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Can You Out-Organize Voter Suppression?

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Not really, but you can to an extent if you are really well-organized and the voter suppression isn’t actively violent. Stacy Abrams faced a very tough road this year. Her refusal to acknowledge that Brian Kemp beat her in 2018 (rightfully imo) combined with Kemp being one of the only Republicans to stand up to Trump in 2020 to mean that for those white moderates who remain pretty conservative really and would prefer to vote for a non-crazy Republican, Kemp ticked their boxes. You can those people ridiculous if you want. In any case though, Abrams’ massive statewide organizing campaigns did not pay off for her this year. But it did pay off for Raphael Warnock. Georgia is now a pretty highly organized state for Democrats, though that hardly means they will always win (I do suspect that the continued rapid growth of Atlanta will mean that Georgia is a pretty blue state in a decade or so). But it does make them routinely competitive.

But this isn’t the only time that Black voters in Georgia have out-organized voter suppression. Dan Berger reminds us of Julian Bond’s project to get himself into the state house and Black voters mobilized in the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act.

The Atlanta Project vowed to build support for Bond by helping the neighborhood gets its needs met. Over the coming months, the Atlanta Project organized rent strikes, supported domestic workers and protested the U.S. war in Vietnam. (As with SNCC’s initial statement on the war, the Atlanta Project consistently pointed out that poor Black people were disproportionately drafted into the military. Their antiwar efforts intensified when one member of the project was called for induction.) When the Georgia governor called a special election to fill Bond’s forcibly vacant seat, the Atlanta Project helped reelect Bond to the position he had yet to occupy. The Atlanta Project engaged Black Atlantans not just as voters but as tenants and workers, as people whose lives could be improved through political action.

Bond himself resigned from SNCC so that he could focus on his lawsuit against the state of Georgia. Not until December 1966, 11 months after the legislative coup, did the U.S. Supreme Court rule unanimously in his favor and he was finally able to take his seat in the Georgia state legislature.By the time Bond took his seat, the Atlanta Project had been disbanded due to tensions within SNCC over Black Power and personality differences. Yet its influence persisted, including in Bond’s ongoing electoral success. He would spend four terms in the state house, before serving in the Georgia State Senate. He remained an activist as well: he co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center and later served as chairman of the NAACP. Much the same can be said for members of the Atlanta Project, who continued, and continue, to be human rights activists with organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women, the American Friends Service Committee, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and a smattering of local initiatives around the country.

From conception to election, mobilization to litigation, the effort to deliver Julian Bond to the state legislature was about more than electoral politics. It was about bettering the lives of people in Vine City and elsewhere in his district. It was about remaking the political terrain rather than merely trying to win against a stacked deck.

The danger of offering facile encouragement to “outvote” voter suppression is that it separates governing from politics, campaigns from meaningful democracy. But they are inextricably linked. If Democrats hope to exercise power in the long-term, they will need to learn from Julian Bond and SNCC’s Atlanta Project that politics can provide destitute people a way out of bondage.

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