Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
The victory in Georgia by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and the success of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff demonstrate the power of grassroots organizing and expanded political participation. Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, has driven these efforts through Fair Fight, the organization she leads to halt voter suppression efforts that have historically targeted Black citizens.
Abrams lost the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp by about 50,000 votes. While Kemp was Georgia’s secretary of state, his office eliminated more than 1.4 million voter registrations. Nearly 700,000 occurred in 2017 alone. These voter roll purges disproportionately affect Black and low-income voters in the South and elsewhere.
If her political opponents believed that her defeat in the governor’s race would remove Abrams from political prominence, they greatly underestimated and misunderstood the impact of her campaign and movement. She and her movement have helped engage more Black, Brown, and young voters and bringing them to the polls.
Efforts by her organization are credited with registering 800,000 new voters, many of them Black, many of them young, and many of them first-time voters.
Abrams has taken up the mantle of the iconic Black leaders in Georgia who altered the course of American history during the modern civil rights movement and the years that followed. The push for voting rights was central to the work of such leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis to gain equal justice and equal opportunity for Black Americans.
Andrew Young, the former congressman, Atlanta mayor, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was among those who went from leading the movement of the 1950s and 1960s to running for and winning political office. As Atlanta emerged from the shadows of Jim Crow, and economic development made the city a cosmopolitan international crossroad, Young and others coined the “too busy to hate” slogan to describe the city and sell it to the rest of the world. More than perhaps any other city, Black Americans have in recent decades viewed it as a mecca for education, culture, and economic opportunity.
Atlanta in many ways separated itself from a political history and culture in Georgia that had clung to segregation and White supremacy fiercely and consistently, even to a greater extent than in other Southern states.
Georgia found plenty of time to hate as its Black citizens sought to free themselves from social, political, and economic oppression. It devoted plenty of energy to suppressing Black votes. Its political leaders devoted their careers to ensuring that Black people who lived there remained second-class citizens. The state was led for decades by politicians committed to racial segregation, denial of voting rights to Black people, and other instruments of White supremacy. Today’s voter registration and voter engagement efforts led by Fair Fight and others aren’t only confronting the state’s current political leadership. They are confronting that political history and the remnants of that political culture.
As William Faulkner wrote in his novel Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The Russell Senate Office Building in Washington is named for Richard Russell, who represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate from 1933 to 1971. He led the group of Southern segregationists known as Dixiecrats, who dominated the Senate through much of his time in office. They blocked civil rights legislation using the filibuster.
In 1964, Russell proposed a “voluntary ‘racial relocation’ program to adjust the imbalance of the Negro population between the 11 states of the old Confederacy and the rest of the Union,” according to a New York Times report.
“This would afford those who support these so-called civil rights proposals an opportunity to put into practice in their own areas the social order that they find so desirable and which they are attempting to force upon the people of the South,” Russell said. Russell was repeating a 1949 proposal that had been rejected.
Russell successfully filibustered anti-lynching bills and blocked bills to eliminate poll taxes. He co-authored the so-called Southern Manifesto, the playbook Dixiecrats used to slow the desegregation of public schools after the Supreme Court ordered in in Brown v. Board of Education.
Russell was a mentor to Lyndon Johnson and helped to shepherd the Texas senator’s rise to majority leader. Russell and the other Southern Democrats boycotted the 1964 Democratic Convention after Johnson became president and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The junior senator from Georgia during much of Russell’s tenure was Herman Talmadge, who represented the state from 1957 to 1981. Also a staunch segregationist, he ordered public schools in the state to be closed rather than desegregated. When he first ran for the Senate, he proclaimed, “God advocates segregation,” according to his New York Times obituary.
Among Georgia’s governors during this period was Lester Maddox, who held the office from 1967 to 1971. His rise to prominence in Georgia politics came after he refused to serve Black customers in his Georgia restaurant.
In news photos that came to symbolize resistance to civil rights laws and desegregation, Maddox and White employees and customers are shown wielding pickaxe handles, confronting three Black seminary students who had asked to be seated.
The segregationists who defined Georgia politics for much of the 20th century are dead and buried. But elements of the political strategies they used are still around.
Segregationists frequently accused Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders of being tools of communists and radicals. Now, Georgia’s Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is taking up a line of attack that is reminiscent of that one. At a campaign event, she accused her opponent in the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoff, Rev. Raphael Warnock, of holding a “Marxist ideology.” Warnock has served as pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, which King once led, for the past 15 years. All indications are that Warnock, like the vast majority of Baptist preachers, is a capitalist.
Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue has been playing a different, yet familiar, tune on his political dog whistle. At a speech introducing President Donald Trump, he mockingly mispronounced the first name of the vice president-elect. He didn’t want to miss out on a chance to make her appear somehow foreign and to remind the Trump base of her immigrant roots.
In July, Perdue’s campaign posted, then deleted, a fundraising ad in which Ossoff’s nose was enlarged. Perdue blamed a vendor for what Ossoff, who is Jewish, called a “classic anti-Semitic trope.”
Yes, Stone Mountain is still in Dekalb County, Georgia, 400 feet above the ground, with its depictions of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
When King, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, said, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia,” he was letting all Americans know that racial justice could only be realized when progress is achieved in places where injustice was most deeply ingrained.
After the Biden/Harris ticket won Georgia, I posed a question on social media to my friend Karen Craig, who moved to Atlanta from Maryland years ago. She’s a retired administrative judge and one of the smartest people I know. It was largely a rhetorical question, but I knew she’d have the right answer anyway.
“How in the world did y’all turn Georgia blue?” I asked. “That used to be the land of Herman Talmadge and Lester Maddox!”
“But also John Lewis, MLK, and now Stacey Abrams!!” she answered. “As much as they tried, that old energy couldn’t prevail!”
My reply: “And let the church say, ‘Amen!’”
Mark Allan Williams was a senior editor at Bloomberg Industry and at BNA in the decades before it was acquired by Bloomberg. Prior to that, Mark was a staff writer at the St. Petersburg Times, in the years before it became the Tampa Bay Times. Mark began his career as a staff writer at the Associated Press. Mark's M.A. is in journalism and public affairs from American University and his B.A. is in sociology from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.