They’ve always been present yet efforts to invest in their communities have been uneven
Kiana Johnson isn’t interested in mobilizing Southern Black voters with the notion that the fate of our democracy rests in their hands. As the 23-year-old Albany, Georgia native and regional organizer for Black Voters Matter prepares voters ahead of two local runoffs that will determine majority control of the U.S. Senate, she’s continuing to focus on local issues. This includes the election of a public service commissioner on Jan. 5, the same day as the senate runoffs. “We can’t sell people in Georgia, especially poor, minority communities on ‘Hey, Georgia is the one that’s going to save America.’ That’s not the message we’re trying to send,” she says.
Hillary Holley, organizing director of Fair Fight, echoes this sentiment and the importance of the local election. “The cost of utilities for electric and gas in southwest Georgia is through the roof. That is one of their primary concerns. That’s an environmental justice issue that we see play out down there,” she says. “When people talk about targeting Black voters, and they’re like, ‘oh, let’s put up an ad about criminal justice reform and just check off that box.’ I’m like, absolutely not. You have to address health care, you have to address these environmental utility issues, because that’s their livelihood.”
For many organizations and grassroots organizers, mobilizing Black voters in the South — which helped a state such as Georgia vote for a Democratic president for the first time since 1992 — has been a decade’s worth of work. But, organizers say tactics to get out the vote don’t differ much than it would for mobilizing Black voters elsewhere. “The way that environmental or water issues show up in Flint, Michigan is a little bit different than it shows up in Uniontown, Alabama, but they’re fundamentally the same and the way we organize is fundamentally the same,” Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter says.
“Call me crazy but people tend to turn out more when they’ve actually been touched.”
The most significant change in recent years, according to Albright and others, is that there has been more effort paid to Southern Black voters in general after years of neglect. “Call me crazy but people tend to turn out more when they’ve actually been touched,” Albright says. “Sometimes I feel guilty that we even get attention when we do some of the things we do, because I’m always thinking to myself, this ain’t rocket science, y’all. We just got to believe.”
Jackson stresses that this belief has to extend to rural Black communities, too, not just urban hubs such as Atlanta. “There are so many majority Black rural communities that are heavily invested in agriculture and don’t really connect with the ‘We need to bring big tech and big business’ conversations or they don’t necessarily connect with some of the cultural issues that people talk about,” she says.
Professor Kerry Haynie, a Duke University associate professor of political science and African and African American studies notes recent mobilization tactics have often focused on social media campaigns to the detriment of Black voters in rural areas. “So one of the things that’s changed, that I think has hurt the Democrats, and Republicans, too, if they want Black and Brown votes, is they go into more computerized types of mobilization efforts,” he says.
This was an issue the Fair Fight took seriously, especially because the Covid-19 pandemic impacted in-person canvassing. “When Covid-19 hit, everyone had to focus on digital, because in-person was unsafe. But, in Georgia, I had to bang and bang and bang on national people’s doors to be like, if you only turn to digital advertising through Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, all those entities, you’re not going to be talking to rural Black voters who don’t have access to broadband because our infrastructure is so horrible down there.” This is why voters might have received an influx of mail or text messages leading up to the election, she says. Other efforts included booking Stacey Abrams on Black gospel radio stations in southwest Georgia. “They’re not listening to Spotify or Pandora. So you have to get creative,” she says.
Albright refers to efforts to engage Black voters as “long-term power building” and credits sustained investments from organizations such as Fair Fight and Black Voters Matter and local organizers including Jackson with being the “secret sauce” that helped flip Georgia.
“The South isn’t dead because we don’t know how to organize. The South has been dead because it has been underinvested in.”
Still, the Black Voters Matter co-founder notes that a state’s voting rules matter just as much as organizing. In Alabama, residents had to include a copy of their photo ID when requesting a mail-in ballot and then have two witnesses or the signature of a notary public in order for their vote to be counted. Mississippi does not allow “no-excuse” absentee ballots or early voting. Tennessee and Texas were also among the states that required an excuse, such as age, travel, hospitalization, or physical disability, to vote by mail.
“The South isn’t dead because we don’t know how to organize. The South has been dead because it has been underinvested in,” Albright continues. “There have been territories that Democrats and progressives have literally ceded over to Republicans and in so doing they gave up, not just on the presidential race, they gave up on governorship, they gave up on state legislatures, which then gerrymanders the communities, which then makes the problems even worse.”
Ultimately, local organizers say they hope recent attention on political elections in the South encourages the country as a whole to change the way it perceives Black voters in the region.
“I think people kind of have this perception of Southern Black voters that they’re either completely unaware of the political process… these are some of the most politically astute people that you will ever meet. They’re living the bad policies day-to-day,” she says. “It’s not that they’re disengaged or that they don’t understand, it’s just that there’s so little hope that a vote will change my everyday circumstance.”
Danielle Brown, Black Voters Matter’s state organizer for North Carolina, echoes this sentiment. “We might be suppressed but we got a whole lot of people out here that are working through that suppression and working through that intimidation, that are actually out here busting their behinds and doing this work on a daily basis.”
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