The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Warnock’s win points to the need for ongoing political organizing

Georgia’s own history highlights what out-organizing voter suppression really entails

Supporters cheer during an election night watch party for Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) in Atlanta on Tuesday. (John Bazemore/AP)

After a bruising, at times bizarre, campaign, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock defeated former football star Herschel Walker on Tuesday in the Georgia Senate runoff election. Warnock’s victory will not only give the Democrats 51 votes in the Senate but seems to confirm what White House officials told voting rights activists in the summer of 2021: People can “out-organize” voter suppression.

Certainly, Warnock’s victory is testament to the diligent work done by a coterie of liberal and further left organizations, which canvassed the state over many months in support of his reelection campaign. Their efforts were all the more impressive given that Georgia’s Republican-controlled state government has instituted new voting restrictions since the 2020 election. Warnock had more than 900 paid staffers on the ground, and several grass-roots organizations not affiliated with the Democratic Party also knocked on doors, made calls and otherwise enabled his victory.

But though their efforts proved successful this time, volunteer efforts to mobilize in moments of crisis are not enough to truly safeguard democracy. All too often the call to “out-organize” voter suppression is just a rallying cry to get out the vote in crucial elections. It is a campaign-season claim, not the sort of consistent, everyday organizing focused on bettering people’s lives that builds true political power. To really out-organize voter suppression, Democrats need to do more than turn voters out as they did for Warnock. Out-organizing requires an ongoing investment in political infrastructure and a willingness to fight for bold change — as Georgia’s own history shows.

Julian Bond was a 25-year-old communications secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when he ran for Georgia’s state legislature in 1965. The Voting Rights Act had not yet passed, and the Civil Rights Act remained embattled and inconsistently applied throughout the South. Although headquartered in Atlanta, SNCC had spent much of its five-year history organizing in the rural South. Bond’s campaign marked a twofold shift for SNCC, bringing it to the urban South and running candidates for election.

Court-ordered redistricting had created three new predominantly Black districts in Georgia, and SNCC decided to run Bond as a way to translate its long-standing movement organizing into political office. The New York Times said Bond’s campaign “stressed the interests of the poor rather than essentially racial themes.” But the interests of Atlanta’s poor were indistinguishable from “racial themes.” Under the slogan “A vote for Bond is a vote out of bondage,” Bond’s campaign called for a $2 minimum wage ($17.50 in 2022 dollars), abolition of the death penalty, expanded voting access and an end to Georgia’s anti-union “right-to-work” laws. In true SNCC fashion, this platform brought civil rights sensibilities to the demands articulated by local people in the district.

SNCC stalwarts staffed Bond’s election campaign, and he easily defeated an unpopular Black Republican in the campaign to represent Georgia’s 136th district on June 16, 1965. Another 25-year-old civil rights activist, Atlanta NAACP executive secretary Benjamin D. Brown, joined Bond and five other Black Democrats from the Atlanta metro area to win seats in the special election.

Yet six months later, Bond’s fellow state legislators prevented him from taking his seat alongside Brown and others. Following the murder of 21-year-old SNCC activist and Navy veteran Sammy Younge in Tuskegee, Ala., the civil rights organization released a strong condemnation of the U.S. war in Vietnam that it saw as an extension of racism at home. “We have seen that the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act have not yet been implemented with full federal power and sincerity,” the statement read. “We question, then, the ability and even the desire of the United States government to guarantee free elections abroad.” The statement closed with a rhetorical flourish challenging induction into the U.S. military: “Where is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States?”

When asked about the statement, Bond said he agreed with it. In response, 184 of his would-be colleagues found Bond guilty of “disorderly conduct” and “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” In a shockingly anti-democratic move, they refused to seat the duly elected state representative on Jan. 10 and again on Jan. 19. In fact, only 12 state representatives voted to allow Bond in the legislature.

Little of Bond’s campaign infrastructure remained by the time he was denied his seat. He did not even have a chief of staff. But he had SNCC, with its hard-fought wisdom. Two experienced SNCC organizers, Bill Ware and Gwen Robinson, headed the Special Committee to Re-Elect Julian Bond, which prepared to win another special election to override the state legislators. It soon became known as the Atlanta Project.

The Atlanta Project endeavored to build upon the strengths of Bond’s campaign; they wished not only to see him take his seat but to see his campaign pledges come to fruition. What united these efforts was a robust politics that would meaningfully empower the community.

SNCC staff described the project as “an alternative political model to the conventional politician.” Because Bond not only came out of social movements but had maintained his strong “moral conviction” in refusing to disavow SNCC’s antiwar position, the Atlanta Project could inaugurate a “program of political organization and education.” Many Black people in Atlanta were now registered to vote after years of organizing; what they lacked was “human dignity and economic justice.” If Bond’s campaign was part of a larger effort to empower a region that had been politically disenfranchised and economically divested, the Atlanta Project was an opportunity to build the community infrastructure for that effort.

The Atlanta Project quickly established itself in Bond’s impoverished district, which included the Vine City neighborhood. Located west of Atlanta’s business district, Vine City was desperately poor. It barely had paved streets. A report by the city’s Community Relations Commission described the area’s housing as “dilapidated,” and residents reported a “plantation-like system” of capricious landlords failing to provide basic necessities for their tenants. The neighborhood had neither recreation centers nor parks.

The Atlanta Project vowed to build support for Bond by helping the neighborhood gets its needs met. Over the coming months, the Atlanta Project organized rent strikes, supported domestic workers and protested the U.S. war in Vietnam. (As with SNCC’s initial statement on the war, the Atlanta Project consistently pointed out that poor Black people were disproportionately drafted into the military. Their antiwar efforts intensified when one member of the project was called for induction.) When the Georgia governor called a special election to fill Bond’s forcibly vacant seat, the Atlanta Project helped reelect Bond to the position he had yet to occupy. The Atlanta Project engaged Black Atlantans not just as voters but as tenants and workers, as people whose lives could be improved through political action.

Bond himself resigned from SNCC so that he could focus on his lawsuit against the state of Georgia. Not until December 1966, 11 months after the legislative coup, did the U.S. Supreme Court rule unanimously in his favor and he was finally able to take his seat in the Georgia state legislature.

By the time Bond took his seat, the Atlanta Project had been disbanded due to tensions within SNCC over Black Power and personality differences. Yet its influence persisted, including in Bond’s ongoing electoral success. He would spend four terms in the state house, before serving in the Georgia State Senate. He remained an activist as well: he co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center and later served as chairman of the NAACP. Much the same can be said for members of the Atlanta Project, who continued, and continue, to be human rights activists with organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women, the American Friends Service Committee, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and a smattering of local initiatives around the country.

From conception to election, mobilization to litigation, the effort to deliver Julian Bond to the state legislature was about more than electoral politics. It was about bettering the lives of people in Vine City and elsewhere in his district. It was about remaking the political terrain rather than merely trying to win against a stacked deck.

The danger of offering facile encouragement to “outvote” voter suppression is that it separates governing from politics, campaigns from meaningful democracy. But they are inextricably linked. If Democrats hope to exercise power in the long-term, they will need to learn from Julian Bond and SNCC’s Atlanta Project that politics can provide destitute people a way out of bondage.

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