“The truth of the matter is, we’re going to have to be honest in this country: Democracy, at its best, has been aspirational. It is still an idea,” said Brown, a 2020‒2021 American Democracy Fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History.
Her involvement in politics and voting rights activism dates back to the 1990s, when she was in her early 20s and began organizing in public housing in Selma, Ala., her family’s longtime hometown.
“I started doing voting work because I started understanding that if we wanted to change policy, we had to engage people in the political process, and we had to get people in office,” she said.
In 1998, Brown tried her hand at elected office, running a campaign for the Alabama state board of education “out of a VW Jetta and a Kinkos.” It was a “long-shot” candidacy: a single mother and political unknown, going up against a popular 12-year incumbent. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” she said.
With less than 200 votes ultimately separating the candidates, it took a week to officially call the race. Then, just moments after it was certified for her opponent, Brown said she was informed that the sheriff in one county where she had done well “forgot” that he had placed 800 ballots in a safe prior to the election. Those votes would not be counted.
“I remember feeling so powerless,” Brown recalled about what prompted her early activism. But after talking to others, she soon found out many Black candidates had similar stories. “I realized at that point how common it was … to steal these elections and part of the challenge was no one was ever held accountable.”
Asked what the secret was to the surprise victories of both Democratic Party challengers in Georgia, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, Brown credits grass-roots organizing across every county and not trying to convince people to embrace or reject a specific candidate, but to connect to a broader idea.
“Our candidate was Black power,” Brown said of her group’s pitch to voters in Georgia, which has historically low rates of African American voter registration and a long history of efforts to disqualify or purge Black voters. The message was, “‘Yes, in spite of the voter suppression, we have power, y’all.’ It was that fundamental. I could go to places and tell people, ‘We have power’ and see them literally shift,” she said.
Reaching those who have disengaged with politics for a variety of reasons has nothing to do with persuading them to buy into the value of democracy, either.
“Our focus was never getting people to believe in a system that we know is inherently racist. It is to believe in themselves,” she said. “If you can get people to believe in their power and their agency, it becomes harder to oppress those folks. It is hard to tell them that they don’t have a voice; it is hard to tell them that they don’t govern themselves.”
Contrary to media narratives, Black voters did not turn out in record numbers in the 2020 election because they were excited by Biden’s candidacy or because of a blind allegiance to the Democratic Party, said Brown. Having seen power abused and the law ignored without consequences throughout history, voters saw preventing another four years of the administration of Donald Trump, whose affinity for white nationalists was out in the open, as a matter “of our own survival.”
Now that Biden is president, she believes most expect three things from his administration: far greater police accountability, including reforms to how police engage with Black individuals and communities; relief, both health and economic, from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately harmed Black people; and passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore protections jettisoned by the 2013 Supreme Court decision (Shelby County v. Holder) that ended key protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That legislation alone, however, will not be enough to hold back voter-suppression efforts underway in dozens of states even after the election, she said.
“I think the Black community is [not only] looking for sweeping changes in how our right to vote is protected, but that we make democracy more embedded and protected and real in this country,” said Brown.