Crusade carries on

2/22/2024, 6 p.m.
Anyone who knows anything about Richmond knows that the story of the Richmond Crusade for Voters is legend.

Anyone who knows anything about Richmond knows that the story of the Richmond Crusade for Voters is legend.

Yet, it is always worth recounting, which can be done by visiting the organization’s website or better yet, reading about or speaking with one of its founders.

Six years ago in February 2018, Richmond Free Press Managing Editor Bonnie Newman Davis interviewed Dr. William Ferguson Reid, who co-founded the storied civil rights group in 1956, along with Dr. William Thornton, John M. Brooks, Ethel T. Overby and Lola Hamilton.

Eleven years later, Mr. Reid was elected to the statehouse in 1967.

When Ms. Newman Davis wrote her article about Mr. Reid for another Richmond publication, he was 93 years old, which means that he now is close to 100. At that time he was about to move to California to live with relatives.

“The Crusade was formed to register more voters to combat the racist politics driven by the era of “massive resistance,” a term coined by then-U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. of Virginia,” Ms. Newman Davis wrote in describing the Crusade’s genesis. “Massive resistance was part of a Southern strategy to thwart the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that public schools be desegregated.

In his book, “The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia,” University of Richmond history professor Dr. Julian Maxwell Hayter writes “No civic organization did more to democratize local politics in 20th-century Richmond than the Crusade. Mr. Reid and others knew that the only way for the city’s blacks to gain political influence, along with better jobs and education, was to register voters. The Crusade developed a strategy that focused on Richmond’s 28 predominantly black precincts.”

Mr. Reid described that strategy to Ms. Newman Davis:

“Each of us would be responsible for starting a civic association in areas where [there were] housing projects and other areas where there were unregistered voters. Eventually we were able to elect moderate whites, who then would appoint other Crusade choices to commissions in City Hall. We were very patient.”

During a Richmond Crusade for Voters meeting Tuesday night at Club 533 located just off Interstate 95 South in Richmond, patience often was in short supply as approximately 50 members and guests listened, spoke, asked questions or sat silently.

Some were frustrated that a press release calling for the termination of Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras was distributed without their knowledge on Feb. 20.

(It should be noted that several weeks ago a Free Press editorial also called for Mr. Kamras’ resignation.)

Other Crusade members wanted a retraction, which of course was too late because most local newscasts, by then, had aired segments about the Crusade’s demands for Mr. Kamras’ exit.

Jonathan Davis, the Crusade’s communications chairman, later told the Free Press that news releases have been distributed in the past without the consent of membership and for that matter, the entire board leadership.

What would William Ferguson Reid say?

We think he might chuckle or either shake his head, reflecting on what likely were many heated discussions during Crusade meetings more than 60 years ago as it moved with all deliberate speed to “start a third party.”

“Say what you must,” Mr. Reid might tell current Crusade membership. “But whatever you do or say, get on with the business of finding unregistered voters and getting them signed up to vote.”

Crusade member Carol Davis magnified Mr. Reid’s spirit and words Tuesday night by delivering passionate remarks about the lack of voter participation in recent elections and the half-hearted attitude shown by some Black people and others regarding upcoming elections.

She reminded the Crusade about the tedious work of Mr. Reid and his counterparts that eventually led to his own election by a win of 36,735 votes to the Virginia House of Delegates.

“A bigger payoff came in 1969, when L. Douglas Wilder became the first African-American to be elected as a Virginia state senator,” states Ms. Newman Davis’ article in a Richmond magazine. “After becoming lieutenant governor in 1985, Wilder was elected governor of Virginia in 1989, becoming the first black governor in the United States.

“Leading up to Wilder’s wins, several African-Americans were elected to Richmond City Council and appointed to various boards and commissions,” Ms. Newman Davis’ article continues. “During Mr. Reid’s four-year tenure in the General Assembly, gains included a bill ferreting out housing discrimination and redlining by banks and other lending institutions.”

Chuck Richardson, who was elected to City Council in 1977 as part of the first Black council majority in Richmond history, reminded the Crusade about its heroic legacy while also noting that much work remains.

Now in his mid-70s, Mr. Richardson, when on City Council, helped provide opportunities at City Hall for Black employment that had long been restricted. He also successfully pushed through legislation that required at least 30% of every significant city construction contract to be awarded to Black-owned businesses until the U.S. Supreme Court took up a challenge and deemed that requirement unconstitutional.

While Richmond has elected or appointed several Black mayors since esteemed civil rights attorney Henry L. Marsh III became the city’s first Black mayor nearly 50 years ago, the message was clear during Tuesday’s meeting that the struggle continues. Yet the Crusade, as stated on its website, “remains diligent to opening closed doors, challenging voter suppression and educating citizens on the power of the vote.”