Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Through its massive Mississippi voter-registration project, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) played an important role in the struggle of Mississippi’s African American population to achieve voting rights.

Summary of Event

During the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, Mississippi was perhaps the most difficult and dangerous arena in which activists worked. Essentially a closed society on racial issues, white Mississippi fought tenaciously, often violently, to maintain a way of life based on white supremacy. While some civil rights groups sought to eliminate the state’s dual society by pushing to desegregate schools and public accommodations, others worked to open up Mississippi through African American political enfranchisement. One organization that played an important role in this effort was the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Voting rights;African Americans Council of Federated Organizations African Americans;voting rights Civil Rights movement;voter registration Civil Rights movement;organizations [kw]Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote (1962-1965) [kw]African Americans to Vote, Council of Federated Organizations Registers (1962-1965) [kw]Vote, Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to (1962-1965) Voting rights;African Americans Council of Federated Organizations African Americans;voting rights Civil Rights movement;voter registration Civil Rights movement;organizations [g]North America;1962-1965: Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote[07170] [g]United States;1962-1965: Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote[07170] [c]Organizations and institutions;1962-1965: Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote[07170] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1962-1965: Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote[07170] [c]Social issues and reform;1962-1965: Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote[07170] [c]Government and politics;1962-1965: Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote[07170] Moses, Robert Parris Dennis, David Henry, Aaron King, Edwin Lowenstein, Allard Schwerner, Michael Chaney, James Goodman, Andrew Hamer, Fannie Lou

COFO was a unique coalition of the major civil rights groups operating in Mississippi. The council included the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;voter registration (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Initially formed in 1961 to assist jailed freedom riders in Jackson, COFO was revitalized in 1962 to increase the number of black registered voters. An additional purpose was to eliminate interorganizational competition over the distribution of foundation funds administered through the Voter Education Project Voter Education Project (VEP). Neither the NAACP nor the SCLC played significant roles in COFO, although Mississippi NAACP head Aaron Henry served as its president. SNCC, which supplied COFO with most of its staff and much of its operating funds, dominated the coalition. Robert Parris Moses, a soft-spoken Harvard graduate student and able veteran SNCC community organizer, served as voter project director; he was assisted by CORE’s David Dennis, another activist skilled in grass-roots voter-registration projects.

Few informed COFO staffers were unaware of Mississippi’s history on African American voting issues. This history had clearly indicated little white support for black political involvement. The first southern state to disenfranchise its African American electorate constitutionally, Mississippi had bolstered its legal impediments with extralegal efforts whenever it felt the status quo sufficiently threatened. Years of disenfranchisement had combined with economic dependence, grinding poverty, rigid segregation, and educational deprivation to trap black Mississippians in an oppressive condition that often worked against direct challenges to white domination.

Significant challenges occurred. Influenced by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (1954), in 1955 black Mississippians launched a major voter-registration drive. It ended in failure. Economic reprisals took their toll on many applicants, but the physical violence Civil Rights movement;violence targeted against the leadership proved more effective. The year 1955 was especially bloody. The African American community in Mississippi was convulsed by the murder of the city of Belzoni’s NAACP president and voting-rights champion, George Lee Lee, George , the near-assassination of his activist friend Gus Court Court, Gus , and the daylight murder of Brookhaven farmer and civil rights supporter Lamar Smith Smith, Lamar . Operating in such a repressive atmosphere, COFO’s task would be difficult at best.

In 1960, African Americans composed 42 percent of Mississippi’s population; when COFO began its registration campaign, however, only 5.3 percent of the eligible African American population had surmounted the discriminatory laws to qualify as voters. Primarily involved in registering rural community African Americans, particularly in the share-cropping delta counties, the organization encountered stiff white resistance and considerable black apprehension. Election officials devised ingenious harassment and delaying tactics against applicants. When such maneuvers or economic intimidation failed to dissuade African American interest, violence again came into play. It raged in 1963 in key locations in the delta registration drive. Moses himself barely escaped being assassinated in Greenwood; however, he remained undaunted in his efforts.

Coalition leaders believed that only with federal intervention could any reasonable amount of success be expected, but little help or encouragement came from Washington. COFO did achieve greater success in disproving white myths about black voting indifference. The highlight of the organization’s 1963 activities was its registration of African American voters for its so-called Freedom Election Freedom Election . Eighty mostly white college students from Yale and Stanford universities were recruited by veteran activist Allard Lowenstein to assist COFO staffers in the campaign. They helped register eighty-two thousand persons for a mock election that coincided with the regularly scheduled gubernatorial election. Voters could cast ballots for the official candidates or the representatives of a “freedom slate,” consisting of gubernatorial candidate Aaron Henry and his running mate, the Reverend Edwin King, a white Tougaloo College clergyman. Mississippi officials took little interest in the symbolic Henry-King victory, but the election demonstrated that black Mississippians were clearly interested in acquiring equal political rights and representation.

Moses and COFO organizers were encouraged by the Freedom Election. Its outcome added importance to a campaign announced by Dennis for a massive 1964 voter-organizing project dubbed “Freedom Summer.” Freedom Summer (1964) The project called for a large influx of mostly white college students to assist COFO staffers in registering black voters, establishing community centers, and organizing freedom schools to teach educationally deprived youths basic subjects and to teach adults voting techniques. Project plans also included the establishment of a new political organization, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The party was to serve as an effective alternative to the all-white state Democratic Party Democratic Party, Mississippi and to challenge its delegation in the 1964 national convention.

Freedom Summer clearly bore the influence of Moses, who insisted that whites not be excluded from participating. Dennis agreed. The two leaders reasoned that exposing the children of prominent and affluent whites to the daily terror experienced by African Americans would dramatize effectively the need for federal protection and intervention in the Mississippi movement. It was a calculated motive upon which many SNCC staffers frowned, but one which later circumstances partially justified.

After a week of orientation and training in an Oxford, Ohio, women’s college, hundreds of idealistic youth came to Mississippi to work in the summer project. Mississippi hastily mobilized to combat this “invasion,” increasing the size of the highway patrol and enacting legislation designed to curb the project. Jackson’s enlarged police force heavily armed itself and even purchased an armored tank. The Ku Klux Klan Ku Klux Klan Terrorist organizations and similar extremist groups grew in numbers and influence.

The reality of conducting civil rights activity in the South’s most racially oppressive state quickly confronted the volunteers. Numerous workers were falsely arrested, assaulted, or shot at; the homes and churches of many COFO partisans were bombed and burned; and election officials redoubled their efforts not to make concessions in administering Mississippi’s discriminatory registration laws. The reign of terror struck fear in the hearts of workers and prospective African American registrants.

The greatest disruptive event of the summer project was the tragic disappearance of COFO workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. An intensive manhunt uncovered their bodies in Neshoba County on August 4, six weeks after the search began, in an earthen dam near Philadelphia. Their kidnapping and assassination by Klansmen shocked the nation, partially bringing to reality COFO leaders’ cynical prediction of government intervention if white youths became murder victims.

That intervention did not occur to the extent desired or expected by COFO workers. Still generally unprotected, the volunteers persisted in their activities, although their registration efforts remained largely ineffective. Throughout the rest of 1964, COFO’s energies centered primarily on MFDP affairs, particularly on seeking the party’s recognition as a vital political force. By the beginning of 1965, the coalition and the registration drive had essentially ended; COFO officially disbanded in 1966.


Nothing affected the COFO’s registration activities as much as the increased violence they generated. The repercussions were widespread, affecting staff members and registrants, Mississippians and non-Mississippians alike. Violence had always been used by racial extremists against those who sought to undermine Mississippi’s white supremacy, but at the height of the registration campaign its usage became more tenacious and its results more deadly. During Freedom Summer alone, in addition to the well-publicized Neshoba County lynchings, at least four other deaths occurred that were related to the state’s accelerated civil rights activities. Slightly less grave were the more than one thousand arrests, thirty-five shootings, and eighty beatings, and the bombing or burning of sixty-five homes, churches, and other buildings.

The ever-present terror and the reluctance of the federal government to protect project workers and African American registrants influenced the effectiveness of COFO in achieving its objectives. For working-class African Americans, the fear of physical reprisal often interacted with the reality of economic reprisal, creating a high price to pay for registering to vote. When added to the force of the state’s discriminatory registration procedures, the results were discouraging. In the two years from 1962 to 1964, when COFO was functioning at its highest level, African American voter registration increased by only 1.4 percent. Mississippi’s 1964 registration rate of 6.7 percent for African Americans was the lowest in the nation. This lack of significant progress in Mississippi caused the Voter Education Project in late 1963 to divert its financial contributions from COFO to more promising voter projects.

Still, COFO persisted. The various campaign obstacles had a sobering effect on all involved, but the project also produced positive signs. The 1963 Freedom Election was convincing evidence of African American voting aspirations, and it helped stimulate interest across the state. This expanded interest continued into the summer project. Despite the summer’s terrorism, some seventeen thousand African Americans were convinced to seek registration in their county courthouses, although only sixteen hundred actually succeeded.

Additionally, the motivation translated into real grassroots political action in the form of the MFDP. The party did not gain recognition as the legitimate representative of Mississippi Democrats. Through the efforts of such personable and magnetic individuals as Fannie Lou Hamer, however, black Mississippians’ political plight received further national exposure.

Perhaps COFO’s greatest contribution in the voting-rights struggle was its role in dramatizing the inhumanity of Mississippi’s resistance to African Americans’ political involvement. In so doing, it aided immeasurably the national call for a greater federal role in southern voting practices. COFO’s project eventually thus achieved one of its deeper aims. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Selma voting-rights campaign clearly influenced congressional passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but COFO’s Mississippi project was also significant.

Ultimately, COFO aided in opening Mississippi society and shaping its participatory political culture. Within three decades, Mississippi had more African American elected officials than any other state in the nation. With the country’s largest percentage of African Americans in its population, Mississippi had achieved the meaningful political empowerment that many COFO idealists envisioned. Voting rights;African Americans Council of Federated Organizations African Americans;voting rights Civil Rights movement;voter registration Civil Rights movement;organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, Kenneth T. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Historical and theoretical discussion of the Mississippi civil rights movement that begins with a chapter on the consequences of social movements before delving into the consequences of the Mississippi movement in particular.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belfrage, Sally. Freedom Summer. New York: Viking Press, 1965. One of the best personal accounts to come out of the 1964 Summer Project. Belfrage’s book covers her training and orientation in Ohio and the ordeal of the white resistance in Mississippi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cagin, Seth, and Philip Dray. We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign in Mississippi. New York: Macmillan, 1988. A detailed account of the murders of the three civil rights workers and the COFO Summer Project. The authors do much to correct the often-repeated suggestion that the Federal Bureau of Investigation played a significant role in protecting the volunteers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. One of the best civil rights organizational histories available. Comprehensively treats the student group, its difficulties and successes, and its evolution from nonviolence to militancy in the mid-1960’s. The coverage of Mississippi voting rights and COFO matters is especially good. Notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dittmer, John. “The Politics of the Mississippi Movement, 1954-1964.” In The Civil Rights Movement in America, edited by Charles W. Eagles. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. A good analysis of the black Mississippi struggle. Dittmer understandably focuses much attention on the COFO project. Notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, Len. The Summer That Didn’t End. New York: William Morrow, 1965. The personal account of an African American Washington, D.C., lawyer who came to Mississippi to work in the 1964 Summer Project. Holt focuses on the Philadelphia murders and the individual COFO projects. Appendix and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hudson, Winson, and Constance Curry. Mississippi Harmony: Memoirs of a Freedom Fighter. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Autobiography detailing Hudson’s struggles for civil rights and school integration in Leake County, Mississippi. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. A sociohistorical study of the COFO volunteers and what influenced them. McAdam claims that the project forever changed these liberal whites, radicalizing them in ways that appeared in their post-1964 summer reform efforts. Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meier, August, and Elliot Rudwick. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. The most comprehensive and scholarly treatment of the Congress of Racial Equality. Includes much discussion of CORE’s involvement in the Mississippi voting-rights struggle. References, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silver, James W. Mississippi: The Closed Society. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964. The classic indictment of Mississippi and its reluctance to address change in its racial order. The book’s genesis was primarily the violent white reaction to the integration of the University of Mississippi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964. Although not a formal history, this book is a penetrating analysis of SNCC by one of its first historians, who was also its adviser. Although dated, it remains essential reading for understanding this organization, which formed the largest part of the COFO coalition.

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Categories: History