Remembering the story behind a 1960s photograph

04/11/2013 11:11 AM

04/12/2013 10:49 AM

Dick Miles sported black frame glasses and slicked-back hair in 1965. But he was most distinctive as one of a handful of white men working to register black South Carolinians for the vote.

Miles, an Arkansas native, had arrived in South Carolina in late 1964, a veteran of the 1963 March on Washington and a Quaker voting project in North Carolina. He and his wife, Sharon, decided to spend at least a year in the South helping to bring about civil rights progress. They weren’t quite sure what to expect – Sharon Miles was slightly apprehensive in the wake of racial violence in Mississippi and Alabama.

“It took a while to figure out what kind of place South Carolina was,” said Dick Miles, who spent three years heading up the Voter Education Project. “We did keep a low profile for a while.”

Miles and his wife, who worked with an American Friends Service Committee project in Orangeburg, helped organize voter registration campaigns and occasionally participated in demonstrations.

When a 1960s-era photograph ran in The State newspaper last week, his longtime friend and civil rights stalwart Hayes Mizell recognized Miles and sent him a web link to the photo gallery.

“I don’t remember exactly what the protest was about,” Miles confessed this week, although he recognized the late Rev. A.W. Holman, a longtime NAACP leader in the state, standing next to him in the photograph.

As field director of the Voter Education Project, Miles roamed the state and became friends with civil rights leaders such as the late Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman and the late Matthew Perry, who defended hundreds of protesters and went on to become a federal judge.

The Voter Education Project, founded by the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, supported civil rights organizations in their registration drives and helped educate potential voters about their rights.

There were some egregious examples of voter suppression, Miles said, including McCormick County, which was populated evenly with whites and blacks. While several thousand whites were registered – more than the U.S. census listed as being of voting age, Miles noted wryly – only 112 blacks were registered.

Miles left South Carolina in 1967 and joined the State Department, where he embarked upon a distinguished career and became ambassador to several countries, including Georgia, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan. Sharon Miles also worked for the government in a number of capacities as the family, which included two children, traveled the world.

For the record, Dick Miles said it was his wife who was first offered the Voter Education Project field director posting back in the 1960s. But one of the religious organizations providing grant money to VEP nixed her appointment, considering it too dangerous for a woman to work in Southern voter registration. Sharon Miles then recommended her husband for the job.

Times have changed in a lot of arenas, he noted.

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