New South rising: LaTosha Brown on tilling the soil for political progress

LaTosha Brown spoke during a stop on the "We Won’t Black Down" bus tour. Brown is the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund along with Cliff Albright (left). She spoke with Facing South about the upcoming midterm elections, misconceptions about Black voters in the South, and the fight for federal voter protections. (Photo courtesy of Black Voters Matter Fund.)

The 2020 presidential election resulted in record-breaking voter turnout, with an estimated 66.7% of the eligible U.S. voting population casting ballots — about 7 percentage points higher than in 2016. The trend was especially strong in the South, where an increasingly diverse electorate is reshaping regional and national politics. In Georgia, a state that was long a Republican stronghold, Democrats won the presidential election and flipped two U.S. Senate seats thanks to years of grassroots organizing by voting rights groups.

But in the wake of that historic turnout, Republican lawmakers in Georgia and elsewhere across the South have been erecting new barriers to voting with bills that seek to restrict access to the ballot and give the GOP an advantage in future elections. That's why ahead of this year's midterm election, progressive advocacy organizations are doubling down to turn out voters.

Facing South recently spoke with LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund and the Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute. A native of Selma, Alabama, Brown studied political science and government at Auburn University; she is also a singer-songwriter whose Bridge the Gap ensemble was a finalist for the American Music Abroad program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Brown previously ran as a Democrat for the Alabama Board of Education and the Alabama House of Representatives but lost in primaries that were marred by irregularities. Her work over the last decade has focused on combating voter suppression, mobilizing voters across the South, and pushing for federal voter protections. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

                                                          * * *

The Black Voters Matter Fund has been working across the South ahead of this year's midterm elections. What is the political mood like in the communities where you're organizing?

The good news is there's a lot of work happening. Many organizations are still out here doing the work. And I think the advantage that we have is that our work has been nonstop, so the last two years you see kind of continuous building. I think that's the good side. But the flip side is, it's not the same as a presidential election in terms of the energy. So, we're certainly up against that. And the other part that seems unfortunate is that it seems like these Southern governors have decided to double down and run campaigns really centered in racial fear.

I don't know that I've seen high levels of leadership be this blatant about leaning into racism, racial fear, white nationalism in my lifetime. And so in terms of this midterm, I do think one of the distinctions is that on some level it is all about race. Even the issues have a race leaning. Because of that, I think there's an additional burden to really be able to organize around racial equity, racial justice in this moment. I think that that's key and critical.

I think right now the whole world is watching the South. I think activists and organizers in the South, just like we did in the '60s, are literally determining the next iteration of what American democracy is going to look like.

You have these hot elections happening in some key places in the South, like North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. I think these are political defining moments. I think what happens in this election literally sets the tone for the next decade. I don't think it's just about the next election. Who wins these governor's races and Senate seats are going to have tremendous influence, because they literally will determine the balance of power.

And so what's interesting is you see this adoption of the Southern strategy by a national party. The Republicans have decided to double down on the Southern strategy, center racial fear — white fear, dog whistle around race, and isolate segments of the population. It is as if we stepped back in times 55 years ago. We can't overlook that in this moment.

Black voters are a crucial voting bloc in the South but have not always been fully appreciated by the political establishment. What are some common misconceptions about the region's Black voters?

I think some of the misconceptions of Black voters in the South is that we're not sophisticated voters. And I actually think the opposite. I think we're some of the most sophisticated voters in the country. I think we're very pragmatic. I think that Black voters in the South have oftentimes been faced with the lesser of two evils, and so over time what you see is Black voters being extremely pragmatic.

The bottom line is President Biden would not be the president right now had it not been for Black voters in the South. That's a calculated choice. The voters of South Carolina [recognized] that there was an existential threat in the Trump administration, and who they perceived as a person that could beat him was Biden. The Black voters in South Carolina became a game changer, opening up the road to the White House for the current administration.

The second thing building off that is, there's a misconception that because we're in the Deep South progressive politics can't win. And I think Black voters are showing the opposite of that. The fact of the matter is, we've got Black candidates — Black women in particular — we've got progressive candidates who are at the top of the ticket that at one point would've never been there. You've got a Black woman who is a strong Democratic contender for a gubernatorial race. We don't take that lightly. That in itself speaks to how there's been a shift in the South. We've got an Asian woman who is leading the ticket in Georgia right now for the secretary of state, the first time in history. We've got a Jewish man and a Black man leading the ticket as U.S. senators. We can't take that for granted.

The bottom line is, what you're seeing is the rise of strong, progressive Democratic candidates in the South. And so I think it's a misconception that progressive politics can't exist in the South. I think you're seeing some of the most progressive candidates in the country, and not just for the South — more progressive than even in some of the states that are supposed to be progressive.

These charismatic candidates didn't come out of nowhere; the movement has produced that. I think the years of progressive movement and social justice movement, like I've been a part of for the last 20 years, our continuous organizing and grind has opened up rich soil, fertile soil. We have literally been tilling the soil for progressive politics in the South. And as a result, you're seeing a Beto O'Rourke — an extremely progressive white candidate who openly has some of the most progressive policies around the immigrant community and related to social programs.

Look at [Democratic U.S. Senate candidate] Cheri Beasley in North Carolina, who is extremely competitive. Look at the Black woman in Florida who is a Democratic nominee to take on an incumbent Republican for a congressional seat. My point is, these people are leading the tickets, and they're leading the tickets not as a long shot but are very competitive and strong. It is not indicative of we've got this great crop of candidates, although I will lift that up. It is indicative that the progressive movement in the South has gained tremendous ground in spite of the structural racism, in spite of the rise of Republicans. We are also rising. And ultimately there is a new South that is rising, a multiracial, multigenerational South. And that's what we're seeing.

Midterm election years have historically been associated with lower turnout rates. What strategies is Black Voters Matter using to encourage turnout this election season?

One of the things that we're doing is we're leaning into letting people know that this isn't just a regular election — that there are multiple things, and we're coming at it head on. That there is a racial justice component to this. That there is a democracy attack coming into this. And there's some policy issues that are impacted. This isn't a regular election. We've been very honest that democracy is on the ballot and that literally our freedom and access to the right to vote — that's what we're fighting up against. And we're fighting up against white nationalism.

Because of that, we've launched a campaign called, "We Won't Black Down" to show that this is a larger fight that goes beyond just a traditional midterm. That we're in a structural fight. We're in a fight to actually combat white nationalism. We're in a fight to assert and affirm Black political freedom. And we are in a space of affirming voting rights.

We've launched this threshold campaign that's not just about one issue. It's about us affirming we won't Black down. We're leaning into the rich and long history of Black resistance and Black organizing. We're also saying that we are not going to retreat. We're actually going to organize in the midst of these voter suppression laws. We are even more committed to going what I call "harder in the paint." And so that's in our campaign message. And as we're organizing, we're letting people know the nuanced uniqueness of this particular kind of election cycle that we're in because we see this as a particular era, not just as one election.

Young people have also become a more crucial voting bloc in recent years. What does your outreach to young voters, specifically young Black voters, look like?

We do it in a variety of ways. I think the majority of our staff are young. A lot of the organizers that are leading this work on the ground, including with Black Voters Matter, are young people who are bringing their own creativity, their own messaging. Young voters in many ways are more politically astute than previous generations. There's an awareness with this new generation. I think some of it has been as a result of the George Floyd uprising. I think it was a space that brought a whole lot of young people into the process.

Some folks will say, "Well, young folks' discontent is a negative." I don't. I actually think that it is the impetus of change. I actually think that it will catalyze the change. I think there's agitation that is being led, fueled, by young people, young organizers. And I actually think that's going to be good for the country.

We partnered with Ben and Jerry's to relaunch a youth tool called the Renaissance Tool, where we worked with several other youth organizations in the state of Georgia doing specific outreach to young voters. We also have what's called a Take the Field program, where we've been doing the ultimate HBCU tailgates. We've been going to HBCUs and college campuses to organize with youth leadership groups or student groups in those areas. We've been doing activities around homecoming games to let people know about the election and give out election information.

We've been doing community outreach and canvasing. We also have been doing a series of policy forums. One of them was led by students from Harvard University talking about ideas that young voters want to talk about. They want to talk about what can they bring new to this process. So, we've been exploring. We had a policy forum on ranked choice voting. We did a policy forum on young Black men and their engagement or frustration with this process. We've been doing a series of discussions centered around issues that young people care about to get information and to connect and be a political education tool.

And then in addition to that we've been organizing. We've been doing the basic get-out-the-vote canvassing and organizing information, including much more digital technology in our processes. Massive text messaging campaign, where we're doing relational organizing and peer-to-peer texting. Some of that was in response to COVID, but some of it also we continued because young people respond well to it.

We've continued to see Southern state legislatures pass suppressive voting laws in response to 2020's record breaking turnout; many of these laws are being challenged in court. How is this legislation and the response to it affecting your work, and how are you counteracting it?

I think the variable in this moment is how significant the voter suppression laws that are currently in place are going to impact the election. Or the voter suppression tactics. For example, Florida is a key election, but there's also a governor who has basically created a special voter police force — quite frankly, I do believe, as a scare and a fear tactic. They are arresting people months before the election. They've arrested formerly incarcerated people who had gotten permission, had gotten clearance to register. There's one example of a man waking up at his home at 6 o'clock in the morning with the helicopter in the backyard and the SWAT team. I mean, they are going full-blown 1950 racial strategy, post-Reconstruction. They are, like, full-blown. It's going to be interesting to see how effective those tactics are, what kind of impact that has.

It's also going to be interesting to see what kind of impact in Georgia SB 202 has. [Editor's note: This is a sweeping new election law passed by a party-line vote last year that makes controversial changes to how the state runs elections.] Because if this was just a straight-up election around political candidates, I absolutely believe that the Democrats have an advantage, without question. The variable is how effective are these voter suppression strategies, which have been layered in multiple ways in Georgia. The fact that there's this ongoing challenging of the validity of voters — what kind of impact is that going to have? The fact that the election boards have been stripped and replaced with a Republican administration. All of those things are going to have a cumulative effect on the outcome as well.

So, we've had to start earlier. We have to do far more around voter education. It's also stretched our resources. While we have voter protection programs and partners that we're working with, it has been a very intense campaign season. We've got to let people know there's an election, we've got to actually help arm people so when they go to their polling sites they're not turned around or refused the opportunity to vote because there's a lack of understanding of this new law that's going to impact us. And so what it has done is absolutely stretched our capacity. We've had to expend more resources. The flip side of it is, we've not seen the same level of resources come in that you've seen in other years. The other thing is that we've had to be far more security conscious. There is a very, very intense environment in terms of hate messages and safety. That's very much a concern for us.

It's much more intense. I mean, we've had to beef up our security for the bus. We've had to beef up our security for our folks that are going out. So, in many ways it's been more work and less resources in a much more tense and possibly dangerous environment.

Because of what happened in Georgia two years ago, Democrats were able to win the presidency and flip two U.S. Senate seats to take control of Congress, showing how voter outreach in the South can shape national politics. Are national organizations stepping up and providing the support that organizations in the region need to succeed? Can you point to any particularly important initiatives we should know about?

I'm going to be honest: I think we're in a local fight. This is a statewide fight. Georgia is run by Georgia. There are certainly national groups that we work with like the Transformative Justice Coalition, but I don't even want to call them a national group because they've got people here in Georgia. They've been working consistently in Georgia.

I think the greatest impact comes off the leadership within the state. There are many national partners that I think have been helpful around trying to direct resources or other forms of support. But I'm real clear — this is a Southern fight.

What is the single most important thing that needs to happen to secure multiracial democracy in the South? 

We have to pass federal voting rights legislation. We have to literally restore the Voting Rights Act. We have to restore it and strengthen it. It's not even enough to restore it at this point, we've got to restore it and strengthen the Voting Rights Act, full stop. The bottom line is what we are seeing is not going to get better — it's going get progressively worse. There's an active and open effort to undermine and unravel democratic processes in this country. That's just the truth.

And so, the bottom line is, we can put people in office, we can register the people to vote, but if the process in itself is compromised, if we don't have the kind of infrastructure that lends itself to a real democracy, then all of our work in many ways will be undermined. And so, the bottom line is unyielding: Unequivocally, every single legislative body that comes in session, we believe that the priority has to be voter protection and the expansion and evolution of voting rights.

We need and deserve to have a voting system that actually lends itself to support pluralism and have a reflective and representative democracy. And we currently do not have that. And that is going to require structural change. And so, if nothing else we've got to have the immediate restoration and strengthening of the Voting Rights Act.

I think right now the whole world is watching the South. I think activists and organizers in the South, just like we did in the '60s, are literally determining the next iteration of what American democracy is going to look like. I think that is going to be determined by the South.