survive short term frustrations. Where to draw the line seems to be a big question, how to have an independent movement the biggest one.
February 17, 2020 - 19:40
Jared (not verified)May 5, 2020 - 00:17Hi myy friend! I wish to say that this article is amazing, nice ritten and come with approximately all important infos. I would like to see extra posts like this .
May 5, 2020 - 00:17