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2014-06-17

50 Years Later, How a New Freedom Summer Could Mobilize the South’s Disenfranchised People of Color

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Guests

Ben Jealous, partner at Kapor Capital and senior fellow at Center for American Progress. His new report for CAP and the Southern Elections Foundation is "True South: Unleashing Democracy in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer." Jealous is the former president and CEO of the NAACP.

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. In June 1964, more than 1,000 out-of-state volunteers traveled to Mississippi to help register African-American voters and set up "freedom schools." Activists risked their lives to help actualize the promise of America’s democracy: the right for everyone to vote. Out of Freedom Summer grew the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the legitimacy of the white-only Mississippi Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Half a century after Freedom Summer, a new report suggests much work remains to be done. According to the report, people of color continue to be locked out of statewide politics, and people of color candidates rarely get elected to statewide office. The report features state-by-state graphics that demonstrate how a targeted wave of voter registration among people of color voters could shift the balance of power in key Southern states. The report, "True South: Voters of Color in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer," was just released by the Southern Elections Foundation and the Center for American Progress. We are joined by the report’s author, Benjamin Jealous, a partner at Kapor Capital and a senior fellow the Center for American Progress.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: This month marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. In June 1964, over a thousand out-of-state volunteers traveled to Mississippi to help register voters and set up "freedom schools." Activists risked their lives to help actualize the promise of America’s democracy: the right for everyone to vote. Out of Freedom Summer grew the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the legitimacy of the white-only Mississippi Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

This is a clip from the Stanley Nelson documentary, Freedom Summer. It features civil rights activists Bob Moses and Julian Bond discussing the plan for Freedom Summer.

BOB MOSES: What really is important is that they get down and kind of just melt away into the black population. If we could just get everybody through the entry point and into the community, the black community will house them and also harbor them.

JULIAN BOND: The genius of the Freedom Summer is that these volunteers were spread all over the state. The Freedom Summer workers are everywhere. They’re in almost every little big town. Almost every place where you can go, they are there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, half a century after Freedom Summer, a new report suggests much work remains to be done. According to the report, minority voters continue to be locked out of statewide politics, minority candidates rarely get elected to statewide office. It features state-by-state graphics that demonstrate how a targeted wave of voter registration could shift the balance of power in key Southern states. The report is called "True South: Voters of Color in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer," and it was just released by Southern Elections Foundation and the Center for American Progress.

For more, we go to Baltimore, Maryland, where we’re joined by the report’s author, Ben Jealous, partner at Kapor Capital, senior fellow at Center for American Progress. He’s the former NAACP president and CEO.

Ben Jealous, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about "True South." What’s happening today?

BEN JEALOUS: You know, look, when we talk about the South—which is a region that if you’re from it, you love—we typically, these days, when you get into politics, come back quickly to the topic of vote suppression. I mean, here we are again, a hundred years after the rise of Jim Crow, seeing new laws pushed through to suppress the vote. The problem if we’d stop there is we don’t get to the fact that for the past 50 years we have known how to deal with massive vote suppression, which is massive voter registration.

And the purpose of this report is to show people that, state by state, we can actually unleash democracy and get to a place where that—if you will, that dormant moral majority of working-class whites and voters of color, who really, at the end of the day, when you listen, are concerned about the same basic kitchen-table issues—about making sure their kids can get a good education, making sure that people, you know, their neighbors, have access to good jobs—we actually now can unleash that majority throughout the South by knitting together voters of color and working-class whites, if we choose. And all we have to do is just get out there and do what we did 50 years ago in Freedom Summer and the years after in the black community, but do it not just in—you know, do it in today’s South, which isn’t just black and white, but is black and white and brown and yellow and red, and sign up folks with the intention of, quite frankly, empowering them so that our politics truly represent our region and the people of it.

AARON MATÉ: Ben Jealous, your report says that such a drive could have a major impact on elections in several key states that are traditionally Republican. Can you explain?

BEN JEALOUS: Sure. I mean, you know, look, look at Georgia right now, right? There are 830,000 unregistered people of color right now. There are 600,000 unregistered blacks. If we signed up 45 percent of the unregistered people of color there, the new voters that would yield—so, if you take that 45 percent, about 400,000, and then you reduce it, if you will, by the percentage of newly signed-up voters who tend not to show up to vote, you would still exceed the margin of victory in the past several statewide races. So, you know, Governor Deal won by 258,000 votes. This would yield, you know, more than 300,000 new voters.

Similarly, you know, in states like Virginia, where my family hails from, you’re talking about signing up maybe 10 percent of the black voters who have yet to sign up to vote in that state or currently not signed up to vote. So, depending on the state, it could be 10 percent of the black voters, it could be 45 percent of the voters of color. At the end of the day, these are things that are very doable. It costs, depending on who does it, between $8 and $20 to sign up a new voter. So at the end of the day, you’re talking about an investment, given the state, of maybe $3 million in a state like Virginia, maybe $12 million in a state like Georgia, to really get to a place, again, where this dormant majority, this dormant moral majority of working-class whites and voters of color, could finally have their say in statewide politics.

AMY GOODMAN: South Carolina, Ben?

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, I mean, in South Carolina—which, quite frankly, as somebody who cut their teeth organizing in Mississippi, was probably the one state that we considered sort of harder to crack than Mississippi—it’s the home of the Citadel, and it, in many ways, has been a violently repressive state, where they still fly the Confederate battle flag in front of their state capitol every day. There are 350,000 unregistered black voters, and the tea party governor won by 60,000 votes. It is very doable to finally unleash, you know, the vote at the statewide level, even in a tough state like that.

Again, it might cost $4 [million] or $5 million, which is big money to me and to you, but, you know, when the Democratic Party is running billion-dollar presidential campaigns, the fact that they don’t invest is just foolish. And really, I think it comes down, quite frankly, to, you know, people who don’t know the South being in power in these institutions and saying, "Well, nothing’s changed, so why should we invest?" Well, it turns out lack of investment is the surest form of historic preservation. Things haven’t changed because they haven’t invested. And if they do invest, things will change and could change very, very quickly.

AARON MATÉ: Ben Jealous, so on an organizing level, what would a voter drive look like on this mass scale that you’re proposing, and what are the main obstacles that it would face?

BEN JEALOUS: You know, it would look very much like folks are doing in Mississippi right now and sort of, in some ways, a Freedom Summer redux, which is less about people coming from outside the South into the South to actually sign up people to vote, as was needed at a time when it was so dangerous 50 years ago to really get the bravest people from wherever they would come, to just simply people working with the students who are there, with their neighbors, and deciding to just get it done, deciding, "Look, we have kind of inched up, you know, getting more and more people signed up to vote over the past 50 years. Well, let’s just push over the finish line and actually get our region and this great Western democracy up to where most Western democracies are, with virtually everyone signed up to vote." So it’s—you know, it’s about using big data, which makes it much easier, because you know exactly who isn’t signed up to vote, having a big vision, setting big goals, and then making a big change by simply empowering your neighbors to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: On June 25th, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on a long-stalled bill to repair the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Last year, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the legislation by weakening some of its key provisions. In April, President Obama said voter ID laws and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act has undermined democracy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The principle of "one person, one vote" is the single greatest tool we have to redress an unjust status quo. You would think there would not be an argument about this anymore. But the stark, simple truth is this: The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago. Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know if you see this as a segue, Ben Jealous, but can you relate this to what happened in Virginia with the upset by David Brat against Eric Cantor, and where you see politics going now in 2014 with the midterm elections, and how it relates to voting rights?

BEN JEALOUS: Sure. I mean, look, I think what happened with Brat and Cantor, quite frankly, is, look, there is an angst that courses through this country, where people in both parties, people of all races, are concerned that our country is stuck and that the status quo really is not a good thing for our families, that, if you will, we are at a tipping point when it comes to our families’ access to the great dream that defines this country, and that our children are very likely to be worse off if we don’t change the status quo.

With that said, you know, the far-right wing, what they also get right is that every demographic trend is in the favor of progressives in the South for the foreseeable future, and that is why they are investing so much in suppressing the vote, because they want to—you know, even though they might be upset about the status quo when it comes to the financial future of our country, they very much seem to be invested in keeping the vote from changing much, because it ultimately favors far-right-wing conservatives to lock as many people of color out of the ballot box as possible.

And what we’re seeing is that because of black remigration, because of Latino and Asian immigration into the South, and, quite frankly, because their own wives and children have become—have come to depart, if you will, from being so rigidly attached to the Republican Party—when you look at white women swing voters, they’re swinging more and more towards Democrats because of these Cro-Magnon assaults on women’s rights, and at the same time young voters simply are so freaked out about what’s going on in the economy that they, too, are also tending in the South to—you know, young whites gravitate more and more towards the Democratic Party.

And so, at the end of the day, we’ve got to deal with the angst in our country, but we’ve got to do it honestly, and we’ve got to seek real reforms. And the best way for us to do that is to finally unleash democracy in our states. And in this report, "True South," what we say is, look, we can do that, but we’ve got to get back to understanding what our parents taught us, which is that when you’re facing massive voter suppression, you respond with massive voter registration.

AMY GOODMAN: And specifically, Ben Jealous, how you feel that voter registration should be done 50 years after Freedom Summer?

BEN JEALOUS: We’ve got to be smart. You know, we have to actually use the databases that we have to target the voters who have not been signed up to vote. We’ve got to be persistent. This is not something we can just do in a presidential year. We’ve got to be doing it now. We’ve got to, you know, be focused on the fact that Mississippi has a governor’s race coming up next year in 2015. This has to be an every year, year out, year out, you know, year in, thing.

And we’ve got to have a goal. And that’s what this report does. It says, "Look, this is the number you’ve got to register in your state to change the status quo, to be able to say to that person, when you shake their hand, and they say, 'Why should I sign up to vote? Nothing ever changes,' to be able to say to them, with conviction, 'If you sign up to vote, if you help me sign up your neighbors to vote, things will change.'"

AMY GOODMAN: Do we need another Freedom Summer?

BEN JEALOUS: Yes, and there’s one going on right now throughout the South, and people need to get involved. But then we’ve got to turn it into, you know, Freedom Fall. We’ve got to turn it into the Freedom Year, you know, and just keep going. I mean, if you go back to Freedom Summer, what we forget is it wasn’t just the summer. You know, you look at Julian Bond, right? 1964, there he is, Freedom Summer, Georgia, Mississippi, signing up folks to vote. 1966, he becomes the first black state representative in the South, certainly in Georgia, has to file a Supreme Court case to get seated. 1968, he is at the Democratic convention, actually, nominated for vice president, before having to turn it down because he was too young.

What that reminds us is that when we invest in massive voter registration, things can change much faster than we think is possible. If the South—if politics in the South were a light, it would be pretty obvious it has no dimmer switch: Things are either on or off. And so, what we need to focus on is that even though things might feel dark right now, if you will, that people might feel like there’s not much reason for hope, as soon as that switch changes, it’s on, and the lights are on, and the possibilities are endless. That’s what we learned from Freedom Summer. That’s what we need to apply this summer. There is a second Freedom Summer, and we’ve got to keep pushing forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, we want to thank you for being with us, partner at Kapor Capital, senior fellow at Center for American Progress. We’ll link to your report called "True South: Unleashing Democracy in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer."

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Michael Hastings posthumously has a new novel out. It was his first, and it’s called The Last Magazine. We’ll speak with his widow, Elise Jordan. Stay with us.

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