November 1, 2006

'60s Activists Honored for Helping Minorities to Vote

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As soon as classes ended in 1964, about 40 Cornell students, faculty and community members drove to Fayette County, Tenn. to help African Americans register to vote. Last weekend, many of them went back Tennessee, this time to Memphis, to be honored for what they did and to be part of a researcher’s project to preserve the history of the Fayette County, Tennessee Civil Rights Movement.
“I wasn’t born when it started in 1959 — with the trial of a black man whose attorney asked why there weren’t any blacks on the jury, and found that it was because few blacks were registered to vote,” said Daphene McFerren, visiting professor at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. McFerren, the daughter of Viola and John McFerren, local leaders of the civil rights movement in Fayette County, is interviewing activists and gathering letters, articles and other materials capturing the events of the movement.
“The goal of this project is to tell the history of the movement … and maybe other communities can learn from this story,” she said.
Starting in 1963, a few graduate students drove to Fayette County to help register African Americans to vote. In a population of about 30,000, blacks were in the majority, though few were registered to vote and according to McFerren, Fayette County was the third or fourth poorest county in the United States at that time.
With the help of J.F. Estes, the attorney in the 1959 trial, John McFerren, Harpman Jameson and others organized the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League. These leaders pushed blacks to register to vote but would-be voters faced tactics such as long lines, only one location to register, and many of those who did register were denied credit as well as food, clothing, gasoline and other necessities as part of a boycott. Many blacks who registered to vote were also evicted from the farms they’d rented or worked on shares. Many moved to “tent city” a field that one black landowner turned over to blacks evicted from their homes.
In 1964, students began gathering support for a group to help with voter registration. The Cornell Student Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Fayette County, Tennessee requested $1,000 from the Executive Board of Student Government to help fund volunteers, mostly students, drive to the county to help African Americans register to vote.
“There was a very strong split on this board as to whether we should spend this money … it was the most controversial issue we dealt with all year,” said Paul Friedman ’65, then president of the executive board, currently a United States District Judge.
“A lot of people felt — this is exactly the kind of thing students should be doing, that we should spend student funds on,” Friedman said. “The opposing view was that you just don’t spend university money on this, a political issue that not everybody would support.” The issue divided the campus as well as The Sun. The newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief was in favor of the grant while the Managing Editor opposed it. Many opposing the grant said they were not against civil rights; rather the crux of their argument was that student fees should not be used to fund a partisan project. The committee had brought to campus two people running for positions in the upcoming Fayette County elections. L.T. Redfearn was running for sheriff and Rev. June Dowdy was his running mate for tax assessor. Opponents argued that the committee would be using student funds to support these candidates. Those in favor argued that the funds would support volunteers’ efforts to help register blacks to vote in a fair election.
After a long meeting and heated debate, the board voted 5-3 in favor of the grant. However, shortly after the board’s vote, students opposed to the grant gathered more than 2,300 signatures to petition student government for a referendum for the entire student body vote “Yes” or “No” to the grant. Of the approximately 4,500 votes cast, the grant was again passed with over 2,500 students voting in favor and 1,984 voting in opposition.
Last May, the Student Assembly generated debate on campus by passing Resolution 29. This resolution did not allocate funds, but still addressed an off-campus issue, urging state and federal representatives to pressure “Iran [and] any other state sponsor of terror to stop their support of international terror organizations [and] the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Some students argued about whether it was appropriate for the SA to pass a resolution focused on off-campus concerns.
“This voter registration movement in the ’60s is similar to Resolution 29 because if we don’t say anything then who will?” said SA President Kwame Thomison ’07.
He said that with Resolution 29, the goal was to be part of a larger movement.
He argued against a proposed resolution (R. 13 Resolution Regarding the Role of the SA in Political Issues), which would limit the SA to issuing opinions “only when they directly affect higher education.”
“We shouldn’t limit our power because that limits our ability to represent students,” Thomison said.
He said that if the SA was restricted to only on-campus issues, it would be harder to address concerns for students living off-campus and the current dialogue between the assembly and the mayor and Common Council would not be possible.