'When They Go Low, We Go Hard': How Black Women Are Seizing This Political Moment
Black women have been on the frontlines of social change in the United States for decades. Now, they're building a progressive movement to remake the rural Deep South.
It’s a humid, late August evening, and more than three dozen residents, community leaders, and activists are milling about inside the Stonehouse Restaurant, which sits off a quiet dirt road in Cuthbert, Georgia. Despite the sweltering heat and incessant gnats, which are to be expected in this part of southwest Georgia this time of year, the people in this room have gathered from all over the state with a sense of urgency.“We have a serious, tremendous problem evolving here in Randolph County and it’s because we slipped,” Bobby Fuse, a longtime community organizer and a chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, says to the crowd.
The tremendous problem: In just two days, the Georgia Board of Elections will vote on a proposal to shutter seven out of nine polling stations in this majority-Black county. The idea came from a white consultant, who after being hired by the county claimed the precincts were out of compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. That county officials would use an anti-discrimination law geared toward one group to effectively discriminate against Black voters was one of the county’s more creative tactics. The plan was announced in a suspiciously small legal notice in the local paper, just months before the highly consequential November 6 election, one in which Georgia could elect the country’s first Black female governor, Stacey Abrams.
The plan almost flew under the radar, but eagle-eyed residents here are no strangers to the dirty tricks once used in the Jim Crow South to stop Black people from getting to the polls. Once the alarm was sounded, the community sprung into action: making calls, drafting petitions, holding meetings. Soon after, voter suppression in this sleepy Georgia County became a national news story.
Inside Stonehouse LaTosha Brown, a cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, led the crowd in a verse of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around. With her golden brown twists cascading from under a multicolor hair wrap and a warm voice, Brown chants: “We’ve seen this before, right? But we’ve beaten this before, right? And we gonna beat it again!”
Black women have always been on the vanguard of social justice and change in this country. Our history and our story has not been correctly told.
Brown is a veteran organizer in the South. This June, she started planning a bus tour across the Deep South — the “The South Is Rising” tour — scheduled to make stops in five states in the run-up to the election. The goal: To not only energize and register voters ahead of the midterm elections, but to reassure the isolated communities that dot the Black Belt — areas in the South where the population is more than 50% African-American — that they are not alone. As soon as she heard about the proposed precinct closings in Randolph, she added this meeting at Stonehouse to the tour.
Effective as she may be, Brown does not boast hundreds of thousands of followers on social media; she does not tweet snarky admonishments at the Trump administration, the type which would earn her regular spots on cable news segments. The Black Voters Matter Fund is not funded by a Super PAC, but instead by small donations. Brown is not a regular at big-money fundraisers held in cushy hotel ballrooms. None of this matters to Brown. “There’s a fad-ishness around activism right now,” Brown says. “There’s a face of activism that looks a particular kind of way and then there’s behind the scenes, who gets it done.”
In her view, elections are not won with retweets; they are not necessarily even won by who has the most money to burn. Rather, they are won on the ground through personal connections, constant civic engagement, and vigilance. It’s what she calls “relation organizing” — a tactic that reaches back decades to the Civil Rights Movement, and which Brown says will be key in this upcoming election, when the Deep South, she believes, is poised for change.
This change was most recently on display last December in Alabama, when Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore (who was credibly accused of child molestation) during a special election. A Democratic win in a Southern red state was a major upset (Moore had even been endorsed by Trump) and Black women who stumped for Jones were credited with leading the victory. It was also seen as a sign of possibility: What could happen if Democrats would just focus resources on their Black southern base rather than ignore them altogether? Brown was on the ground in Alabama then and says Jones’ victory was the result of a ground game that had been in the works for years.
“The way Alabama was characterized, you would’ve thought somebody from Mars came down from space and organized all the Black women and we showed up one day. That is not what happened,” Brown tells me. “What happened in December was a culmination of people doing the work ongoing year after year. And I think that’s a misconception as well, that there’s somebody that’s going to come up on a white horse that’s gonna save the folks of the South. No, we’re gon’ save ourselves.”
“There’s a narrative that says the only people that live in rural America are white men that support Trump,” Brown says. “That ignores the diversity and the depth of rural America, particularly around the Deep South.”
That may be true. But, in the rest of the South, reality cannot be denied: Even if there are many progressive blue streams running through the South, the Mississippi is the roaring red river they flow into. The South is solidly Republican-controlled, from Congress, to state governments, to local municipalities, and has been for many years. And according to polls, the Blue Wave that’s barrelling forth in many races across the country looks more like a ripple in the rural South. Partly, this is because of redistricting and gerrymandering that happened across the South in 2012, which divided up strongholds of reliable Black voters. It’s also because of voter suppression efforts, much like the one in Randolph.
“My grandmother used to say, “What the Devil meant for harm, God will use that for your good,’” Brown says to the crowd at the Stonehouse. And in the end, she was triumphantly correct. The election board that Friday took less than five minutes to strike down the motion, an outcome that would be unimaginable without the outcry from the community of everyday activists like Brown, who create the heat that attracts the news media like moths to a flame. “This poll closing is a tool that has ignited folks,” Brown says.
Trump’s accession to the White House in 2016 came as a shock to much of America. For many, his public vulgarity and flagrant disregard for civility is out of the norm for an American president; his racist dog whistling and appeal to white nationalists a bridge too far. But to Black people of the rural South, the rest of us just haven’t been paying attention. Trump is much like any other Republican president — the packaging might be a little different, but the rot’s the same.
“If you do work in the Deep South, Trump wasn’t particularly shocking to us. We’ve seen that and we’ve worked under those conditions. Trump doesn’t mean total doom and gloom for us either,” Brown tells me.
Cassandra Overton-Welchin, who works with the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable and the Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative and would join the tour when it picked up in Jackson, MS, tells me that Trump’s rhetoric and policies are nothing shocking or scary to those living in a state that at one-time had the highest rate of lynchings and where segregation lingered in most institutions long after 1954’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision. “Welcome to Mississippi. Welcome to the South. Because this ain't nothing new,” Overton-Welchin says nodding her head.
In these these rural areas, the people Brown works with are focused on jobs, increasing the minimum wage, and better schools. They are concerned with the closure of rural hospitals and access to affordable healthcare — not with Trump’s tweets. But Trump’s antics, and a slew of controversies (from family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border to the ever-looming Russia investigation to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh), have Democrats and Independents angry and motivated — and this is where Brown sees opportunity for Black women to finally assume their rightful place at the front of the progressive movement to change America.
“Black women have always been on the vanguard of social justice and change in this country. Our history and our story has not been correctly told,” she says.
When the tour bus, which is emblazoned with a giant fist and the words “Black Voters Matter,” pulls up to Agape Outreach Ministries, located on a quiet, wide road in Warner Robins, Louise McBride is waiting at the church’s red doors. A former school teacher, McBride now does work for the ministry and the state’s Democratic party. Gathered at the back of the church are a few young organizers in purple shirts from the New Georgia Project, the voter engagement and registration organization founded by Stacey Abrams back in 2014. Brown leads the congregation in a rendition of “Ella’s Song,” a civil rights era hymn written to honor Ella Baker, whom history credits with laying the groundwork for grassroots organizing you see today, like what helped get Doug Jones elected in Alabama.
The meeting inside is small, a mix of community elders, activists and volunteers, but this is exactly the type of group and the setting for a historic electoral victory McBride herself made possible. In December, Daron Lee, one of the pastors at Agape, was elected to the city council, the first Black person ever to win a citywide election in Warner Robins, which has a population that is 36% African-American. McBride served as his campaign manager. “We talked to people. We were out on Saturday mornings. We were out on Sunday afternoons after church,” McBride says of how she helped lift Pastor Lee into office. “We put fliers all over people’s cars at different churches. We had to work to put a Black man in Warner Robins at large, it was history.”
Getting more Black officials in public office is always a goal for McBride, but her work isn’t just about elections. “We have to get people, not parties, to work for us. We have to get all of Georgia to work for us. We can’t be divided,” she says. “I think the parties [Democrats and Republicans] are voting on what they want, not what the people really want.”
McBride is currently working on a campaign to get LED lights on the city’s dark, rural streets. “We’re going to have to work to do that,” she says. “It’s not just sitting here saying it.”
As the tour moves to nearby Terrell County, it becomes clear why things like better street lighting and roads are top-ticket issues for these rural voters.
We have to get people, not parties, to work for us.
In February, President Trump unveiled a $1.5 billion plan in February aimed at fixing America’s infrastructure, $100 million of which will be earmarked for local governments, while senate Democrats also released their own plan. But, like trying to drive through the mud after a south Georgia rain storm, neither plan has gone anywhere and not much has changed for the people of Terrell.
“Terrible County,” as those of the civil rights generation call it, is a place of resilience and community despite the atrocities that took place here not too long ago: In 1962, two Black churches were burned to the ground. Today, Terrell County still bears the stain of segregation and is one of the poorest places in the entire nation, with more than 34% of the mostly Black population living below the poverty line. Carolyn Solomon, president of the Terrell County Concerned Citizens Council, is old enough to remember the burnings. Solomon and other members of the council say they have been lobbying for better roads from their local government, but their requests have fallen on deaf ears. They are hopeful that this will the year the political will shifts in their direction, with a number of candidates on the ballot who are finally paying attention to the needs of rural voters.
“Over the years, several of us who are rural landowners do not have paved roads. We’re still in the mud,” she says at the community meeting, being held at Wayne’s Restaurant & Grill, a local haunt that is serving up a typical Southern breakfast of eggs, grits, and pitchers of sweet tea.
“There are no signs in the rural areas. You don’t know where you’re turning,” explains Linda Jackson, the postmaster of Dawson, a town part of Terrell County. “My carriers may get stuck 3 to 4 times a week, especially when it rains.”
Terrell is also suffering from a problem plaguing much of rural America: the closure of hospitals. Since 2010, eight area hospitals have closed in Terrell, taking with them qualified doctors, nurses, and dozens of other jobs. Joyce Barlow, who is running for District 151 of the Georgia House, says that the hospital closures have been a serious drain on the area’s economy and residents.“Your school system suffers. You don’t have that tax base anymore,” she says. Barlow also laments that Medicaid expansion is the lifeblood southwest Georgia needs to keep hospitals open. But Republicans, who control the state legislature, have stood firmly against it.
With much of the area’s taxbase leaving when hospitals close, Terrell’s economy continues to wither, leaving little in the county’s budget for social programs — and children more often than not are bearing the brunt. Jackson, the postmaster, says many children are not only left to their own devices in the summer because there are no activities — not even a park — many also go hungry. “If you don’t feed the mind, the mind will wander and the street will feed the mind,” Jackson says. “A lot of the time when you go home on the weekends, kids don’t get fed, but they’re silent. No one ever knows anything about it.”
Food insecurity is not unique to Terrell; it is a persistent problem across the U.S but particularly in the rural South. As the bus drives through the Mississippi Delta, huge fields of soy, cotton, corn, and rice far outnumber homes and buildings. Yet the state still has the worst poverty in the country, with more than 600,000 people dealing with hunger. “We'll pass crops that are all commercial crops, that'll get shipped out all over to places. And you have kids that go to bed hungry, on a daily basis,” says Kenya Rollins, an organizer and former political consultant who joined the bus ride in Jackson. “It's really real when we talk about how children get most of their meals and nourishment from what they get at public schools, so what happens when school is out during the summer time?”
It’s no wonder why the Black women I’ve met on the tour are more concerned about enacting policy change and protecting their communities than Trump’s latest viral soundbite. For generations they have operated under a system not designed in their favor, and they have done so without self-loathing and without bitterness. And it will continue long after the current administration is no longer in office.
As the first leg of the tour wraps in Jackson, MS, the sun is lower in the sky and a cool breeze wafts through the open doors of M.W. Stringer Lodge — a symbolic location choice, as it is the site where the Fannie Lou Hamer helped launch the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Generations of women, from Freedom Fighters who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to young women in their 20s who started registering people to vote on their college campuses, sit around circular tables, sharing affirmations of resilience over cookies and wine. While organizing strategies for the upcoming election are discussed, the gathering evolves into a celebration of progress made and the women who have made it possible. It’s clear that the road to a progressive South will not be without obstacles, but the Black women leading the charge are uniquely suited for the journey.
An election is not the totality of the story, it’s just a part of it.
“At the end of the day, y'all, it’s about making these connections around love. That’s really what’s going to transform,” Brown says after singing “This Little Light of Mine,” Hamer’s favorite song. “We ain’t here for no Democrats or Republicans. We’re here because when we get together, we win,” Brown says to a chorus of applause.
Eight weeks later, I’m on the phone with Brown as she heads back down to south Georgia on the Black Voters Matter bus. Voter suppression is in the news again. But this time, it’s on a much larger scale than what happened in Randolph County: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp — who also happens to be running for governor against Stacey Abrams — has placed 53,000 voter registrations on hold, the majority of those applications from Black voters. The justification this time? A confusing and controversial “exact match” procedure, which mandates a voter registration application must match exactly what’s on record with the DMV or the Social Security Administration. A missing hyphen, middle name, or misspelling could cause a voter’s application to be put on hold.
With just two and a half weeks until Election Day, the situation underscores just what Black folks are up against in the South, but Brown is not rattled. Rather, she is energized and I can almost hear her smile through the phone. “I think it’s backfiring,” Brown says of how Kemp’s latest measure has been motivating people on the ground. “Michelle Obama said ‘When they go low, we go high.’ Our phrase is, ‘When they go low, we go hard.’ When we see these tactics, we work harder. This is not the time to feel powerless.” Kemp and the Republicans are resorting to such schemes because they’re losing their tight grip on power, she says — and they know it.
No matter what happens on November 6, Brown says, the work of Black women in the South will continue, that the election is just “one lever of power in this process.”
She adds: “There’s a transformation happening … a new alliance of voters that’s made up of progressives and Southerners and the LGBTQ community and even the religious, faith based community. Win, lose, or draw, it does not change the fact that it’s happening. An election is not the totality of the story, it’s just a part of it.”