It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
In the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, Scalawag worked to bring you stories from across the South that highlighted important local races, explored historic trends influencing this political moment, explained what was on your ballot, and uplifted the grassroots organizing that's putting the force behind progressive campaigns. Election Day has come and gone, but as of this writing the most momentous races–Stacey Abrams' bid for governor in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum's gubernatorial campaign in Florida–remain undecided as the candidates and their supporters fight back against voter suppression.
To help us wrap our heads around what's going on, we convened a group of Southern organizers to talk about the outcomes of the midterms and what they mean for the region.
Cliff Albright is a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a project dedicated to increasing Black political power, which featured a bus tour that visited 56 counties in eight states to mobilize Black voters.
Erica Clemmons is the Georgia State Director of 9to5 National Association of Working Women, which organized "pop-up shops" to educate voters in nail salons, barber shops, and other community spaces throughout the state.
Annie Raphael is a regional organizer for Project South, one of the organizations that makes up the Southern Movement Assembly. The SMA held trainings for organizers in five southern states and Puerto Rico over the summer.
And Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson is the co-director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, a home for Southern freedom movements since 1932.
The conversation that follows is edited for clarity and length.
Scalawag: I thought I would start by asking y'all to talk about, in this election season in the South, what were some of the most important wins? It might be a candidate, it might be an amendment, or it might be a development, a direction, a shift in power that we're seeing.
Cliff: So obviously everybody knows about the three big races that we were all emotionally attached to, with Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida, and to a lesser extent out in Texas with Beto O'Rourke. And what I think those races have shown is that there's a different methodology that progressives can take to winning in the South. We still don't know what the results will be with Georgia and Florida, but no matter what, what we've seen in all three of those races is that having an unapologetically progressive message speaking to a new majority of Black, Brown, millennials, and energizing that base and including folks that have not been included can get you good results.
Look at Bresden up in Tennessee who did the traditional strategy: "I'm a safe, respectable Democrat, I'm not going to cater too much to these Black and Brown voters and irritate these white conservatives." That didn't work for him! He lost by 11 points! In other words, he got beat bad! That strategy is not a winning strategy, never has been, never will be. So, in that sense, we've got a blueprint for how we can win in Southern red states.
Beyond those races there are the local races that we've seen. We know about the 19 Black women judges in Harris County, Texas, we know about places like Birmingham, Jefferson County, Alabama that got the first Black sheriff and the first Black DA, we know about Nashville, where they got a community oversight board approved. There are all these local races that aren't getting national attention, but that's where we can have real change in our communities on a daily basis. So, there's a lot of good news, a lot of wins coming out of these elections.
Erica: The win for us is that we got more low-propensity voters out to show up and cast their votes than I think we've seen in any of our previous efforts in Georgia. And they're educated on the issues because we pushed a "Who's Who" guide that we used in our conversations with community folks. Like, if you have a loved one that's facing trial, this is the attorney general that's handling this, this is the person that's on the ballot.
We used that in our pop-up shops and saw that our folks are actually like, "Yes I'll turn out for this, I want this change in Georgia, I'm ready." We're changing what we see as low-propensity voters, as more Black and Brown people are coming out and getting involved in the election.
Annie: In Florida, more than ten percent of the population couldn't vote because of felony disenfranchisement before this election. What does that mean to have Amendment Four pass, and 1.4 million people automatically getting their voting rights back? It shows the force that turned out for this election.
"People are building alternatives to these systems in order to govern themselves."
Communities across Florida came together on a state level. Organizations that haven't worked together formed an alliance. There've been many initiatives to put this on the ballot and this was the first successful time. So, I credit that coalition with this win. It also shows the work that's left to be done to activate that 1.4 million and build power that allows for new outcomes, new laws, new policies that weren't previously possible.
Ash-Lee: I think what we've seen is that people are building alternatives to these systems in order to govern themselves.
Folks are using alternatives like people's movement assemblies, particularly in Central Appalachia, and in places like Uniontown, Alabama. Uniontown is in Perry County, one of the poorest, Blackest counties in Alabama. In 2008 when the TVA ash disaster happened in Tennessee, that ash was put on trains and taken to Perry County and is sitting in a landfill in Uniontown. So Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice have been fighting against environmental racism in Uniontown, and Ben Eaton, who was backed by the people's movement assembly, ran for a county commission seat in a special election earlier this year so they could have community control over what pollutants are coming to their community.
Annie: And now Republicans are basically trying to take his seat back, a seat that's not even up for election. They're trying to do a write-in to take a seat that's not even on the ballot.
Ash-Lee: Right, so people are not at all confused that the electoral system is working exactly as it's supposed to, to keep us out of it. That's very clear in Georgia right now. Elections by themselves are not building the power of our people. People being intentional about making it about building power, that's what's delicious about this election. Because what's real is that Stacey's gonna mess up if she becomes governor. She's a human in a flawed system that was set up to make her the scapegoat for white supremacy. And when she does that it's going to be important that there's folks that have built organizations to hold her accountable, and I think that's a win.
Scalawag: Cliff, could you talk about some of the strategies and tactics around Black Voters Matter and the groups that y'all were working with?
Cliff: A big part of it is about how do we add excitement and enthusiasm to this process. How do we message in a way that really taps into what folks are feeling and thinking and what their frustrations are, and affirming some of the critiques a lot of our voters have about this whole political system.
"We have the power and the audacity to demand what we deserve even as we drive around states that used to be the Confederacy."
Our bus tour is about reminding people that they are loved and that they matter and that we have the power and the audacity to demand what we deserve even as we drive around states that used to be the Confederacy. Everything that we use is designed to get folks feeling good about themselves believing that we can control our communities.
Scalawag: Erica, does that resonate with you and the conversations y'all were having in the pop-up shops, that folks are expressing critiques about our political system? And how were y'all addressing that in your conversations?
Erica: Definitely. There was a sense of "They (elected officials) don't care nothing about our communities anyway." At a community meeting in Albany people told me, "Dr. King, he left us." For them to still have that hurt 50-plus years later, and now they see somebody trying to come back into the community and say "Look, we're here, we're willing to do whatever it takes."
Just the feedback I got from the Black Voters Matter bus going to Savannah, when I tell you those folks appreciated that. They drove the bus through the hood of Savannah and folks were like, "Nobody comes down here to show us any love." So they felt that trust that, this organization is here for the long haul. The visibility of the Black Voters Matter bus and 9to5 doing the pop-up shops, created a trust that had been long gone since the civil rights movement.
Scalawag: How are y'all seeing electoral strategies as part of a larger strategy to change oppressive systems? That's a conversation on the Left all the time: do we invest energy into this, versus building alternatives outside of the state? A lot of people see it as a both-and, but then what is the relationship between power-building and electoral organizing?
Cliff: There's a fine line, it's a balancing act between getting folks to believe in this process enough to they see the role that they can play and the power that they have to shape things right now, without legitimizing a process that I think we all know has some very basic problems.
Part of what we say is, we need to rethink this process and look at models like the people's movement assembly, where a community comes together to define an agenda, a vision, and then figures out who among us is best suited to make this agenda come to life. That's a very different process than what we have right now.
We aren't in this to reinforce a system that, as we all know, wasn't made for marginalized groups. It was made for wealthy white men, and it's still pretty much dominated by wealthy white men. We're not trying to legitimize that, we're trying to reimagine this entire process.
Ash-Lee: I think Black Voters Matter really hit the nail on the head. For so long, the tactic has been to be like, "We've got to keep these white people from keeping us down!" And that that's not the right way to go about it. What got people excited about Black Voters Matter was that they reframed it to be like, "It's actually not about white people at all!" It's about Black folks, it's about us talking about what we need and deserve and using every tactic in the toolbox to do that.
What it meant, at 2am after knocking on hundreds of doors, to hear Stacey say, "I'm not going to quit. And not because I'm so good," although she's incredible, "But because y'all deserve to be heard. And so who am I to quit?" I think that to me, is the power building within electoral organizing.
Scalawag: I want to also talk about what y'all see as the biggest threats. Even as we're seeing some really good things happening, we're also seeing some horrific developments. So what do we need to keep our eyes on?
Annie: I think it's the threat to democracy that's happening across the nation right now. I'm thinking especially about Uniontown, with Black Belt Citizens, and Ben Eaton.
Erica: For me, it's about the morale of our communities in this moment. Especially in Georgia, to see all of the shenanigans that have happened over the past week and to see the blatant voter suppression. It could put a black cloud over the work that we've done.
"That's part of struggle, to just broaden our notions of what's possible, what do we have the space to even dream of?"
We're always going to have policies that work against us. We're always going to have candidates that don't look like us or vote for our values. So that's the constant work. But how the community is impacted by this particular election, we really need to address that immediately and come back with some morale-builder, and not wait until funders want to drop money onto us next year.
Ash-Lee: The other threat in terms of voter suppression is that we'll pick the wrong demand to focus on post this election. In my opinion the thing to focus on isn't, how do we make these ballot counts fair? The point to me is how do we stop our people from having to vote on provisional ballots in the first place? What does it look like to have same-day registration in every state? What does it look like to have polling places everywhere, to strike back down voter ID, to demand what we deserve and not what we would concede to?
Cliff: There are countries where you don't even have to register, you are automatically registered when you turn 18 and if you want to opt out, that's your business. Can we imagine what that even looks like here? There are some things we can't even conceive because of the nature of what we've been put through for hundreds of years. We talk about what does just policing look like? We can't even imagine a situation where we don't even need police! That's part of struggle, to just broaden our notions of what's possible, what do we have the space to even dream of?
"There is a real-ass conversation that white people need to have with each other."
Scalawag: So what are some of the next steps? What does y'all's work turn toward now? And what can people do to get involved?
Erica: Folks need to get involved with organizations. Get involved with anything that's happening with 9to5, Black Voters Matter, and others. We are still in a process of trying to figure out what's going to happen with this election. We have to keep up with everybody that turned out, which in this election was historic. We have to keep up that momentum now. The fact that we have the census coming up and redistricting is huge in our communities, and we need to talk about that now and not wait until 2020.
Ash-Lee: I think the other thing is that there is a real-ass conversation that white people need to have with each other. I understand how delicious it is to be in communities of color. We're great! Our culture is fantastic! And we're not messing up! Black women voted for Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum and got Florida's Amendment Four passed. Black women are not confused about where our votes need to be placed. White women clearly are, and it's killing the rest of us.
So how do you have these conversations and take it to a scale that's changing the material conditions for everybody? Because what's real is that white supremacy does not benefit most white people. What does serve you? Well, when Black people fight for voting rights, guess what, white women get them. When Black people fight for affirmative action, guess what, white women benefit. When we fight for labor rights for Black people, white people's salaries go up. Clearly what serves white people is supporting racial justice and equity.