Suppression of Black voter participation has been a problem in America since Reconstruction ended in the late 1870s, but rarely have attempts been so blatant or backfired so spectacularly as they did during the November presidential election and again during the runoff voting in January to fill Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats. Thanks to record turnout of Black voters, the Democratic Party now controls the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives for the first time since 2009. The NAACP filed suit Tuesday on behalf of Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi against former President Trump, his attorney Rudy Giuliani, and two right-wing extremist groups accusing them of inciting the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying the election.
Those record turnouts didn’t just happen. They came after years of work by voting rights activists who had to show people the value that democracy has in their everyday lives, said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Votes Matter and the Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium.
“Part of what they did in Selma, and even part of the work that we do in voting rights [advocacy], isn’t just about getting people to vote. It’s really around how do we make democracy real? How do we enshrine this value and make it real?” Brown said during a Feb. 11 conversation about the 2020 election with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
First as a community organizer and later as a voting rights activist, Brown said educating folks has always been her first step to creating change.
“What we would do is engage people in a conversation about recognizing that they are part of the shaping of what governs them — which is very different than learning what the governing structure is,” she said. Not teaching them about an inherited system of government or how best to work within or respond to that system, but getting them to feel “a sense of their own empowerment” and that “they have a responsibility — and they have agency — to really determine who governs and what governs them.”
Muhammad and Brown said Black voters understood very early in the campaign about the existential threat posed to American democracy if they did not defeat the latest efforts to disenfranchise them, particularly in key battleground states such as Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Texas.