Corey Shackleford knew he could rely on Georgia’s Prince Hall Masons—named after the freed slave who created the civic-minded group’s first Black chapter in 1784. “We’re in those corners of the state, those rural areas, where others don’t normally go. But we are there.”
Shirley Sherrod, whose Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education has been active since the 1960s, trusted the young women on her staff to reach rural voters—even during a pandemic. “I really allowed them to take this program and just go, and it worked.”
And Keith Reddings, who leads Georgia’s Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and lives in Brunswick—where three white men killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, in February 2020—knew neither he nor his members could be idle in the 2020 election. “I’ve been in movements for quite a while. You get these waves where you’re involved; you can be involved.”
Their comments are from an oral history of the grassroots organizing across Georgia that led to the state’s historic voter turnout and election of Democratic candidates for president and the U.S. senate. The e-book, “The Georgia Way: How to Win Elections,” recounts the mindsets, values, tactics, challenges and solutions that coalesced in 2020 in a 21st-century voting rights triumph.
“What happened in 2020 in Georgia was the manifestation of coming together, setting ego to the side, and saying that we can be much more effective and efficient if we work together through coordination, collaboration and communication,” said Ray McClendon, the Atlanta NAACP political action chairman and a co-author of the e-book. “Once that happened, we became a much more effective group.”
The campaign’s organizers built on this model with some success in November 2021’s elections, and hope to deploy this model across the South in 2022’s federal midterm elections. Georgia’s GOP is trying to copy this template by opening community centers in Black neighborhoods.
“The Georgia Way,” which was co-authored by Voting Booth’s Steven Rosenfeld, features the voices of three dozen organizers from an array of civic and civil rights organizations serving Georgia’s communities of color. Together, they made a determined effort to reach out to their communities in a coordinated and unprecedented manner. They did not start by focusing on voting, but first listened, validated, and sought to meet local needs. Those efforts prompted thousands of people not on any political party’s radar—or contact lists—to vote in 2020’s elections.
“Your work just didn’t revolve around voting, but around other issues that people cared about, that mattered to them, and impacted their lives,” said Dr. Gloria Bromell Tinubu in her interview with Sherrod in “The Georgia Way,” which Tinubu also co-authored. “That is really the crux of relational organizing—that you have a relationship with people outside of the formal voting process.”
Building toward 2020
Inside the NAACP, Masons, Black fraternities and sororities (known as the Divine Nine), and civil rights groups, the leadership knew the 2020 election was going to be pivotal. Many leaders in these volunteer posts recalled their frustration after 2016’s presidential election, where voter turnout among communities of color was disappointing. The next big election, Georgia’s 2018 governor’s race where Democrat Stacey Abrams lost to Republican Brian Kemp, showed there was a deep vein of civic engagement to be tapped. But activists and voters had to be engaged.
“I started to understand what we needed to do going forward,” said Richard Rose, the Atlanta NAACP president, who noted that 77 percent of Georgia’s Black voters lived in 19 of the state’s 159 counties. “What I did know was that people were willing to help. Young people were willing to give up their time. Members of various fraternities, sororities and the Masons were willing to help. But it was fragmented.”
2020 brought a series of focusing events. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, the once-a-decade U.S. census got underway. Rose and many others were concerned their communities would be undercounted. One obstacle little noted by the media was food insecurity—hunger. People who were worried about their next meal had no patience for the census or voting. That reality led groups like the NAACP and others to step up food giveaways. Those settings led to relationships where people were later informed about vaccines and planning to vote.
“We used those food distributions and the long lines to try to get people to respond to the census,” recalled Bobby Fuse, a civil rights activist. “Out of that came this idea of feeding people at Thanksgiving and encouraging them to come back and vote in the runoff… See, all of this is about celebrating while we’re in the midst of this [challenging] thing.”
The pandemic, social distancing requirements, and a local legacy of poor health care among lower-income communities in the state forced the organizers to be innovative.
“Coming into the pandemic, we did have to be innovative because the old gathering, meeting, marching was not safe,” said Omega Psi Phi’s Reddings. “So different organizations, different groups, came up with different strategies to get the word out. There were billboards. There were buses that went around from city to city with voter information. There was phone banking where brothers and sisters would get on the phone, and they would make call after call. There were email blasts, caravans, motorcades.”
While Black voters are among the Democratic Party’s most reliable base—with 85 percent routinely voting for Democrats across the South, according to the Center for Common Ground’s Andrea Miller—this grassroots outreach had little logistical or financial support from the Georgia Democratic Party, several organizers emphasized.
“This was not necessarily a Georgia Democratic Party operation,” Fuse said. “Without being offensive, I’d like to say that the majority of our funding and resources came from outside any political party. And it came directly from these nonpartisan grassroots organizations with whom we interacted—and boy, did we interact.”
Many voters eyed by the coalition’s organizers have long been overlooked by the major political parties, and these voters don’t consider themselves members of any party, Miller said.
“The voters that we called, unfortunately, haven’t really been called by anybody,” she said. “They haven’t been called by candidates. They haven’t been called by political parties. So, they stopped voting, which means they’re not going to be called by candidates, political parties.”
There were several mindsets that emerged and shaped the outreach. The pandemic forced groups to innovate. Local organizing was prioritized. Hiring local campaign workers, including teenagers who knew where and when to find voters, was preferable to out-of-state volunteers. Teaching members of families and congregations to use online media was a necessity at first but evolved into an opportunity that expanded campaigning.
“COVID-19 really helped the younger generations to connect with the older generations,” said Tiffany Carr of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education. “I know for myself and my family, my mom will always call on me and my brother and ask, ‘How do you work Zoom?’ ‘How do I join this virtual meeting?’ ‘How do I get on Facebook?’ ‘How do I do this and how do I do that?’ So, it really opened the door for the older generation to learn more about technology and to see how convenient it is and how quickly you can reach a lot of people at one time.”
The leaders from the various groups spoke of enlisting their members and reaching out to their communities—in rural areas, in cities, and in colleges and universities. They often let young people be the frontline. They created events that set a tone and were highly visible, but kept the messaging personal. They used different media that various age groups were familiar with.
“We invited our undergraduates, and we pushed that information out to them,” said Sigma Gamma Rho’s Celestine Levanne. “We didn’t leave anyone of voting age out of this conversation, from our 18-year-olds to our 100-year-olds. Everyone got that information and if, for some reason, they couldn’t vote, they had that information to give to a relative or a church member. So, again, it was about making sure they understood their rights.”
“We had to be intentional about setting the atmosphere,” said the Masons’ Marvin Nunnally. “We built momentum, we kept building and building the audience, but more importantly, what we kept doing was working on their minds. And that was the beauty of all this moving around: the food, the music, the motorcycles [and motorcades]… It all played a role.”
As November’s U.S. Senate election headed to January’s runoffs, the Center for Common Ground—which by that fall had 40,000 volunteers across the country writing postcards to Black voters in Southern states, and also sent hundreds of thousands of text messages and made tens of thousands of phone calls—turned its full attention to the runoff.
By then, the numerous frontline efforts were well positioned to use the center’s various data-driven tools—for identifying eligible voters, reaching them by postcard (if their phone numbers weren’t correct in political data lists), or by text or phone, as well as by going door to door.
“What was most impressive was the organizations working together rather than in competition, and each of us really using our strengths,” the Center for Common Ground’s Miller said. “Our strength is building out the digital tools and platforms and that is what really made the difference, and making sure we weren’t duplicating efforts—that we were covering the entire state instead of 40 groups working in the city of Atlanta.”
“That’s what worked in 2020 and 2021,” the NAACP’s McClendon said, referring to the Senate runoff’s results and unexpectedly high turnout in Black communities in Georgia and Virginia that were targeted in November 2021’s general election. “That result was the result of several years of deciding that it was the time for us to coalesce, and manifest through the efficiency and effectiveness of collaboration. Now we are ready to ramp this up across several battleground states to get ready for 2022.”
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.