The Black Voters Who Defended Democracy in Georgia

The Black Voters Who Defended Democracy in Georgia

The Black Voters Who Defended Democracy in Georgia

Record turnouts in the last round of this election season are a decisive rebuke to the chaos in Capitol Hill.

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It was about three in the afternoon of the election, at the Pittman Park Recreational Center in Pittsburgh, a historically Black neighborhood south of downtown Atlanta.

Lawrence Miller walked out of the polling place after voting and let out a “Whoop!” A DJ down the block playing mostly Atlanta rappers like YFN Lucci added to the bright atmosphere. The weather—which someone said felt like November 3, without rain, clouds, or wind—made it easier to stop and talk.

So Miller set to giving an impromptu class on US elections to a British reporter. “I was born in the ’60s,” the 59-year-old said, referring to the civil rights movement. “Race is at the cornerstone of all politics in America.”

Miller lamented the “disgusting Republican commercials” attacking the Rev. Raphael Warnock in recent weeks, which linked the Democratic US Senate candidate to socialism and anti-Americanism, often based on out-of-context excerpts of his sermons from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. These attacks echoed those once leveled against Martin Luther King Jr., noted Clayborne Carson, Stanford University historian and custodian of King’s archives.

“That was like a death warrant” for King, said Carson. “But it didn’t work this time.”

Miller had voted for Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both of whom have now been confirmed by the state as winners of their races. Georgia’s voters have not just placed the balance of power in the senate in Democratic hands, but also made history twice, by electing the state’s first Black senator and first Jewish senator.

By the time I left Pittman shortly after 5 pm, with almost two hours left to vote, the precinct had already exceeded November 3 totals. This same result was seen throughout the state, not just in the Atlanta metro area, but across the so-called Black Belt, a mostly rural area of the state reaching from Augusta, on the eastern border with South Carolina, to Columbus, on the western border with Alabama. Black voters during the weeks of early voting had turned out at higher rates than in the same period leading up to November—including 48,711 who didn’t vote in the general election.

The Black and brown turnout in the runoffs—and the results—made Carson recall a conversation he had back in 1984 with Ronald Walters, a political scientist and adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his presidential campaign at the time. “He said that the Democratic Party’s intention to capture millions of white voters who had gone to the GOP was a stupid strategy, and ill-fated—[because] you have to become more like the GOP.”

“A more promising strategy” for the Democratic Party: “Basically do what happened in this election—mobilize African Americans, other minorities, the youth vote. Campaign with progressive policies.”

Veronica Napier was at Pittman on Tuesday with her mother, Georgia Bell. She had voted early in the general election, but was unable to do so this time around. “The pandemic hit our family,” she said. Asked what guided her in casting a ballot, she said, “I’m voting for America overall—to make sure our community gets help, to give us some comfort in this time.”

Napier had lost her job cleaning at an apartment complex during the pandemic, and had four children doing online learning at home, including an 11-year-old diagnosed with ADHD. She was aware of the role Black women voters had played in turning Georgia blue on November 3 for the first time since 1992. “I’m doing my part as a Black woman, and as a Black American,” she said.

Angela, who didn’t want to offer her last name, has lived most of her life in the area. She brought her 13-year-old son, Kenneth, to the polls. “People over here are struggling,” she said. “I’m praying they will do something about it.”

Reverend Warnock seemed to be addressing people like Angela in a short victory speech of sorts delivered by video after midnight on Wednesday. “To everyone out there struggling today,” he said, “I hear you, I see you.”

Earlier in the day, a steady stream of voters, most of whom were also African American, had dropped off absentee ballots at a dropbox located at the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations. Gwinnett is Georgia’s second-largest county, with 936,250 residents, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates, and is also its most diverse—nearly 30 percent are Black, 22.7 percent Hispanic, and 12.5 percent Asian.

Brian Chambers had just gotten off a 13-hour shift as a US Postal Service worker. Days have gotten longer since sorting machines were taken from the post office where he works, a month or so before the November 3 election. “We got screwed,” he said about the way electoral politics was inserted into his work. “We know why it was done like that.” As he was leaving the post office, an elderly lady came in with an absentee ballot that lacked a stamp. He offered to drop it off for her. “I’m just doing my part,” he said. Next he was off to a polling site nearby to vote in person himself.

The 50-year-old was voting for Warnock and Ossoff. “People who need help the most is why I’m voting for these people,” he said. “These other ones are for the rich.”

Shortly after, Jolyn Angus pulled up. She had just come in on a flight from Dallas. A health care executive at Methodist Health System, she had finished overseeing the rollout of vaccines for Covid-19 the day before. Her daughter, Kamarah, was driving; a Jamaican flag hung from the rearview mirror. Her granddaughter, Jaylah, sat in the front seat; she had spent recent weeks calling voters for Ossoff’s campaign. Both had voted early.

“The chaos every day is unbelievable,” Angus said, describing what guided her vote. “I’m looking for some normalcy.” As a health care professional, she also hoped Warnock and Ossoff would help ensure that a “science-based approach is accepted” in response to the pandemic. Her husband was due in Atlanta on a flight from Dallas at 5 pm, when he would rush to their neighborhood poll in Snellville to vote in person.

Lonnie Plott was one of the few white voters dropping off his absentee ballot at Gwinnett office. At 71, Plott said he was a “lifelong Democrat,” a retired electrician, and a Gwinnett County native. “When I was growing up, there were no Catholics, only one Jewish person in the area,” he said. He was naming the other two targets of Ku Klux Klan, apart from Black people.

Ann, who also declined to offer her last name, was voting absentee for the first time; she was dropping off ballots for herself and her two children. “I just want everyone to be treated right and fairly,” she said, explaining her vote for the Democrats. “There’s so much injustice in the world. When you see your fellow man in need, you should help them.”

Adrienne Cato, 18, was voting for the first time, with her sister, Ariyanna, a year older. She said she had received many calls urging her to vote, and “was motivated.” Neither had done research on the candidates; both were mostly interested in “trying to get the Republicans out.” When told that Warnock, if elected, would become the first Black senator from Georgia, Adrienne said, “That means something to me.”

The two teenagers weren’t alive during the civil rights era; nonetheless, historian Thomas Holt called Tuesday’s results in Georgia “almost a direct fruit” of the movement. Holt, author of many books, including Children of Fire: A History of African Americans, said the multiracial turnout that elected Warnock and Ossoff bore “the marks of that movement…almost [in] bricks and mortar,” referring to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was also senior pastor. “There’s a sort of continuity in this that is really quite striking,” he said.

Holt also pointed to “one of the successes of mobilization that Stacey Abrams and others have achieved,” referring to the founder of Fair Fight, a group that has helped register and get out the vote for many Georgians in recent years. That success: “reaching into rural areas and people who are left behind and difficult to mobilize,” including the region known as the Black Belt. “If that’s sustained, that’s very important.”

While Holt spoke on the phone, rioters were storming the US Capitol, committing acts of violence that were also historic. “This kind of reactionary violence often comes to people who are on the losing end of historic trends,” he said. “Much of this dates back to Obama’s election, and the idea that some people feel, ‘My world is ending.’”

The rioting made the historian hark back to the late 19th century and the period of violence in the South following Reconstruction, as well as the Ku Klux Klan. “Each loss of power adds to anger,” Holt said, “and Warnock and Ossoff getting elected adds another reason for their violence.” He pointed not only to Warnock as a Black senator but also to Ossoff in the historical context of Jews in the South “being targeted as viciously as Black Americans.”

As of Tuesday, these two opposing forces were bizarrely in evidence—the violent insurgency of a mostly white mob of Trump supporters in the nation’s capitol, on the one hand, and the “democratization of the electoral process,” as Holt put it, on the other—spearheaded by Black voters across Georgia. If that democratization is sustained, he said, “you could have a blueprint for a New South.”

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