Randolph T. Blackwell served as field director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) in Atlanta, Georgia, before joining the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as program director in 1964. When Blackwell announced his plans to leave SCLC in 1966, Martin Luther King believed his coordinating efforts for SCLC were crucial and pleaded with him to stay.
Blackwell was born on 10 March 1927 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He dated his political awakening to the spring of 1943, when he heard a talk by Ella Baker, then field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He joined the NAACP’s Youth Council the next day and worked on local campaigns until he was drafted into the Army in 1945. After his discharge two years later, Blackwell resumed his civil rights work and ran for the North Carolina General Assembly while simultaneously earning a BS in sociology from North Carolina A & T University in 1949.
Blackwell worked on a successful desegregation campaign in Washington, D.C., while earning his law degree from Howard University (1953). He continued working with the NAACP after he began his first teaching post at Winston-Salem Teacher’s College in 1953. Blackwell became associate professor of government at Alabama A & M College near Huntsville in 1954, and when sit-ins began there in 1962 Blackwell emerged as a movement leader.
In 1963 Blackwell left teaching to become field director of VEP, a non-partisan voter registration program administered by the Southern Regional Council with the support of SCLC, the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Urban League, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Blackwell was selected as SCLC’s program director in August 1964.
Blackwell and Hosea Williams disagreed over supervision of field operations. After King refused to intercede on his behalf in this and other administrative matters, Blackwell took a leave of absence in 1966. His leave became permanent when he was appointed director of Southern Rural Action, an economic development organization working in the Deep South.
Blackwell’s work helping poor communities achieve economic and political self-reliance earned him many awards, including the Martin Luther King, Jr., Nonviolent Peace Prize in 1976 and the National Bar Association’s Equal Justice Award in 1978. Southern Rural Action worked in Plains, Georgia, then-governor Jimmy Carter’s hometown, and when Carter was elected president Blackwell was appointed director of the Department of Commerce’s Office of Minority Business Enterprise. Blackwell held that post from 1977 to 1979 before returning to Atlanta to become the local director of the Office of Minority Business Programs and Development.
Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986.