Black Voters in Alabama: ‘We Can Smell the Rain Coming’

Earlier this week when I wrote about what the media needed to start, stop, and keep doing in 2018, I suggested that their biggest failure this year was their obsession with profiling Trump voters. I noted that this contributed to their error prior to the special election in Alabama where so many outlets printed stories about the lack of enthusiasm among African Americans in that state.

Right on cue I ran across an article by Vann Newkirk at the Atlantic titled: “How Grassroots Organizers Got Black Voters to the Polls in Alabama.” One of the biggest take-aways is that, at least among African Americans, the allegation about Roy Moore’s sexual abuse of teenage girls was not the deciding factor in the race. For example, Newkirk heard this from DeJuana Thompson:

Woke Vote, the collection of students and church-going activists and voter organizers she founded, had been working to bolster black turnout long before the Senate race gained national attention. As the results she’d hoped for materialized, she said, it took her back to the euphoria in black communities after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. “I started to get somewhat emotional because it was a similar feeling.”

LaTosha Brown, a Selma native, tells that tale even more pointedly.

Brown found a black community that was energized from the start, a far cry from depictions of black apathy and stifled energy from several national outlets in the weeks before the election. “They never could see black people in Alabama, in a highly conservative racially polarized state,” she said. “They never could see our power, even when we did.

”One thing that outsiders seemed to get wrong: Black voters in Alabama knew full well who Republican candidate Roy Moore was, and knew about his Lost Cause-proclivities and racial dog-whistle act long before numerous women came forward to allege sexual assault and harassment in November. And, after a year marked by a resurgence of violent white supremacy, black voters in the heart of the old Confederacy felt uniquely threatened.

“I think what happened in this election is a couple things,” Brown told me. “There was a perfect storm. A national element of Trump and the resurgence of this white conservative overtly racist rhetoric. We can see it. We can smell the rain coming. And you don’t have any choice but to beat that back.”

The statement, “We can smell the rain coming” is a powerful reminder that anyone not paying attention to how voters of color are reacting these days is missing a big story. While Judith Shulevitz did a great job of documenting how white suburban women are organizing their friends/family in their living rooms, there are reverberations developing in communities of color as well.

The other big takeaway from Newkirk is that all of the heat being generated by groups like Our Revolution over the structure of the DNC and it’s role in local elections is a bit of a side show when it comes to African American mobilization. In the article, you’ll read about groups you’ve never heard of before, like Woke Vote, BlackPAC, the Black Voters Matter Fund, Black Belt Citizens and the Ordinary People Society. In addition to registering voters, these are the names of the groups who were on the ground ensuring that people had the ID needed to vote and actually driving them to the polls. They also knew how to multiply their efforts.

Woke Vote centered its efforts on potential sites of latent black political power, including historically black colleges and universities and black churches. Thompson bet that her tiny group of organizers could use those institutions as force-multipliers, turning each potential new voter into an organizer. By installing student organizers in places like Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University, and Tuskegee University and the string of influential churches in black communities, Woke Vote secured pledges from members not only to vote, but to bring people with them to the polls.

Overall, this is the message that needs to come through loud and clear:

All of the activists and organizers with whom I spoke insisted that the election was an expression of political power and agency by a group often forgotten or ignored by the party…“I do believe that we’re on the precipice of a black political renaissance in this country. And it’s cyclical. It comes in 30 and 40 years. It’s time.”

DeJuana Thompson put it more bluntly: “This right here, what we’re doing? This is about black people.”

We are starting to learn about this movement in Alabama because of the special election. But one has to wonder where else this kind of organizing is going on under the radar among people of color who can smell the rain coming.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.