Fifty years ago this summer, a small group of UCSB students went to Sussex County, Virginia, to help the “Negro” community gain the right to vote. We were volunteers for the SCOPE project (Summer Community Organization & Political Education) under the direction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
In 1965, Sussex County resembled a feudal barony more than a functioning democracy. The long-serving state senator owned the lumber mill and peanut farm — which employed most of the nearby African Americans — the houses the employees lived in, and the grocery store. He was also president of the bank in the town of Waverly, where I served. If you were “Negro” and wanted to vote, there was just one day per month to register, which required paying a poll tax, passing a literacy test, and taking a half day off work to do it, all at the county courthouse 20 miles away.
The SCLC’s nonviolent methods of protest meant we served as catalysts, not leaders. We lived with the people, went to their churches, played baseball with the kids, danced in the pool hall, drank a little “white lightnin’” (it melted the Dixie cup), and learned to understand “Southern.”
The kids paved the way, following us in a small parade as we walked the hot streets of Waverly on our second day in town. They told the grown-ups about the next day’s meeting, which many attended, including the cadre that quickly established the Waverly Improvement Association that still thrives today (as the Sussex-Surry-Greensville County Improvement Association).
That fall, empowered by the association, Waverly’s students marched to demand an end to the bussing that still segregated their schools — 11 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. They succeeded. Soon, blacks cast off the “Negro” name and became members of the town council, the county board of supervisors, the police department, and more. Maggie Turner, one of the more outspoken and articulate members of the movement, even rose to magistrate of the court circuit. “Black power” became a reality.
Nonviolence was the foundation of King’s vision and the work we did that summer 50 years ago. It has a noble lineage — Jesus, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, King, and Chávez — and it rests on the ultimate power: truth and the conviction of the people to peacefully express it.
The UCSB SCOPE reunion, sponsored by the Sociology Department and Black Student Union, hosts a free multimedia presentation on this era by Lanny Kaufer in the Mosher Alumni House on Thursday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m.