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HEROES OF the
Civil rights movement

Epilogue

A chance to right some wrongs

As we go to press, thousands of Donald Trump’s supporters have just a few days ago stormed into the Capitol building in Washington D.C. in an attempt to halt, or even overturn, Joe Biden’s confirmation as the next President of the United States.

The scenes of anarchy, during which five people died, will provide a lasting legacy and striking visual reminder for all of us of Trump’s Presidency. Four years of violent abuse and racist rhetoric were turned into terrifying violence in a bid to upend democracy. Moves are now afoot to impeach Trump on charges of “instigating an insurrection”. He has been banned from Twitter and Facebook, and even some of his closest friends and allies are – perhaps temporarily – deserting him.

But there was another event at the same time which was largely overshadowed by the violence at Capitol Hill that might prove to be even more monumental and have greater importance – and that was the victory for the Democrats in the early January run-off for two Senate seats in Georgia. It was a truly historic event, which saw the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate from a former Confederate state since Reconstruction, and the first Jewish person elected from the State of Georgia.

More significantly, however, the two victories in Georgia meant the Democrats regained control of the Senate, which in turn will make it far easier for President-elect Joe Biden to deliver his election promises.

The Georgia election victories were made possible by a huge turnout among African Americans. According to media organisation Axios’ analysis of state election data, in every Georgia county the number of votes cast Tuesday was at least 80% of the turnout in November. In Randolph County, which is 62% Black, turnout was 96%.

They also assert that half of the top-10 highest-turnout counties compared to November were majority-Black counties.

Powering the run-off

Powering African American turnout were former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Black Voters Matter founder LaTosha Brown, who, along with a number of Black grassroots organisations, ran voter registration and turnout campaigns since last November’s Presidential elections.

It is estimated that at least 100,000 people voted in the January runoff election who did not vote in November – a truly amazing statistic and one that was the product of hard work and excellent organising. 

“Across our state, we roared,” Abrams tweeted as polls closed, congratulating the activists and volunteers who had done the leg work on the campaign.

“Black runoff turnout was phenomenal and the [Donald] Trump base just couldn’t keep up,” the political analyst Dave Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, tweeted out.

However, without the leadership, drive and fundraising ability of Stacey Abrams, these elections would not have been won and Biden would not have carried the State of Georgia in the Presidential election.

In 2006, Stacey Abrams ran for the Georgia state legislature, and within five years had become the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly, and the first Black leader in its House of Representatives.

She also began work on increasing voter registration and turnout in Georgia. In 2014, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court stripped back the protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination at the ballot box, she co-founded the New Georgia Project, to register younger voters and people of colour.

Four years later, Abrams ran for Governor but lost to Republican Brian Kemp by 55,000 votes in the state’s closest gubernatorial race in more than half a century. The election was marred with accusations that Kemp suppressed the votes of African Americans by removing them from voter rolls.

“The erosion of our democracy is not right,” she said, after the election. Abrams became even more determined to fight voter suppression. She set up Fair Fight Action to tackle voter suppression, with an eye to helping the Democrats win the Presidential election in Georgia.

Despite pressure from many, Abrams declined to stand herself for the Senate, saying: “My responsibility is not simply to run because the job is available. I need to run because I want to do the job.”

Instead, she focused on turning out voters. 

The voter registration and turnout campaigns in Georgia have been heralded as a model by other Democrats and campaigners, and they look set to be adopted by others across the country. 

Stacey Abrams, meanwhile, is expected to run for Governor of Georgia in 2022. “We are already claiming her as our governor,” says LeWanna Heard-Tucker, chair of the Fulton county Democratic party in Atlanta. “This is going to be an easy slam dunk for her.”

Legacy

The brilliant organising by Abrams, Brown and others, has delivered the Senate to the Democrats and allows the incoming President a chance to get his agenda through, which would have been unthinkable if Republican Mitch McConnell had continued as leader of the Senate.

Along with seriously addressing the economic hardship caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the rollout of the vaccine, President Biden has an opportunity to address the deep racial inequalities and discrimination that persist in America. He also has an opportunity to reverse many of the appalling decisions and discriminatory practices that have been implemented by successive administrations since Nixon’s victory in 1968.

Biden could start by enacting John Lewis’s Voting Bill, which the late Congressman put forward last year to restore the protections won in the Civil Rights era but undermined by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling.

This alone won’t address the structural impediments facing people of colour in America, but it will help prevent much of the voter suppression and gerrymandering which has been used to make it harder for many to vote and send a strong message that racial discrimination has to change.

The United States was build on the foundations of white supremacy and racism and discrimination remain engrained in its society. While it is unrealistic to believe that the incoming Biden Administration can right all the wrongs, it can certainly make a start. And in doing so, it can start a new, more positive, chapter in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.