Ed Brown knows what he wants. The new director of the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project wants to register an additional 1.5 million black voters in the South in time for the presidential elections. He even knows where they are: in the ranks of the 4.5 million unregistered eligibles in the Old Confederacy.
All he has to do is figure out a way to convince these nonvoters, mostly poor, that it is in their direct interest to join the electoral process.
He's pretty sure it can be done. The region was able to muster only some 2 million black voters in 1965. By 1984, thanks to the influence of the VEP, the Voting Rights Act and the candidacy of Jesse Jackson, the number had more than doubled to some 5.5 million.
But it won't be easy, given what he calls "the second generation of barriers."
"The problem is no longer violence or the threat of violence," he said during a recent trip to Washington. "It's no longer the poll tax or the literacy test. What we're dealing with is much more subtle": such institutional barriers as inconvenient registration hours, courthouse-only registration offices, the requirement for double registration (at both the county seat and the local municipality) in some parts of the South.
And there is what he calls the biggest problem of all: "Cynicism on the part of people for whom the political process has not worked. A lot of poor people have not seen any benefit in terms of the political process. They are cynical with regard to politicians generally, or else they don't vote because they don't think it will make a difference."
They are wrong, insists Brown, whose predecessors at VEP include Wiley Branton Sr., the Washington lawyer; Vernon Jordan, former president of the National Urban League; and John Lewis, who recently defeated Julian Bond for a seat in Congress.
"It's up to us to demonstrate to people that their lives are directly affected by the ballot. Take the question of education. It's time for us to stop talking about how awful the schools are and start doing something to improve them. It's the one thing that will make a difference in the lives of poor kids. It is the only chance a poor kid has of making it in the society. But we have got to persuade people that official interest in doing something about the schools is directly influenced by the degree of political participation. We have got to make them understand that elected officials, from the president on down, respond to their own interest -- reelection -- and that our votes can make the difference. Otherwise, all our talk about the need for improving the schools is selling fried ice cream in the desert."
In Brown's view, nonvoting is a proxy for a whole array of "old values" that black America has largely abandoned. "We have gotten away from a lot of the things that sustained us in the past because we have become fascinated with the illusion of freedom and our changed status in society," he believes.
"In pursuit of our individual upward mobility, we have forgotten the sense of community. We have become addicted to the notion of immediate gratification. We have given our children too much freedom and not enough responsibility. We have neglected to teach them that the only thing poor people have is each other. We haven't talked about organization in a long time, and yet the only things that count in this society are money and organization."
One of the reasons why organization is so difficult these days is that there are no more grand goals comparable to the legislative and judicial victories of the civil rights movement. Even if Brown is correct in his belief that the next presidential election will be the most important for blacks since the Kennedy-Nixon contest, the fact is that the effect on blacks' status will be incremental at best.
Brown won't argue the point. "The fact, though, is that voting is the tool that's most available to us, and we've got to learn to use it. It's true that there's no magic, no miracle solution to our problems, no quantum leaps. It's all a matter of inches.
"But we've got to take all the inches we can."