On 10 December 1958, SCLC executive board members agreed to join the Atlanta All-Citizens Registration Committee to undertake a campaign to add fifty-seven thousand local African Americans to the voting rolls. SCLC assigned executive director John L. Tilley and office assistant Judith Fisher to coordinate the effort.1 The following month Hill, chairman of the Registration Committee, complained to King of Tilley's inability to devote sufficient time to the voting drive and requested that SCLC “consider providing only the services of Miss Judith Fisher."2
Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr., Chairman
Atlanta All-Citizens Registration Committee
148 Auburn Avenue, N.E.
Atlanta 1, Georgia
Dear Mr. Hill:
I am in receipt of your letter of January 19, outlining the details of why your committee found it necessary to discontinue the services of Rev. John L. Tilley as Director of the Atlanta Voting Drive. I have read the contents of this letter with scrutinizing care.
Naturally we were very sorry to know that Rev. Tilley’s schedule made it impossible for him to give as much time as you thought was necessary in the early stages of the campaign. The Board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was under the impression that the Atlanta All-Citizens Registration Committee was aware of Dr. Tilley’s part-time status from the beginning and that he would occasionally have to be out of the city. We regret very deeply that this misunderstanding arose.
May we assure you, however, that this in no way diminishes our interest in the Atlanta voting drive. The Southern Leadership Conference initiated its crusade for citizenship several months ago to function as a service agency, rendering assistance in various communities in any way that we possibly could. Our one big aim is to assist the whole South in doubling the number of Negro voters by 1960. In no way do we attempt to interfere with the work of existing local groups, but only to assist and coordinate these groups when and wherever they desire. The job of registration is such a big one that no single group could cover the whole field. It will require the cooperative work of all existing organizations. We feel that one of the most decisive steps that the Negro can take at this time is that short walk to the voting booth. We were, therefore, especially delighted to join in the Atlanta drive because that community places no external resistance to registration. It appears that the only barrier to be overcome is that of apathy on the part of Negroes themselves. We feel that Atlanta is one of the communities of the South where a successful voting drive would lead to the election of Negroes to some important city positions. Since the Atlanta community is so important, we would not at all think of withdrawing our support. I hope that you will be able to work out a plan whereby Dr. Tilley can render some service within the limits of his schedule. As you know, Dr. Tilley is a man of wide experience in this area, having lead the city of Baltimore in one of the most successful voting drives to date. I am sure that he would be willing to cooperate at any point that he possibly can. We will also be happy to have Miss Fisher continue serving in her present capacity.3
May I add a personal word concerning the Atlanta drive. As you probably realize I have a rather selfish interest in this campaign because Atlanta is my home. When Dr. Tilley mentioned the proposed voting campaign in Atlanta, my heart immediately throbbed with joy. I took great pleasure in recommending our participation in this drive to the Executive Board.. Atlanta is a city with vast potentialities and great promise. Its is unique, economic and cultural prominence places it in a position to stand as a beacon light of hope to the whole South. If Atlanta succeeds, the South will succeed. If Atlanta fails, the South will fail, for Atlanta is the South in miniature. I hope for the Atlanta community a most successful and far reaching registration drive. If there is anything that I can do to assist you presently, please do not hesitate to call on me. I regret that I will be out of the country for the next two months, but on my return I will be looking to hear the results of your great work.
With every good wish, I am
Martin L. King, Jr.
1. “Tilley Named to Lead Drive Here for Registration,” Atlanta Daily World, 14 December 1958. Spelman College graduate Judith Fisher was the daughter of A. Franklin Fisher, pastor of Atlanta’s West Hunter Baptist Church. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., served on the executive committee of the All-Citizens Registration Committee.
2. Hill, a local black businessman who had donated money to the MIA during the bus boycott, also asked that King send a donation toward hiring a new coordinator: “Since we will have the new responsibility of providing a qualified director ourselves any additional contribution would be most effective and timely” (Hill to King, 19 January 1959).
3. In a 23 April 1959 letter, Hill informed King that the committee’s efforts had led to an increase of five thousand new voters. He also requested that Fisher remain with the campaign until “at least June 30, 1959.’’ King replied on 5 May 1959, explaining that “budgetary limits” prevented SCLC from continuing its support for Fisher.
MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.