Canvassing in the civil rights movement


letter from canvasser Steve M.
July 8, 1964
Gulfport, Mississippi

Voter registration canvasser George Ball explains how to vote to a mother of three in the family's living room (Photo by Charles Moore, 1964).
George Ball
Canvassing, the main technique in voter registration, is an art, and like an art, it is not a scheduled thing. You don't work from 9 to 5. There is no such thing as a completed job until everyone is registered. When you cheat and take a lunch hour (and it feels like cheating) you suddenly find yourself reviewing a failure or a success to discover the whys: maybe I should have bullied him slightly, or maybe I should have talked less -- and relied on silences. Did I rush him? Should I never have mentioned registering at all, and just tried to make friends and set him at ease? It goes on and on . . .

Techniques and approaches vary. Mine is often like this:

Hi. My name is Steve M. (shake hands, having gotten name, address, from a mailbox). I'm with COFO [Congress of Federated Organization, a coalition of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. There are a lot of us working in this area, going form house to house trying to encourage people to do down and register to vote. (Pause.) Are you a registered voter? (This is the direct technique. Often poeple, being afraid, will lie and say yes, but you can usually tell, because they will be very proud.) Are you planning on going down soon? (This makes them declare themselves. Usually they say "Yes" or "I hadn't thought about it much." The other answer is "No, I ain't going down at all.") "Well, I have a sample of the registration form." (Take it out and hand it to them.) "You know, some people are a little afraid to go down because they don't quite know what they're getting into. It's something new and different, and they're not sure about it."

Then I go on, "You know, it is so important that everyone get the vote. As it stands now, that man downtown in charge of roads doesn't have to listen to the Negroes. They can't put him out of office. He should be working for you." (Much gossip, chatter, mutual questions through all this.)

Then pull out the Freedom Democratic Party application.

"This is a protest party. Anyone can join to protest the laws about voter registration and the way elections are carried out."


Excerpt from 'Letters from Mississippi', edited by Elizabeth Sutherland (1966)