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The Lasting Legacy of the Richmond Crusade for Voters

The coverage image on Kimberly Matthews book on The Richmond Crusade for Voters shows a Richmond get out the vote initiative in 1947.
The coverage image on Kimberly Matthews book on The Richmond Crusade for Voters shows a Richmond get out the vote initiative in 1947. (Courtesy of the Scott Henderson Collection, L. Douglas Wilder Library, Virginia Union University.)

More than six decades ago, two doctors and a businessman saw a problem and an opportunity. Jim Crow laws had wiped out black political influence for decades, white leaders were mounting a statewide campaign to resist school integration, and not enough people of color were running for office. After the Richmond Crusade for Voters got off the ground, the political landscape started changing and the group would have a significant impact in Richmond and beyond.

The movement’s story is documented in Dr. Kimberly Matthews book: The Richmond Crusade for Voters. Matthews, a member of the Crusade for Voters, wanted to do a pictorial history of the organization to help show younger people what their ancestors went through in order to vote.

“We don’t have to pay anything before we go, we don’t have to take a test before we go, we can just jump in our cars and go vote,” said Matthews.

The history of the Richmond Crusade for Voters is connected to education. White leaders led by Harry F. Byrd were fighting school integration, following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, KS. An inter-racial group called the Committee to Save Public Schools mobilized to help defeat a statewide referendum planned for January 9, 1956. The measure would approve a constitutional convention to advance what’s known as the “Gray Plan Amendment,” part of which would give private school tuition vouchers to families who refused to send their children to integrated schools. The measure passed by wide margins and in Richmond, voter turnout was low.

“There was 8,500 registered African American voters at the time, but only about 4,000 showed up,” said VCU Professor Kimberly Matthews. “For various reasons, it could be the poll tax, the literacy test, it could be transportation. So this group disbanded after that loss and a couple of the members started the Richmond Crusade for Voters.”

The book begins with images that depict intimidation and oppression of the era: the KKK marching through downtown Richmond; a single pool open to Black youth; the construction of I-95, which destroyed large sections of the city’s predominantly Black Jackson Ward. She also includes early organizing and victories: a 1920s photo of the “First Colored Women Voters Club of Ettrick” and a portrait of Oliver Hill Sr. who in 1948 became the first black city councilor since 1896.

“We were striving as a people, but there still was so much to overcome during that time,” said Matthews.

The Richmond Crusade for Voters formed to increase voter registration and turn-out, but also to improve the social, economic and educational welfare of residents. The founders included podiatrist, Dr. William S. Thornton, the group’s first president; businessman John Mitchell Brooks and surgeon Dr. William Ferguson Reid. The three were all alumni of Armstrong High School and members of the 533 Club, a gathering place for Black professionals, says Milton Brooks, son of the late John Mitchell Brooks.

“They weren’t interested in personal power, they were interested in community power and having the whole community have a say in how our lives were being affected by politicians” said Brooks.

Brooks says some of the first conversations about the Crusade for Voters happened on the 22OO Block of Hildreth Street on the Richmond’s East End. As a youth, he joined his father, a Bronze Star veteran of World War II and a skilled cook who opened a restaurant on Main Street, going door to door and driving people to the polls.

“It was a prolonged and intense period,” said Brooks. “At the time, it was part of life. It was what we did. I always knew that there was injustice, that we weren’t treated as well as other parts of the city.”

The Richmond Crusade’s founders met nightly to build their organization. There was an executive branch as well as standing committees focused on voter registration, education and research, each with their own annual goals and quotas. The structure also included a grassroots “precinct system” with captains, block leaders, officers and workers who could be responsive to the needs of specific neighborhoods.

“A lot of this [organizing] happened at people’s homes,” says Matthews. “It was still dangerous times for African Americans to actually come together as groups outside of church. So they would have parties, but they were actually doing business inside.”

After getting the precinct system off the ground, the Richmond Crusade for Voters saw significant accomplishments. Matthews studied the archives of Ethel Overby, the first black woman to become a Richmond Public School principal. Overby was on the Richmond Crusade’s finance committee and kept detailed reports of the group’s registration goals. Through this research, Matthews found that the group quadrupled Black voter registration to more than 32,000 by 1966.

“We started what you might call in a Richmond, a third party - The Crusade for Voters,” Dr. William Ferguson Reid told WCVE. “It really was a third party because neither the Democratic or Republican parties were too receptive to blacks. They were kind of like private clubs and they set the rules so Blacks would not be eligible to be members of the Democratic party.”

Dr. Reid is the sole living co-founder of the Richmond Crusade for Voters. He lived next to banker and entrepreneur Maggie Walker, the families were friends. He said there were few occupations for black residents, but medicine was one. MCV was in walking distance, but they wouldn’t admit black students. He graduated from Howard University, then had to leave the state to find a teaching hospital that accepted black doctors in residence. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, he was stationed in South Korea with the 1st Marine Division.

“I was the only black officer in the M.A.S.H. unit and all the other guys were from the South and I was the only one who was happy,” said Reid. “They were despondent and said it would never happen, that there will be resistance to it. But I was naive and I thought, I was taught to obey the law and if the Supreme Court said that they had to integrate the schools, there wouldn’t be any resistance. I later found out people do resist the laws enacted and also Supreme Court decisions.”

From the beginning, Reid says they knew this endeavor would be a long-term effort. After he, Thorton and Brooks devised the mission, objectives and structure, they spent about five years getting the precinct system off the ground. Reid says they’d start by having a meeting with a few people in each precinct, then they’d hold a “big” meeting at a church with 10-20 people.

“The three of us, we did make a sacrifice with our families because every night we were meeting with some group to try to get them in various phases of organization,” said Reid.

Reid says the “precinct system” they developed went beyond registering people and getting out the vote. They had a broader civic role: making sure there wasn’t police brutality, that there were street lights and garbage collection.

The Richmond Crusade worked to elect moderate white candidates and says Reid, they ran black candidates to get more people interested in voting. Dr. Reid himself never intended to run, but in 1967 he made history as the first black candidate elected to the General Assembly in nearly 80 years.

“You never did it alone, it’s the people who do all the work. Voters deserve the credit,” said Reid.

In the legislature, Reid said he focused on open housing legislation to reverse the impact of restrictive covenants and redlining that prevented people of color and Jews from moving to certain neighborhoods. They also worked to eliminate segregation laws in the Code of Virginia. And they ended a “gentlemen’s agreement” that prohibited black people and women from being pages in the Senate. He also worked outside the General Assembly on a biracial commission that negotiated with Richmond restaurants to accept black patrons.

The Richmond Crusade for Voters also traveled to Norfolk, Newport News and Portsmouth to help other communities and the number of blacks elected to local and state office continued to grow. They also had white allies like J. Sergeant Reynolds and Linwood Holton. In 1969, the organization’s growing influence helped Doug Wilder become the first black state senator since Reconstruction. Wilder would make history again in 1990 as the country’s first black governor.

Richmond Crusade for Voters co-founder John Mitchell Brooks served as the NAACP’s Director of National Voter Registration and Education program, working with civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers, Floyd McKissick and Ralph Abernathy. Brooks’ son Milton said he’d travel the South, working to organize black communities while knowing that a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work.

“His idea was you go in and see how the locals want to organize and what they need to do, because each area was different,” said Milton Brooks.

Brooks recalls another event that might sound surprising. He says his father and other members of the Crusade arranged for a meeting with the KKK in Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood.

“They found out a lot of the problems that poor whites were having were also problems the black community was having,” said Brooks. “They set up a meeting, it never went anywhere after that initial meeting… . It wasn’t publicized, the Klan didn’t want it known. With the hatred, we didn’t publicize it from the black side. But it was a notion that the enemy of the enemy is friend. You might not be my friend, but if we have the same objectives as far as elections goes, why not?

The Richmond Crusade for Voters also fought gerrymandering. In 1971, member Curtis Holt, filed a lawsuit to stop a bid to annex part of Chesterfield County that would increase Richmond’s white population by more than 40,000 people. White residents from Chesterfield joined him in an alliance, helping fund the suit; they didn’t want to send their children to Richmond’s mostly black schools. The legal proceedings, including involvement by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Supreme Court, would freeze municipal elections in Richmond between 1972 and 1976 and lead to Richmond’s first majority-black City Council in 1977.

Matthews said it wasn’t easy to find information on Holt, even though he had such a significant impact on combating institutional racism and fundamentally changed Richmond politics. He was born in 1920, and after being injured at work, moved to the Creighton Court public housing community. There he started a tenant rights association, which the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority prohibited.

“He did it anyway,” said Matthews. “He wanted to make sure his family and other families were living in safe conditions.”

Holt ran for a seat on City Council in 1977, but lost. The Richmond Crusade didn’t endorse Holt after splintering with him on de-annexation during the long legal battle. In 2000, City Council changed the name of the 5th Street Viaduct, near Shockoe Hill Cemetery, to the Curtis Holt Sr. Bridge. The previous name, for nearly 60 years, was the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Bridge.

“People respected the Crusade,” says Amelia Lightner who joined the Crusade in the 1980s. Over the years, she’s helped with voter registration, get out the vote and re-enfranchisement campaigns. Any chance she gets, she asks people, are you registered? 

“That is the most important item that you own, other than your life. And the politicians pursue that for dear life. And then you should know what the issues are, and you don’t vote because I like a person, you vote for people you think is going to do what it takes to make it better, to make society better,” said Lightner.

Many of the issues the Richmond Crusade formed to address still exist including gerrymandering and measures that make it harder to vote. At 92-years-old, founder Dr. Reid remains optimistic, but sees opportunities to do more. He suggests more people run for positions on town and city councils, county and school boards, and for mayor. But he says planning ahead, including checking the election calendars posted by state boards of election and recruiting candidates early, is essential. He says voter-registration is something that “should be done eternally” and not left up to groups funded by the major parties. Reid would also like to see a return to the precinct system or organizing.

“We have elections every year in Richmond and Virginia and you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel,” said Reid from his Maryland home. “Once you get [precincts] established, you got your team right there for each election, regardless of who the candidates are, if the citizens organize to get the vote out, they get more power. I try to get them to realize that all the power comes from the people. In politics, they are the power, they’re the ones that can control their destinies.”

Reid says Richmond doesn’t need a city-wide organization, but instead individual district organizations that could be coordinated. Reid says he’ll continue to preach these ideas, but he’s not sure anyone is listening.

“You can’t be all things to all people and this is what some people think you can do. But each district is different in its make up and its needs so you have to cut your program to the needs of the district,” said Reid.

Kimberly Matthews says she hopes her book on the Richmond Crusade for Voters will help more people, including her students, see how this organization changed the political landscape in the Capital city and beyond. She says when she does presentations on her book, many young people don’t know who Doug Wilder is.

“That was history making,” said Matthews. “They don’t realize Barack Obama is standing on his shoulders. There wouldn’t be an Obama if there wasn’t a Wilder.”