By Deanna M. Gillespie, author of The Citizenship Education Program and Black Women’s Political Culture.
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In Fall 2020, the nation’s attention focused on a presidential election held during a global pandemic. Across the country, governors authorized expanded use of mail-in ballots, drop-boxes, and early voting periods. News reports highlighted community organizers capitalizing on unprecedented opportunities to cast a ballot. In Georgia, grassroots organizing and mobilization turned the state into a hotly contested political battleground for the first time in a generation. Coverage focused on Stacey Abrams’s statewide network that got out the vote, shining a bright spotlight on Black women’s clubs, organizations, and local leadership. Their work helped to turn a Republican stronghold “blue” in the presidential race and by early January, had elected two Democratic U.S. Senators.
While unexpected, Georgia’s election results were not an aberrant anomaly. In December 2017, headlines announced Democratic candidate Doug Jones’s victory over Republican rival Roy S. Moore for Alabama’s contested U.S. Senate seat. Within hours of the announcement, #BlackWomen trended on social media as journalists reported on Black women’s grassroots efforts to turn out the vote. In post-election interviews, these women cited concerns about the future of social welfare programs, health care, education, and criminal justice reform as motivation for political action.
Black women’s formal and informal networks capturing national attention in the early twenty-first century are a chapter in a longer history. In The Citizenship Education Program and Black Women’s Political Culture, I explore an earlier chapter. From 1957 to 1972, the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) tapped into local networks and empowered thousands of Black women to teach friends and neighbors to read and write. This was subversive work in the Jim Crow South. Black people who could read and write gathered information, figured fair compensation, registered formal complaints, demanded equal treatment, and signed their names. Black people who could read and write could pass the literacy test required for voter registration. In makeshift classrooms, CEP teachers encouraged individual transformation and sowed seeds for collective action. Local classes were incubators for political education and action, where teachers and students discussed the very issues that fuel today’s grassroots organizing: social welfare and community well-being, affordable and accessible health care, equality and justice, education, and criminal justice reform.
Black women organized and taught classes because it was familiar work, rooted in a gendered political culture nurtured over generations. When southern state legislatures passed segregation laws in the late nineteenth century, teaching remained one of the few professions open to Black women. In schools designed to teach racial inferiority, Black teachers told and retold stories of resistance and achievement. Across the region, their lessons extended beyond classrooms to engage entire communities. Professionally trained educators were not the only teachers. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and neighbors passed on lessons that guided children safely through Jim Crow’s unforgiving rules. They taught the Bible on Sunday mornings and carried the message through the week. Theirs was a political culture built on family and community, constant struggle, and the unshakable belief in human dignity and a just and better day. CEP classes were an extension of this “women’s work” and examples from recent elections demonstrate the enduring nature of this political culture.
The CEP offers important lessons in building and sustaining momentum required for significant reform. The program emerged from the bottom-up with a request to address a locally-defined issue. Collaboration with the Highlander Folk School provided a conduit for technical assistance and funding to flow into local communities. Early classes served as testing sites to develop and refine an adaptable workbook and approach. Transferring the program to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) fused political action with Christian duty and on a practical level, facilitated connections to Black churchwomen’s networks. Week-long training sessions, first at Highlander and later at SCLC-sponsored workshops on the Georgia coast, oriented new teachers and established bonds between leaders organizing classes in different places. Funding from the Marshall Field Foundation provided a modest monthly stipend that became an economic lifeline when employers refused to hire the Black women who were “stirring up that mess.” All of these pieces contributed to the groundswell for federal reform, most notably, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that banned tests for voter registration, placed states with a long history of restrictive registration practices under federal supervision, and established channels to report discrimination at the polls.
The history of the CEP after 1965 reminds us how quickly pieces can scatter. CEP teachers celebrated the Voting Rights Act while acknowledging that the law undercut the program’s main reason for existence. Local teachers and program administrators continued to emphasize the need for adult literacy education while pivoting to anti-poverty programs and political education. They did this work amidst intensifying backlash and retrenchment, with cuts to federally-funded social welfare programs and new rules restricting private funding for civil rights causes. In 1972, the CEP quietly ended operations.
By the time the CEP closed, the program had trained over two thousand local leaders who organized 7,280 classes, reaching over 26,000 people. As teachers and students fanned out, they expanded influence to an estimated 95,000 people. The CEP achieved these results by tapping into an existing political culture with very deep roots. Recent events demonstrate that although this formal program ended, the roots endure.
Deanna M. Gillespie is professor of history at the University of North Georgia and author of The Citizenship Education Program and Black Women’s Political Culture.