Liberating the South is the key to liberating the nation. The key to liberating the South is the black vote. Recent black turnout in elections in Virginia and Alabama demonstrate this point.
There are 4 million unregistered black voters in the 11 former Confederate states. Florida has more than 555,000 unregistered blacks (and some 200,000 Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland around Orlando after the recent devastating hurricane). Georgia has 618,000 unregistered blacks and North Carolina 463,000. Massive voter registration efforts must be the priority in those three states, with other Southern states to follow. If African-Americans and Latinos register and vote in large numbers in the South, there will be a new politics in America.
In the most recent Alabama Senate race, voters were offered a stark choice: The Republican nominee, Roy Moore, had praised slavery and vilified immigrants, and had been twice removed from judicial posts for elevating his religious beliefs over the laws and the Constitution. His opponent was Democrat Doug Jones, a lawyer famed for prosecuting the Klansmen who murdered the four little girls in the infamous 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Jones prevailed, but Moore might well have won if he were not been credibly charged with preying on teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
Although it was close, the race represents a turning point. African-Americans — particularly women — turned out in record large numbers. Jones won the Iron Bowl vote, winning in the hometowns of Auburn and the University of Alabama. He fared best among the young. That vote represents the potential future of politics in Alabama, in the South and in the country.
The race-bait politics that have defined the Republican Party since Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968 may well be reaching its end date. Trump renewed the strategy with his posturing on immigrants, his blustery nativism against Muslims and his divisive stance on the haters in Charlottesville, Va. But in the governor’s race in Virginia and the Senate race in Alabama, Republicans trying to recycle Trumpism were defeated — in large part because African-Americans turned out in record numbers.
Trump’s vilifications clearly mobilize the vote of people of color, of the young and increasingly of women. Their vote cannot be inherited; it must be earned. If Democrats want to succeed, they have to put political energy and resources into opening up our elections, making it easier for working people to register and vote, and putting new energy on the ground to persuade and organize people of color to vote.
They will also have to stand up for an agenda that will speak to the pressing needs of the African-American community. At the core of that agenda are policies needed by working and poor people of every race — affordable health care, decent paying jobs, quality schools, affordable college or technical training, clean water and air, retirement security and more. Equal opportunity and equal justice — particularly an end to mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes — are claims not for special treatment but for basic citizenship.
Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez says that African-American women are the “base of the Democratic Party.” Yet neither African-American women nor men have been the center of the party’s efforts or the focus of its resources. What Alabama showed is that there is a new energy outside of the party structures — in organizations such as Black Votes Matter, Woke Vote and more — that can make a difference. Democrats need to walk the talk, to wake up and catch up.
African-Americans are clear about who their foe is; what is yet to be proven is who is for them, who stands on their side. What Alabama and Virginia suggest is that candidates who make that clear may well be able to transform the South — and in doing so, transform the country.
Rev. Jackson is the founder of the organizations that merged to form Rainbow/PUSH.