“Each election is a dress rehearsal for the next. Establish relationships now with local Democrats to get ready for the next election. Change does not happen in one election.”
Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr.
Have you registered voters? It was National Voter Registration day on Tuesday, earlier this week.
Indeed, this whole week should be dedicated to registering voters. And all the next weeks too.
What do you think about when you are registering a voter? What do you ask that new potential voter while registering them?
I’ve been on voter drives, and registered new voters, and they are always a good way to gauge the political pulse of an area. On some level I like that more than going door to door for a candidate. It feels more fulfilling, more connected to our democratic process to register a new voter. Not that going door to door and advocating for a candidate and encouraging an already registered voter to come out and vote is not also deeply a democratic thing to do.
When registering voters, one can perceive the reality of voters lives in rural America. But I’m not writing about that today. Today I’m writing about how registering voters can be an activism which, when it involves data collecting, is a great resource. Lots of data points go into identifying a voter and how to reach them to encourage them to come out and vote for a candidate. At that moment when we first reach out to that unregistered voter, we have them there to collect some of that data. Consider it like a Venn diagram where one can see the overlapping of opportunity and influence within which the voter participates. Also, helps with establishing a spreadsheet of voter data, organized with voter name, physical address, phone number, precinct number, districts — Congressional, State Senate, State House. Furthermore, establishing a relationship by calling them and asking them to be part of the team. AS more people join the team, more can be invited to join.
While I was wondering how it all worked and how a localized system could be established as an on- going strategy; I thought to look further. I thought to talk to someone who had already done it and became an advocate for that kind of systemic data gathering as a precursor to getting an electorate out to the polls. Some one who had used that strategy and had fine tuned it for elections and had shared it before.
The person I’m referring to is Dr. William Ferguson “Fergie” Reid Sr., the first African American legislator elected to the Virginia Assembly, since reconstruction. He revolutionized the way he went about building a voter database, and connecting it with the relationships he built in his precinct and out wards. His electoral win in Virginia most certainly paved the pathway for Governor Douglas Wilder, Deval Patrick and Barack Obama.
Dr. Reid Sr., did it at a time when there were no computers, and when Virginia was in the thrall of the political organization known as the Byrd Machine. The latter was a political organization which was led by Harry F. Byrd Sr., who had not only signed the Southern Manifesto, but he, his political machine, and affiliated friends moreover, pitched a statewide tantrum as they opposed school integration. They called it the Massive Resistance. It was the era of Poll Tax and Literacy Tests; an era which was the precursor before African Americans could vote without such stupefying obstructions. The Poll Tax back then was a $1.50 :
“It was quite a bit of money then,” said Dr. William F. Reid, 90, a local civil rights veteran and one of the founders of the Richmond Crusade for Voters. “At that time, you could buy a pack of cigarettes for about 15 cents. You could get a loaf of bread for 10 cents, a pound of sugar for about 6 cents. You could buy a lot for a dollar and a half.”
Poll taxes were due half a year ahead of the Democratic primaries, which were held in June.
“People were not interested in elections six months prior to that, so if you got interested after the deadline for the poll tax, you couldn’t vote. That was all part of the plan to keep the vote restricted,” Reid said.
Additionally, the segregationists were resisting equality in schools and integration in 1958:
Massive Resistance was a strategic effort orchestrated by U.S. Senator Harry Byrd and Virginia politicians to oppose federal mandates requiring public schools to desegregate. Harry Byrd used his political machine, “The Organization,” to assemble other politicians to use political maneuvering to block desegregation. By crafting policies that directly affected desegregation, the Organization systematically interrupted racial integration of schools through legislation and extra-legal means. The key to Massive Resistance was the deliberate effort of the Byrd Organization to mobilize key figures of the federal, state and local government to hinder segregation at every level. For example, Byrd built relationships with "courthouse cliques," consisting of the constitutional officers in every county. Byrd’s organization influenced Virginia politics for over 40 years. The Organization’s most effective strategy was to facilitate collaboration of federal, state, and local figures to collectively infuse Massive Resistance into state politics. Governor Thomas Stanley, Attorney General James Lindsay Almond Jr., and political columnist James J. Kilpatrick fueled the systematic, policy-driven pro-segregation movement in Virginia.
The General Assembly passed bills to harass the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and terminate the right of Arlington * County voters to elect their own school board after it voted to abide by the court's decision. (At the time, Arlington had the only elected school board in the state.) The assembly also decreed that any public school that desegregated was to be closed. In the autumn of 1958, Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closed schools in Charlottesville, Front Royal, and Norfolk * and threatened to close others if they desegregated. The following January, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and a United States District Court simultaneously ruled that the state's Massive Resistance laws were unconstitutional.
* Links added by me.
The Byrd machine and its white supremacist allies were so against integration that they tried many tricks to keep the schools closed, until a Supreme Court decision in 1964 forced those schools to open again.
In a time like that, how did one segment of the population of Richmond go about their life? Well, many became more politically active. And others like Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr., took it to another level and became one of the founders the Richmond Crusade for Voters, and organized by precinct.
The established goal of the crusade was:
The Richmond Crusade for Voters was founded in 1956, and grew out of The Council to Save Public Schools, a Richmond organization formed to fight a January 1956 law which allowed cities in Virginia the option of closing public schools rather than integrating them. The three co-founders of the Crusade were Dr. William S. Thornton, Dr. William Ferguson Reid, and John M. Brooks. These three men founded the Richmond Crusade for Voters with the goal of "increasing effective black participation in Richmond's political process" (Nov-Dec 1988 edition of Richmond Surroundings). The Crusade's mission is "...to increase the voting strength of the population of the city of Richmond and to improve the moral, social, economic, educational and general welfare of our people" ("Richmond Free Press," January 1, 1994).
Here’s something about it’s founding history:
The Richmond Crusade for Voters grew out of an interracial group called “the Committee to Save Public Schools, formed to oppose a January statewide referendum which would allow local government to block integration of public schools.
The measure passed statewide by about 4-1 margin. Black voter turnout in Richmond was disappointing, with less than a 50 percent turnout of approximately 8,500 blacks then registered.
About one dozen blacks from the Committee To Save Public Schools decided after the referendum that a voter education organization devoted to black people was needed in Richmond. Thus, the Richmond Crusade for Voters was founded.
The founding meeting was held at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church on North First Street in Jackson Ward. In attendance were Dr. William S. Thornton, Dr. William Ferguson Reid and Mr. John M. Brooks. They were thereafter known as the Founders of the organization.
It’s main objective in 1956 was:
1. To increase the Negro votes in Richmond, Virginia through year round voter registration activities.
2. To increase Negroes political awareness.
3. To study the records of candidates and give recommendations.
4. To push for equal job opportunities in City Hall.
That objective was the precursor to build the ground-work, and a network, by which to elect more African Americans to local offices so as to further advance change, and push away from the restrictive politics of the Byrd machine.
What a timeless list of objectives! At that time, it was accomplished by organizing by precinct. It still is.
When I look at that list of objectives, it occurs to me that the objectives are still the same, and applicable for a wider group of people — the general public.
We need to use that list for us: as Virginians, indeed, as Americans.
To facilitate matters - organize by precinct, and by the districts which dissect the area. While establishing that data, no detail is too small to include on that precinct spread sheet with voter names and districts, such as what professional groups a voter may belong to, or what special hobbies that voter has. All of this information helps in understanding the concerns of individual voters. All of this information helps the organizer to connect the Democratic voter to the Democratic candidate running in that district, and affiliated with that precinct. Coalescing within the precinct helps undercut the massive obstacles we are facing again today as states establish Voter ID to combat Republican peddled myths of voter fraud, and other insidious forms of restrictions, and all the other legal ways of rigging elections.
With that in mind, many of Dr. Reid Sr.’s friends helped establish 90for90.org on his 90th birthday. It is an organization which promotes voter registration, and cooperation among candidates, political groups and organizations. Since it’s founding in 2015, Virginia voter rolls have increased by 788,319 voters.
All these voter restrictions popping up again, are similar to the ones Dr. Reid Sr., fought against sixty years ago. Indeed they are a continuation of the same outlook and we should use the same tools he used to win —
For these new laws, just as with the old laws, he believes that grassroots level, bottom-up action is the surest way to secure long term gains.
Organizing into small, local groups that can stay committed is the best way to activate voters, he says. And make sure there is a progressive candidate running in “every single election.” If you can’t find somebody to run, he advises, “then consider running yourself.”
I have to say, Dr. Reid Sr., is still a man with a strong political heart. When I said to him, somewhat downheartedly, that my county is very bright red, he was totally unfazed. Instead, he said that it was not as important as I thought; that people in general are more concerned about being included, in becoming part of planning for their future.
Mobilizing a precinct is one way to engaging our neighborhood in political activity. Creating a database which one person can create locally, remains local; and should be continuously curated and expanded to include new voters, and the precinct team should continuously be expanded to include new members. This is activism which will continue on from election cycle to election cycle. One can choose to work within the party network. And yet, not necessarily; because we can individually take action and be parallel to the party.
In other words, it is a joint venture.
As Dr. Reid Sr. likes to occasionally remind people about that famous phrase uttered by Abraham Lincoln, about how our government is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, for the people.” And Dr. Reid Sr. additionally likes to point out that we are missing the point of that third -- “by the people.” It seems to get lost, a lot.
It is after all we the people who have to work to keep it.
Please visit 90for90 for more information on candidates. And there’s a facebook page too.