ORGANIZING AND VOTER ED: TOUGH, TEDIOUS, AND VITAL
hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Fri Aug 2 15:38:12 MDT 2002
Note by Hunterbear:
This is presently posted on the website of Our Struggle/Nuestra Lucha -- of
the excellent Anti-Racism Commission [DSA].
http://dsausa.org/antiracism/editorials/editorials2.html With the political
season once again looming in what's called the United States, I'm running
this piece of mine once again. Obviously, it's absolutely critical that we
of the Left and Labor and " the fewest alternatives" assiduously organize
and educate and otherwise prepare for our maximum, effective political
impact. Always with a "Wobbly heart," [ essentially anarcho-syndicalist to
those unaware of American lingo], I'm fundamentally committed to basic and
democratic and radical grassroots social justice organization -- militantly
direct actionist -- I do recognize the signal importance of radical
political [and legal] action as well.
Hunterbear [DSA, SPUSA, CCDS -- and three labor unions]
ORGANIZING AND VOTER ED: TOUGH, TEDIOUS, AND VITAL
By Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] Micmac / St Francis Abenaki / St Regis Mohawk
The post mortems on the Florida electoral situation of a year ago have been
virtually endless. Calls for "reforms" -- generally statutory and Federal
in nature -- have been frequent. All well and good but, to me and to many
others, effective grassroots organizing is still the most basic dimension in
achieving substantial victories -- whether political or otherwise.
In the realm of political action, this certainly applies whether one is
functioning, say, within the Democratic Party or the Green movements - or
from a Left related independent perspective.
As I see it -- and I've been a consistent social justice organizer since
1955 -- systematic and enduring grassroots organizing is Genesis. It's
tedious, wearing, frustrating -- and absolutely crucial in the "Save the
World Business." [Our very large social justice website --
www.hunterbear.org -- has much that relates to bona fide social justice
An effective organizer seeks to get grassroots people together -- and does;
develops on-going and democratic local leadership; deals effectively with
grievances and individual/family concerns; works with the people to achieve
basic organizational goals and develop new ones; and builds a sense of the
New World To Come Over The Mountains Yonder -- and how all of that relates
to the shorter term steps. An effective organizer has to be a person of
integrity, courage, commitment. And a person of solidarity and sacrifice.
Let's take a look at the Florida situation -- recognizing that in that
setting, as elsewhere, there has been nothing in recent times comparable to
the massive obstacles to voter registration and voting that existed prior to
the Civil Rights Movement [and many associated efforts] and the passage of
the Voting Rights Act of 1965: terror, economic reprisals, poll tax,
"interpretation" requirements, "literacy" tests. There were obstacles in
Election 2000 -- but nothing even remotely like the Bad Old Days.
In Florida [and in some other settings], the NAACP and comparable civil
rights groups did an excellent job in registering new voters and they did a
first-rate job in getting people to the polls.
But -- they fell down badly on the "middle piece" --i.e., providing
intensive voter education for the newly registered voters. They may have
done a little of this but, frankly, not very much at all.
That piece of it -- intensive and thorough pre-election voter education --
is hard and tedious. It involves everything from a massive, paper tornado
of how-to-do-it-stuff and a flood of sample ballots, to role-playing, to
basic and specific discussion of civil rights violations and what to do
effectively about those. It's a matter of working very directly with the
new registrants themselves -- but also training key community leaders --
e.g., clergy, teachers, civic organizational spokespersons, union
eaders -- in order that they, too, can themselves provide accurate training
directly to the new voters at the most basic grassroots level.
The other dimension involves developing an intricate network of trained
poll-watchers and liaison people [the latter linked to private attorneys
and Federal officials] in order to deal swiftly -- and as preventatively as
possible -- with violations of voter rights.
And another piece is responding to the anticipated large turnout by
effectively demanding, well in advance, that state officials set up
additional polling places -- with up-to-date voting machines -- and to do
whatever else is necessary to ensure that the election runs smoothly and
fairly on all counts.
The adversaries will use every device and trick to void ballots and to
otherwise sabotage the fairness of the election process. It's incumbent on
our side to utilize every resource at our command to reduce this as much as
possible -- and then to have the solid basis for effective legal and other
protest in those instances where violations of voter rights do occur.
I initially learned about much of this, especially the voter registration
part of it, when Arizona was using "literacy tests" and other devices to
keep Chicanos and Native Americans from registering and voting -- a practice
which was ended only by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I cut my teeth on
this as a kid at and around Flagstaff, where my parents were always very
actively involved in these issues and battles.
And I personally learned a great deal about all of this -- hard-fought voter
registration and education and related issues -- from the always excellent,
very democratic and egalitarian, and quite radical International Union of
Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in settings where much of our membership was
Chicano and there were also significant numbers of Apache and Papago
Indians, and some Navajo people.
And I learned an enormous amount about voter registration and voter
education -- over many years -- under extraordinarily difficult
circumstances in the Southern Movement.
One of several cases in point: In one of a number of hard-fought Southern
campaigns -- focused initially on a very hard-core Klan-infested Blackbelt
county [Halifax Co., N.C.] where virtually no Blacks or Indians had been
able to register and vote since Reconstruction, we used a wide variety of
resources. [I was the Field Organizer for the Southern Conference
Educational Fund: grassroots civil rights and anti-Klan organizing.]
During an eight month period, I spoke to at least 250 meetings; we ran a
large number of non-White candidates; used top-flight lawyers to win a major
Federal voting order and forced the Justice Department into the situation;
and we disseminated many thousands of pieces of mimeographed and printed
We registered several thousand brand-new voters -- people who, certainly
through no fault of their own, had never voted before in an official public
A major effort of ours focused on voter education: we brought the SCLC
Citizenship School staff in from Savannah to help train local leaders to
conduct grassroots gatherings on how-to-vote-effectively. We put out
thousands more copies of our own material and used a great deal of stuff
contributed by the AFL-CIO. During the various voting days -- two primaries
and one general election -- we had, in addition to our own people as
poll-watchers and "crisis runners" -- a large number of law students from
Georgetown and Yale.
The "other side," of course, had a historically accumulated majority and our
candidates did not win at that point. [But those tangible electoral
victories certainly did come later.] What this effort did was to register
thousands of new voters in one of the most repressive Southern counties and
get them to the polls to vote in a series of elections -- with very few
We also used economic boycotts and militant nonviolent direct action on
other, related issue fronts: e.g., segregated and substandard facilities,
employment discrimination, police brutality, Klan terror, cheating of
sharecroppers, surplus commodities for poor people -- and much, much more.
This campaign not only opened up Halifax County -- but was the major initial
wedge of our intensive and broad-based campaign which then moved effectively
across the geographically far-flung, multi-county Northeastern North
We did this extensively in Chicago multi-issue block club organizing in the
'70s -- where formal obstacles were not the problem but outright fraud
certainly was -- via the Daley Machine. [I was Southside Director for the
Chicago Commons Association, a large private social justice organization.]
But we had significant successes -- including dumping a Daley Alderman and
very careful voter education -- was the consistent key to victory. Another
key was building bridges based on mutual goals, mutual respect, and
enlightened self-interest between the various "ethnicities of the fewest
alternatives" -- especially Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican.
There are many models for effective political action -- registration, voter
education, voting: a myriad of effective organizing approaches over the
epochs [settlement houses, unions, multi-issue community organization, some
of the more tenacious radical groups, etc.]
Notable efforts specializing in this with respect to the Opening South of
the 1960s and beyond involved the aforementioned Citizenship Schools
pioneered by Mrs Septima Clark of SCLC, the Voter Education Project
administered through the Southern Regional Council, and the veteran and
still very much around Highlander Research and Education Center based in
Tennessee [which, in its historic Southwide education campaigns, had
initially trained Mrs Septima Clark herself.]
Next time around in this New Century, I'm sure there will be, All Over The
Land, extensive voter registration and voter mobilization and organization
and, in all great likelihood, very intensive voter education campaigns, and
all of the other related dimensions that need to be pursued and pushed. But
let's make absolutely sure this time -- and well in advance!
In Solidarity, Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
Hunter Gray is a regional coordinator of the Anti Racism Commission.
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
www.hunterbear.org (strawberry socialism)
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