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Black women’s organizing has reshaped the electorate

From Fannie Lou Hamer to Stacey Abrams.

- December 10, 2020

Editors’ note: In this archival piece published before the January 2021 Senate special elections in Georgia that elected Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Good Authority editor Nadia E. Brown and coauthor Bry Reed outline the history of Black women’s organizing to register and turn out Black voters.

Following in the organizing footsteps of Black Southern women, Stacey Abrams and other Black grass-roots organizers in Georgia mobilized so many of Georgia’s Black voters that a longtime Republican state turned to favor Democrats. As Georgians prepare for the Jan. 5, 2021 Senate runoff election, they are relying on a playbook put in place by local organizers who built coalitions, led voter registration and education campaigns and publicized mail-in deadlines that successfully delivered the state to Joe Biden in November. The New Georgia Project, Project South, Southwest Voter Education Project, and Black Voters Matter used innovative strategies and knowledge of Black history to empower and mobilize their communities — showing that doing so has electoral consequences.

All of this suggests that Democrats are more likely to succeed in states like Georgia when they work with existing Black movements fighting disenfranchisement rather than trying to stay separate.

This approach is hardly new. Black Southern women have championed this for generations — and have helped to transform the Democratic Party by expanding the electorate.

Lessons from Black history, especially in Mississippi

The electoral power of Black Southern voters dates to Black Reconstruction, when emancipated Black folk turned the political tides of the South in the 19th century. Paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan then used violence to disenfranchise Black voters from the Reconstruction era until the 1960s civil rights movement.

And yet a look at history finds a rich chronology of Black Southern women organizing against Black voter suppression throughout. Arguably, the most powerful of those advocates were a trio of Black women in the Mississippi Delta during the 1960s: Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine, indigenous leaders of the voting and civil rights movement.

In 1964, for instance, they helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a parallel Democratic Party that challenged Mississippi’s all-white “Dixiecrats” — and demanded to be seated as the state’s delegation at the party’s nominating convention that summer. At the time, while Mississippi’s population was 40 percent Black, its political representatives were all white.

While the delegation wasn’t seated, the group did help force the party to recognize both the racial injustices and political disparities that Blacks endured: A year later, the Democratic Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed both the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

While Jim Crow prevented Hamer, Gray, and Devine from casting ballots, they fought voter suppression and intimidation despite violence, mobilized communities, registered voters, ran for Congress in the Mississippi primary, challenged the white power structures that kept Black Americans out of electoral politics, and pressured the Democratic Party to recognize both the racial injustice and political disparities that Blacks endured.

Stacey Abrams built on this history

In 2018, Stacey Abrams ran for Georgia governor in that tradition, organizing and mobilizing traditionally underrepresented groups throughout the state. However, she faced a structural challenge. In 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court had struck down Section 5’s preclearance requirement in the Voting Rights Act. That section had required states with histories of discriminating against Black voters to submit any proposed voting-related laws or regulations to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for review and approval first.

After Shelby, many of those states enacted a host of rules that the Justice Department had previously barred, and which made it more difficult for Black people, poor people and other marginalized communities to vote.

Abrams was running against Georgia’s secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who that year purged 1.4 million voters from the rolls and reduced the number of polling places and voting machines serving Black and poor communities. As a result, many Black Georgians who could still legally vote waited in long lines to vote or gave up and went home. Kemp won.

Abrams did not contest the defeat, explaining, “My responsibility was instead to focus on the right to vote and not my right to be governor.” Instead, she founded the New Georgia Project and later Fair Fight Action, and lent her name and resources to other voter-mobilization efforts in the state.

In doing so, Abrams, a daughter of Mississippi, took up Devine, Gray, and Hamer’s fight. The similarities among these four are striking. All four persistently believed in and remained committed to civil rights. They share a strong belief in the electoral process — so much so that they persevered through personal losses, financial challenges and political setbacks. Their fight was and is about more than partisan politics. These women challenged a system that, by systemically excluding citizens from exercising their right to vote, handicapped the full potential of American democracy.

Abrams’s work to combat voter suppression before and after her gubernatorial loss is only one thread in a long history of Black Southern politics. Her work builds on an expansive history of Black organizers using the ballot box as one tool — along with tools like protest, building Black institutions, appealing for international recognition — to enable the United States to live up to its democratic ideals. Only by discussing Georgia’s 2020 blue shift in the historical context of Black Southern politics and radical organizing traditions can observers understand how and why this effort succeeded — and whether it could be replicated it elsewhere in the South.

New voting rights legislation would honor these women

Since 2018, many observers have been commenting that Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. If the Democratic Party wishes to incorporate this more effectively, some research suggests promoting Black women as voters and candidates. Abrams and other progressives have revealed a path to success: investing in grass-roots organizers, building authentic community connections and recognizing Black Southern movement history.

If the Democratic Party wishes to succeed in other previously deep-red states, it may wish to pass legislation to restore Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — perhaps in tribute to Abrams, Hamer, Gray, and Devine’s work.

Image: Stacey Abrams speaking at a Georgia rally, August 31, 2022. (cc) John Ramspott, Aug. 31, 2022.