In 1961, northern philanthropists, civil rights leaders, and Department of Justice (DOJ) officials came together to form the Voter Education Project (VEP). Designed to be a conduit through which philanthropies could funnel money into the southern civil rights movement, the VEP became the engine for voter registration activism throughout the South. Established as a tax-exempt, non-partisan organization, the VEP sought to empower African American political power while researching the causes of low voter registration in the South. After two and a half years, VEP programs were responsible for over 688,000 newly registered African Americans in the South, initiating a seismic shift in southern politics predating the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But where did the money come from? Drawing on methods and historiographies from business history and the history of capitalism, this paper uncovers the role of northern philanthropists in the southern civil rights movement, arguing that their financial backing enabled the VEP to effectively dismantle white supremacy and citizenship inequalities through voter activism. Purposely staying out of the public spotlight, three mid-sized family foundations – the Taconic Foundation, Field Foundation, and Stern Family Fund – provided the money for the VEP, which in turn gave out scores of grants to grassroots organizations conducting voter registration campaigns. Many histories of the civil rights movement mention the VEP, but few investigate the source of these funds. Drawing on foundation records, financial statements, budgets, letters, and field reports, this paper follows the money to answer vital questions: to what extent did philanthropic money enable the civil rights movement to take place as it did? Why were philanthropists, DOJ officials, and civil rights leaders mutually interested in voter registration? Why were northern philanthropists interested in the southern black freedom movement? And did the money come with strings attached?