The Voter Education Project (VEP) coordinated the voter registration campaigns of five civil rights groups—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the National Urban League—under the auspices of the Southern Regional Council (SRC), a non-profit research organization. The creation of the VEP enabled foundations to make tax-free donations directly to voter registration efforts, which were then coordinated by SRC to prevent duplicate coverage areas. Martin Luther King believed the VEP to be a success, pledging to “continue to participate personally” in its registration efforts (King, 5 April 1962).
Established in April 1962, the VEP originated in discussions between U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Burke Marshall, the SRC’s Harold C. Fleming, and philanthropist Stephen R. Currier. They believed that the creation of a nonpartisan, tax-exempt, and centrally organized agency would attract private contributions to the civil rights struggle and improve the efficiency of voter registration efforts already underway. In addition, they hoped the VEP would shift the efforts of civil rights groups away from confrontational direct action methods toward less controversial voter registration drives. Although civil rights groups were well aware of this motivation for advocating the VEP, they welcomed the additional funding and viewed participation in the project as a way to continue their work with increased federal protection.
VEP-funded projects had early successes in communities such as Albany, Georgia, where a VEP grant helped the Albany Movement register more than 500 new voters in two weeks during 1962. However, in early 1963 the VEP threatened to suspend SCLC from the program because of inadequate reporting on the use of grant funds. King hastily called a conference between VEP leadership and SCLC, during which he acknowledged that SCLC had to work harder to reach its reporting obligations and asked the VEP to renew its support. The VEP agreed, and SCLC continued its VEP-sponsored projects.
Although many registration campaigns achieved success, in some areas, notably Mississippi, the VEP concluded that discrimination was so entrenched that only federal intervention could significantly increase the number of black voters. By the end of 1964 VEP grants totaled almost $900,000, and nearly 800,000 new black southern voters had been added to the rolls since the VEP began. In October 1965, a few months after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King told an SCLC administrative committee that more than 175,000 new black voters had been registered since the act passed, and that SCLC registration and canvassing was responsible for more than half of that increase.
In 1967 the VEP began a third operational phase that focused on channeling grants to local voter leagues. The VEP separated from the SRC in 1970, but continued voter education and registration work until it closed in 1992.