Images courtesy of 90for90 and the Reid family. Slider image courtesy Kheel Center, Cornell University.
Dr. William Ferguson Reid has been at the vanguard of the fight for voting rights since 1955, the year he and other activists launched their battle against racist voting restrictions in the state of Virginia.
That was the era of poll taxes, literacy tests, and ballot stuffing. Segregation was the law of the land, and hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan were far more active and dangerous than today.
Despite these challenges, Reid became the first African American elected to the Virginia General Assembly since Reconstruction. With that victory he paved the way for greater African American political participation in the state.
Reid continues his sixty year struggle today through 90for90, a voting rights campaign that seeks to engage activists across the country.
The initiative was founded by Virginia activists inspired by Reid’s life of public service, began in Virginia and has now gone national. The name 90for90 was chosen in honor of Reid’s 90th birthday, with the goal of registering 90 voters in each precinct in Virginia. Dr. Reid’s son, Dr. William Reid Jr., expects to exceed this goal by 250,000 new voters before the fall election.
The volunteers at 90for90 share information about how to get out the vote, and also provide information to candidates and organizations across the country committed to voter’s rights.
Fighting “Massive Resistance”
The elder Dr. Reid, or “Fergie” to his family and friends, began his civil rights work after serving as a Navy surgeon in Korea. He returned to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia and found it embroiled in a dispute over desegregation. One year after Brown vs Board, Virginia was closing public schools under desegregation orders instead of integrating them—part of a strategy known as “Massive Resistance.”
The NAACP led the fight against segregation, largely through lawsuits, but members of the organization also realized that one of the most effective ways of ending Massive Resistance was to elect African Americans to office. This aim was frustrated by the numerous schemes in place at that time to suppress the vote of the state’s large African American population.
To register to vote, Virginians had to successfully complete a “blank sheet” registration form, which functioned as a sort of literacy test. Would-be voters were given a blank sheet of paper and told to write the answers to the seven questions on it, but African Americans weren’t told what the questions were. White voters knew to write their address, Social Security number, and other other personal information.
Virginia also had a poll tax, but even black voters who could afford to pay couldn’t register if they missed the unadvertised deadline. Poll taxes had to be paid in person, six months before the election, three years in a row. Whites who paid the poll tax late were typically not penalized.
Dr. Reid joined the Virginia NAACP’s voter registration committee, and worked to educate black Virginians on the state’s secretive voting procedures and requirements. This drew the ire of Virgina Senator Harry Byrd Sr. and other Democrats, who according to Reid Jr. conspired to “put the NAACP out of business” by introducing legislation demanding a membership list from the organization, putting members’ jobs and lives at risk in an area with an active KKK syndicate. Predictably, NAACP membership plummeted.
To take heat off the NAACP, the voter registration committee disbanded and the members formed a new organization: The Richmond Crusade for Voters. Led by Dr. Reid, Dr. William S. Thornton, and John M. Brooks, the organization helped create independent civic groups in 28 precincts in Richmond where the black population was large enough to tip the vote. Crusade for Voters provided training to each civic group, which conducted voter registration and education. The concept was so successful it was expanded statewide.
After ten years of dedicated effort, the black vote in Virginia grew large enough for Reid to run for state assembly. He narrowly lost his first attempt, in 1965, but was elected two years later. He served three terms, representing a portion of Richmond, the former capital city of the Confederacy.
In 1970, when Virginia’s heavily gerrymandered electoral maps came due for redistricting, Dr. Reid negotiated with conservative Democrats, who agreed to draw a state senate district encircling a predominantly black portion of Richmond. A friend of his, Lawrence Douglas Wilder, won the seat and went on to become lieutenant governor of Virginia and later the first black governor elected in the United States.
Reid Jr. believes Wilder’s election paved the way for candidates like Deval Patrick, first black governor of Massachusetts. Indeed, he says, “Barack Obama may have never considered running for President if there had never even been a black governor.”
Continuing the Fight
Today, Reid sees the new voting restrictions popping up across the country as a continuation of the same oppressive laws he began fighting sixty years ago. 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.”
“You need to elect people on the down ballot: county boards, school boards, city councils, the people who can solve your day to day problems. You need to work at the local level, that’s where the energy is, that’s where the voters are.”
“From the base of the pyramid you can build up,” he advises. “Tell your county board member to run for the state assembly, tell your state senator to run for U.S. Congress.”
State representatives have the power to redraw gerrymandered districts or appoint independent redistricting commissions. They also have the ability to undue restrictive voting laws.
Even if a progressive candidate hasn’t won a seat in years, you need to start running candidates five, or ten years before redistricting comes up. With time, you can build your strategy. If Reid is known for one saying, it’s this one:
“Each election is a dress rehearsal for the next one.”
Tanner Jean-Louis is an editorial assistant at The Progressive.