Completing the Revolution

Black voters will be at the core of any resurgence in left politics in the South.

"The First Vote," a Reconstruction Era cartoon in Harper's.

Last Tuesday’s special election in Alabama has raised hopes that the 2018 midterms could be a wave election that sweeps in a more progressive Congress. Many are crediting African Americans, particularly African-American women, for turning out in droves and helping push Democrat Doug Jones across the finish line.

So what lessons, with a week of hindsight, should we be drawing from Jones’s upset win? And what role can Black Belt voters play in pushing the country left?

Named for its rich soil and the large number of African Americans living there — descendants of slaves who worked the region’s plantations — the Black Belt has long occupied an important place in American history, particularly radical politics. In the 1920s, Communist Party member Harry Haywood promulgated his “Black Belt Thesis,” which argued that the stretch of land was a “nation within a nation.” African Americans, in his estimation, were not just an oppressed group within the US — they also deserved self-determination.

A few decades later, the Black Belt would again assume a prominent place in the minds of radical thinkers and organizers. In 1965, black activists formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) after years of being violently excluded from the area’s political life. A key training ground for both locals and activists like Stokely Carmichael, the LCFO gained notoriety for its political independence from the state’s white-supremacist Democratic Party and its black panther logo.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Africans Americans in the Black Belt once again made their voices heard last week. Exit polls showed that 96 percent of African Americans voted for Jones, including 98 percent of black women. (Sixty-eight percent of whites cast their ballot for Moore.) Turnout among African Americans reached levels normally seen in general elections.

What drove the spike in turnout? Reporting since the election has found that it wasn’t so much the Democratic Party that got people to the polls as it was African-American groups on the ground. Black organizations like the NAACP got in touch with voters well in advance of Election Day, and organizers reached out to thousands of voters who were previously ineligible due to felony convictions. As Vann Newkirk II reported this week in the Atlantic:

Jones’s campaign spent relatively few dollars on actively courting black voters, and often chose not to make explicit racial appeals for fear of alienating rural white voters. Instead, a patchwork of groups like Woke Vote raised funds through a variety of local and national donors, using those funds to canvas black communities in the state for months. They focused not just on single-candidate fliers and door-knocking for one election, but on empowering voters and improving voter literacy in ways that could be sustained through future elections.

This is a template that, if studied properly, could provide a path to victory in other Southern states. While voter disenfranchisement still shaped the final outcome, the fact that it was overcome demonstrates that leftist groups should be focusing even more on fighting voter suppression — including campaigning to end felon disenfranchisement. If a left politics can get off the ground in the US, it will be through mobilizing millions of people who are not only disillusioned with the political process, but actively hindered from voting.

At the same time, the special election reflects poorly on the Democratic Party: even with a candidate as deplorable as Roy Moore, the party left it to other groups to mobilize African-American voters. It is difficult to say how the race would have looked with Luther Strange, the establishment-friendly GOP candidate in the primary, running in the general election. What is certain is that the South will continue to be a redoubt of reaction if African Americans are shut out of the process.

The Democrats’ negligence of Black Belt voters is nothing new. It’s largely a product of their fealty to the Electoral College calculus. Too often, their primary concern is how to get to 270 electoral votes, and they figure it’s not worth it to spend resources below the Mason-Dixon line. But writing off the South has allowed Republican politicians to craft voter suppression techniques that sideline black Southern voters, then migrate and end up disenfranchising voters in the North as well. By ignoring the South, Democrats have abetted the implementation of regressive policies that leave behind millions of people, black and nonblack.

What’s more, the Southern Democrats who do manage to get elected to statewide offices are often moderate or conservative members of their party. Take North Carolina governor Roy Cooper and newly elected Virginia governor Ralph Northam. Already both are sending signals that, despite winning their seats thanks to African Americans leading progressive coalitions, they are more than happy to tack back to the center for a nebulous compromise with Republicans. That’s a recipe for disillusionment and a disaster for progressive politics.

The decimation of the Democratic Party in Congress since 2010 — and, more importantly, in state legislatures — has left the party in a precarious position. Yet victories in Virginia state legislative races earlier this year, coupled with the win in Alabama, show that the South doesn’t have to be a bastion of Republicanism. Some of the most stalwart progressive voters in the country live in the South. They just have to be activated and mobilized.

Even at the presidential level, Democrats cannot depend on demographics to deliver them victories. Say they could squeak out 270 electoral votes every four years. That would still leave the problem of winning seats at both the state and congressional levels. To stay competitive in these races, Democrats are going to have to cultivate voters like those in the Black Belt to have a chance. They will have to embrace an unabashedly progressive politics that delivers tangible improvements in people’s lives and gives them more control over their destinies.

If appealing to African-American voters in the Black Belt is good politics, it is also, quite simply, the right thing to do. The recent comments from a United Nations official that conditions in Alabama resemble those of a Third World nation should shake the conscience of every American. Ending such destitution will require battling the ruling class of the South — and African-American voters, particularly poor and working-class ones, must form the core of that resurgent left politics.

Doug Jones’s win won’t bring with it a new day of political progress in Alabama, the South, or the United States. But his victory — which he owes to Black Belt voters — does provide a model for how to begin the exhausting, but imperative, political fight to change the nation.

The brief heyday of Reconstruction was built on the backs of courageous African-American voters. The regeneration of democracy in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement was also founded on the sacrifices of black voters.

It’s time to finish the revolution.