The Alabama Senate election and the power of grassroots organizing – Black leadership and “Southern People Power”

There will be countless opinion polls and number crunching about why and how it happened that Roy Moore was defeated in Alabama last night. But just like last year, crucial lessons will be missed unless we take the long view.

The Ordinary Peoples Society

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, Director of The Ordinary Peoples Society (TOPS), has worked tirelessly for over 15 years to pass legislation and win lawsuits so that people with felony convictions could vote. Those efforts also meant that people with misdemeanors and felonies and those who sit in jails because of criminalization and poverty could vote from INSIDE the prison system. Only two other states in the US allow that (Maine and Vermont). Over the last month, Glasgow registered 5,000 people in 22 jails and 10 prisons:  he worked the streets, he ensured that absentee ballots were distributed, he organized vans and carloads to get voters to the polls. When two guys didn’t have drivers’ licenses, he drove them back to the prisons they were caged in, got Xerox copies of their mug shots, and used those as “state-issued photo ID” at the polling station so the men could vote. 

TOPS and Project South have been rolling together since 2005 when we first met at a BAM (Building A Movement) Organizing Retreat. Pastor Glasgow told us, “All this week, every lesson from the BAM trainings was coming back to me. Y’all said that it’s not a true win unless everyone feels like they’re a part of it. Everyone feels like they made this happen. Because we did.”

SNCC voter registration and the Freedom Organization

Before Democrats were considered any kind of win in the South, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was launched by SNCC in 1965 to register Black voters and elect Black people as independents into critical political positions. The original Black Panther was part of the ballot in Lowndes County, an animal that only attacks to defend itself, Dr. Gwen Patton, Project South founder, told us.   Project South was founded in 1986 in Epes, Alabama during the fight when Reagan era rollbacks led to direct attacks on voting rights gains made during the sixties and seventies. US Attorney Jeff Sessions,then occupying the very seat that was replaced in December, arrested Black elected officials on false charges of voter fraud. He was defeated that time as well.

The legacy of the Southern Freedom Movement

In 2012, we regenerated the spirit and legacy of the Southern Freedom Movement. On the grounds of 1965’s Tent City in Lowndes County SNCC veterans Gwen Patton and Scotty B addressed the young, multiracial, multi-generational crowd, going over the lessons of self-defense, grassroots organizing, and independent political power.

Lessons to take from this moment: Leadership Development is required

Leadership development is not a one-time training but a multi-year, strategic support system that builds political leadership, organizational scope, and cross-issue, cross-community relationships that strengthen the whole. Pastor Glasgow cites the BAM and the Southern Movement Assembly as the places he learned how to work with LGBTQ communities, Latino immigrants, and all religious affiliations to build a stronger united front.

Invest in long-term infrastructure.

Social movement infrastructure is what prepares us for flashpoint moments like this and carries us through and beyond the media blitz. Pastor Glasgow and TOPS fed over 300 people two hot meals starting the day after the election, and for the next 100 days. TOPS will continue to register over 200,000 potential voters stuck inside prisons and jails who ar eligible to vote in the 2018 primaries and November midterms. That work needs support—unrestricted, general operating support.

Free the airwaves.

Communications infrastructure in the South exists through Black and community-owned radio stations, small town papers, and a digital presence that is a counter-strategy to Right Wing messaging that bombards our communities. TOPS’ LPFM radio station in Dothan, WKCG, was started a few years ago. It reaches all of Houston County and beyond. Resources are required to coordinate, support, develop and share high-quality content, and increase amplification beyond state and regional borders.

The ground is our power.

These parties and candidates are not the focal point. How we build #SouthernPeoplesPower over the next year will be measured not only in election wins and losses. It will also be measured in how we hold and gain ground for our people to exercise power on daily issues of survival to municipal and education fights to flipping seats of judges, DAs and sheriffs. Local leadership will guide and win those battles.

There are no national groups who have relationships with every warden in every jail in Alabama. There are local leaders who know how to navigate the churches, the jails, the nuances of a fragmented and contested ground like Alabama. Local leadership knows how to move and how to win. Local leadership in the South also knows how to move with losses so that we keep moving forward towards much larger wins for all people.

The lessons from Alabama are about trusting Black leadership and leadership in the South. The lessons are about a long history of structural racism, intimate violence, and power. The South was not surprised by Moore’s riding into the polls on a horse. The South was not surprised by Trump last year because there are many Trumps and a growing number of armed, emboldened racists in our region (and all regions in this country).

But today we are emboldened. We are victorious, not because we slimmed a Senate majority or there’s a new Democrat on the scene, but because movements are alive and rising in the South. We came together. We fought back. We are stronger together, and we won a battle last night in a long fight for fundamental systemic transformation to achieve racial, social, and economic justice.

Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Genocide and Poverty is a Southern-based leadership development organization that has been working with communities pushed forward by the struggle for over 30 years, to strengthen leadership and to provide popular political and economic education for personal and social transformation.  Contact them at https://projectsouth.org.

 

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