How black women are organizing to energize voters

Errin Haines Whack
Associated Press

Jackson, Miss. – Meeting on the campus of Jackson State University on a recent Friday afternoon, dozens of black women came together to strategize about the upcoming midterm elections, opening the gathering with a freedom song.

“The revolution done signed my name,” they moaned, invoking the names of the ancestors whose strength has willed them to persevere: Harriet Tubman. Shirley Chisholm. Aretha Franklin. Two were like them, daughters of Mississippi: Ella Jo Baker. Fannie Lou Hamer.

“All of us who are in the room right now are midwives for transformation,” said Rukia Lumumba, daughter of the late Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, and co-founder of the Electoral Justice Project.

The impact of such targeted work is evident. Black women went to the polls in record numbers last December to elect Doug Jones as the first Democratic senator from Alabama in 25 years. As of this week, 39 black women are nominees for the U.S. House in the November midterms, including 22 women who aren’t incumbents.

The meeting soon shifted to strategy as the women plotted how to harness the energy of black female voters this fall. Scenes like these are playing out across the country as black women convene at schools, churches and homes to plan how to make sure that black voters – particularly women – are aware of the upcoming elections, registered and planning to vote and that their family members will do the same.

It’s all part of an effort to reshape the politics of the Trump era when many black voters feel threatened by the country’s increasingly racially polarized climate, with concerns ranging from access to the ballot box to the president’s hostility to protesting NFL players and the violent demonstrations last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In California, volunteers spent last weekend working at phone banks and texting for Ayanna Pressley, whose upset victory Tuesday put her on track to become Massachusetts’ first black female congresswoman. Others have started political action committees to provide financial resources to candidates such as Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia. If she wins in November, Abrams would become the first black female governor elected to lead a U.S. state.

The Mississippi gathering was part of a stop on a tour across the Deep South organized by LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which aims to increase political power in black communities.

Brown said the time is now for black women to lead again. She pointed to incidents like the attempt to close a majority of polling places in Randolph County, Georgia, last month, as proof of the need for the kind of continued vigilance black women have long provided.

“This is what we do,” she said. “We want to take it to another level. We see what’s happening in this country. . . We know how to fight, we know how to win, we know how to transform, we know how to build power. We have everything we need.”

Headed into November, black female organizers are hoping to elect more African-Americans to power and not simply be a reliable voting block for white Democrats.

In Alabama, “black women were looked to, to bail out Democrats and the state from a very problematic candidate,” said Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, which focuses on electing black women and galvanizing them as voters. “Alabama was this tipping point around black women’s leadership, when we woke up to our Twitter feed going crazy. The broader community recognized black women are the building blocks to a winning coalition.”

Rhonda Briggins has long worked in politics but never considered herself “a money person” until this year. Briggins co-founded R.O.S.E.-PAC, short for Raising Our Sisters’ Electability, and started the Sisters Supporting Sisters campaign this summer, with the goal of getting 100 women at a time to donate $100 each.

Along the Black Voters Matter Fund tour, Briggins told a crowd of black women organizers in Stockbridge, Georgia, “This is not a time for us to play.”