The Voter Education Project (VEP) was an initiative to register African American voters that began in 1962, largely as an effort by Pres. John F. Kennedy and attorney general Robert F. Kennedy to co-opt the nonviolent direct action campaigns of the civil rights movement. In the wake of the 1961 Freedom Rides, the Kennedys hoped to avoid any further outbreaks of white southern violence. The Justice Department, led by Robert Kennedy and Burke Marshall, thought a voter registration campaign aimed at black southerners would both channel civil rights militancy away from more confrontational public demonstrations and invite fewer violent reprisals from white southerners.
The VEP grew out of a series of 1961 meetings between civil rights leaders and Justice Department officials. Between April 1962 and October 1965, the project would disburse funds to help civil rights groups engaged in voter education and registration. It was financed by $870,000 in donations from tax-exempt private foundations, with Stephen Currier, president of the Taconic Foundation, as the principal backer.
In practice, however, the project exacerbated conflict between the civil rights workers and the Kennedy administration. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took the lead in voter registration efforts but received only a small share of VEP funds. The attorney general preferred to focus on registration in southern cities, but SNCC leader Bob Moses, working as director of voter registration for the Council of Federated Organizations, concentrated on rural counties in Mississippi, especially in the Delta. SNCC officials believed that working in a federally approved project like the VEP would mean federal protection for their volunteers, a notion that Robert Kennedy and Marshall did not actively dispel. However, when whites in McComb and elsewhere responded with violence or economic reprisal against SNCC workers and black voter applicants, the Justice Department moved slowly, citing federalism and the prerogatives of local law enforcement. The Justice Department’s reluctance to act angered SNCC volunteers and stymied voter registration efforts, and the VEP ceased funding the council’s Mississippi registration efforts in November 1963.
The tensions between the student volunteers and the federal government marked the beginning of SNCC workers’ disillusionment with white liberals, a separation that would become a complete split after the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. The VEP strategy also showed how deeply the Kennedys misread the level of violent resistance to any challenge to white supremacy in Mississippi, whether it was civil disobedience or voter registration on the part of African Americans. The VEP established SNCC as the leading voter registration group in the state and thus served as an important precursor to Freedom Summer and the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
- Carl M. Brauer, John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction (1977)C
- layborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- James N. Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1991)