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Mississippi, 1964: "Who is YOUR sheriff? What does he believe about law and order? … We think that his representatives do not deserve their seats, and that the Democratic Party should tell them so…" begins A Primer For Delegates to the Democratic National Convention, created and distributed by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a grassroots anti-racist political party forged with a mission to challenge the status quo of the Democratic Party that had systematically excluded Black people from participation.
Mississippi, 2020: Earlier this month, Jackson born writer Kiese Laymon meditated on the popularity of Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who ominously joked in front of cameras during last year's special election about a "public hanging" in reference to her opponent Mike Espy, on the ballot in 2020 in attempts to become the state's first Black senator in 150 years: "Cindy Hyde-Smith won because she chose a public hanging in Mississippi as the site of her fandom."
This election year, history is neither a detached vector nor a perfect circle, but a river we wade, retrieve from and return to. Millions of us live on the precipice of a referendum, somewhat of individuals and their character, but more of power—how little of it is shared, how hard people continue to fight for the sharing, how many have given up, and how undeterred so many remain.
In 1964, Mississippi's powerful Democratic Party machinery included Klansmen, the White Citizens Council, plantation owners, and other members of a white supremacist political vanguard. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) took on the audacious task of attempting to convince the national Democratic Party to seat them at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as the rightful delegation in place of the all-white Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi.
That summer, as white racists prevented Black people from participating in regular precinct meetings throughout the state, the MFDP organized parallel meetings and workshops in Mississippi. One of the organizers, Bob Moses, wrote, "Our meetings were conducted so that sharecroppers, farmers, and ordinary working people could participate."
Fearing the backlash of white conservative voters and knowing he could take the Black vote for granted, Lyndon Johnson lobbied against seating the MFDP at the Democratic Party convention. After months of mass organizing, the Johnson administration offered the delegation a compromise of two seats, which they saw as an insult and rejected.
Vice chair Fannie Lou Hamer famously stated, "We didn't come all this way for no two seats."
It's hard to see the half-century that separates the MFDP's primer for Democratic Party delegates and the language of today's contemporary movements led by grassroots organizations across the South. Modern day organizers are increasingly fighting for political power to better reflect the communities that actually live here.
Grassroots organizations like Durham for All have strategically intervened in municipal elections to push local governance further to the left. Winning governing power—even on a small scale—builds the conditions for a more sympathetic audience for the pushing of progressive policies, as well as a vehicle for working-class people to demand a seat at the table.
But this kind of maneuvering takes years of relationship building and confronting tense contradictions around policing, capital, and the decadeslong and wildly successful strategy waged by conservatives to take over state governments.
Creating openings for anti-racist progress against the mainstream force of electoral politics has not become less controversial or visceral over the last 50 years. This year's election illuminates some of the most intense contradictions and tensions to date.
This year, the most powerful leaders of the Democratic Party chose to coalesce around the centrist candidate—Joe Biden—rather than either of the movement-favored candidates Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Biden remains infamous for helping draft the '94 Crime Bill, which led to the devastating atrocity of mass incarceration.
In a historical moment that is both grounded in similarities and yet wholly unprecedented, grassroots anti-racist organizers across the South have been forced into a difficult posture yet again. The challenge today, as it was in 1964, is how to set the terrain of struggle that offers them the best chance to provide safety, dignity, and representative governance for Black people, migrants, and all working people.
This is not the system many of us would choose, but this is the power the president wields, both individually and through their power of appointment. And in yet another case of historic repetition, we will not know the outcome of the presidential race on November 3rd.
The 2020 election will—fair or not—set the political conditions that impact the rest of our lives:
The terrain of COVID-19 relief through the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.
The terrain of whether or not climate change and ecological collapse is treated as the existential threat that it is.
The terrain of whether or not students will continue to be chained to lifelong debt for attending college.
The terrain of the prison industrial complex.
The terrain of workers rights to organize into unions and collectively bargain.
The fate of the postal service.
The terrain for public, affordable, and accessible housing.
The terrain of how many bombs will rain down on others beyond our borders, and how many refugees will be accepted.
Union organizer and author Jane Mcalevey writes of her experience on the ground in the 2000 election in Miami, when she met and identified hundreds of people who had intended to vote for Gore but had discrepancies in their vote tally. Weeks later the Supreme Court stepped in. "By putting their faith in the legal process, the Gore campaign and the national Democratic Party leadership handed the election that Al Gore won to George W. Bush," Mcalevey writes.
This week, Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, radically conservative originalist Amy Coney Barrett, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, while another Trump Supreme Court appointment, Brett Kavanaugh, released an 18-page lecture questioning the validity of mail in ballots, validating Trump's call for a final result on election night.
On Wednesday, organizers with the Working Families Party led a teach-in underscoring the significance of grassroots movements mobilizing to demand that every vote be counted before a winner is declared in the presidential race. Mississippi, Alabama, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Indiana all don't begin to count mail-in ballots until Election Day.
This year, on top of the battle against structural forms of voter suppression, there's the added credible threat of armed white supremacist groups intimidating people at the polls.
Trump recently refused to rebuke the far right extremist group the Proud Boys, instead telling them to "Stand back and stand by."
Trump's messaging has signaled to hate groups nationwide to plan for retaliation if the election doesn't go as they want, an even more harrowing sentiment when paired with Trump's political allegiances with law enforcement organizations and sheriffs across the country.
In response, echoing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party mandate of 1964, Black-led grassroots organizations like Florida's Dream Defenders are organizing de-escalation trainings to help people of color and young people provide a safe and welcoming presence to voters.
Recognizing voting alone will likely not be enough to provide protection and guarantee the will of the majority, the organization is calling on young people to step into a commitment to: vote, protect people's right to vote, and pledge to potentially participate in a youth strike if their votes are not respected.
Election Day alone will not lead to definitive results. A Biden victory won't erase or eliminate the consolidation of white supremacist forces that have become emboldened and animated under Trump's regime. But Black led movements for enfranchisement and shifting the terrain of the two-party system was never about the ceremony of voting or legitimizing the white supremacist foundation of the United States.
"I think authoritarianism and a US form of fascism are very real threats. And we need to let that sit with us for a minute, because that's a very serious thing. And there are all kinds of examples of the current administration moving us in that direction. Voting is essential, and inadequate at the same time. We need to be doing all kinds of organizing on many, many different fronts, with many different kinds of people."
—Barbara Ransby, prolific Black feminist scholar, in a recent Scalawag roundtable on Black Feminism and the current political moment.
What do we mean when we talk about voter suppression
Packing the courts and sabotaging the post office to undermine voting by mail are only two elements of a much broader and more complex campaign for voter disenfranchisement and suppression in a country that has never allowed for the full enfranchisement of Black people as equally protected citizens.
While voter suppression remains a concern in many states, organizations like the New Georgia Project and MOVE Texas are helping people fully participate in democracy. Recognizing the power of those often left behind by traditional political campaigns, these organizations are reimagining the culture of voting and civic engagement.
Thousands in Georgia are still reeling from the 2018 gubernatorial election in which hundreds of thousands of voters had been "coincidentally" removed from the active voter rolls by the very man seeking the governor's office, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. His opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, was eventually recorded as losing the race by 50,000 votes, a fraction of the number of voters who had been purged from the rolls. In response, early voting—particularly among young Black people—in Georgia has skyrocketed during this election cycle with a record 110 percent increase from the same period in 2016.
By asserting their fundamental right to participate in governance, Black voters and organizers expose the hypocrisies of the system and the ever-widening gap between the values and needs of the people and the decisions of lawmakers, and develop a power analysis that marginalized communities can wield toward mobilization. As Arekia Bennett, Executive Director of Mississippi Votes, shared at Scalawag's recent As The South Votes town hall, "A single election is not going to free us. But if Black liberation is our North Star, then electoral justice should be the lighthouse on our way today."
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was turned away from their rightful seats at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 and humiliated by the very party that relied on (and continues to rely on) the participation of Black people to this day. To call their intervention a failure is an incomplete and foolish rendering.
A generation of activists, organizers, strategists rooted in the Black radical tradition were trained, vetted, and shown firsthand the masks that power wears. Years following their mobilization for the Democratic National Convention the MFDP remained a vehicle for building working-class Black power in Mississippi.
Ongoing still is the slow "spade work," as Ella Baker called it, of organizing, coalition building, and widening the cracks of political opportunities for more and more of our people to enter.
But if the scenes of ordinary people dancing and singing for hours while waiting in lines to vote are any indication, if the threats of trade unionists to stop work if their vote is undermined, and the young people spending hours training to de-escalate at the polls show us anything, it's that the 'Freedom Democrats' in the South have not conceded.