Abrams’s commitment to democracy for all has transformed Georgia, and it has the potential to do so much more.
Georgia’s likely flip to a blue state is not just about Abrams and her heroic attempts to rehabilitate voting rights in the post-Shelby era. It shows the power of a Black feminist model of activism, leadership and democratic participation at work. When faced with defeat in 2018, Abrams might have parlayed her position into Democratic Party support for her personal rise to political power — a run for a U.S. Senate seat, perhaps. Instead, she joined with other grass-roots activists to fight voter suppression and build electoral participation among groups traditionally written off by the Democratic Party: Black unregistered voters, former felons, people younger than 29. This move to go bigger and broader, to enlarge democracy, to sublimate personal power to the power of coalitions and an ever-expanding network of local leaders is a classic Black feminist strategy.
Although Black feminism is often thought of as a mere reaction to the racism of White feminists and the sexism of Black male activists, it is a generative, far-reaching philosophy and program whose playbook includes extensive democratic participation. Since the late 1960s, Black feminist activists have situated themselves in a history of freedom fighters who viewed grass-roots participatory democracy not merely as a pragmatic numbers game of getting certain candidates elected. Rather, they viewed it as means of radically reversing systemic inequalities by enfranchising the disenfranchised and engaging the people who are routinely seen as politically untouchable in debate and consensus-building.
When he accepted the Democratic nomination for president, Joe Biden lauded Ella Baker as a giant of the civil rights movement. Baker was an enormous political force because she pushed generations of activists to practice democracy from the bottom up and from the margins to the center and showed them how to build diverse alliances that challenged intersectional oppression. She worked in every major civil rights organization of the 20th century, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She created coalitions and cooperatives pledged to full inclusion and equal participation of all people, especially Black people, women of all races and ethnicities and poor people.
Baker understood that full participatory democracy mitigated the dominant society’s entrenched racism, sexism and classism. When mentoring young SNCC organizers, she advised them to support local leadership and the diversity of ideas that emerged from collective engagement. In a meaningful democratic practice, rising to a position of power was not the goal; instead, she insisted, by supporting and developing local leadership “you work yourself out of a job.” The goal was always to build a democratic body politic.
Black feminist Flo Kennedy understood full well the need to form diverse coalitions to challenge intersectional oppression. If Kennedy is known at all, she is recognized for helping to create predominantly White feminist organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, including the National Organization for Women and The Feminists. Yet she was a lawyer for numerous Black Power activists such as SNCC Chairman H. Rap Brown and Black Panther Party leader Assata Shakur. She was even a key organizer of the Black Power Conferences that helped to define the meaning of Black Power in the mid- to late 1960s in terms of collective self-determination. Kennedy often brought the lessons of Black Power to the predominantly White feminist movement, exhorting women to forge an inclusive politics even as they stood up for themselves. She built bridges between the ongoing struggles against racism and sexism. Kennedy provided an early example of Black women’s political commitment to forging connections across seemingly intractable divisions.
In 1972, when New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm announced her bid for the presidential nomination, Kennedy was delighted, arguing that an “alliance of the alienated” was needed to engage “those left out by society.” Both Chisholm and Kennedy organized students, women of all races, Black people and poor people. Kennedy created the Feminist Party in 1972 not only to support Chisholm’s presidential candidacy, but also to register first-time voters and to encourage progressive women to run for office in their small towns or big cities. “Run for the school board or the local dogcatcher”: It did not matter. Kennedy said all of these positions were meaningful and prepared women to hold more powerful offices.
That year, these Black feminists’ approach was unable to defeat the Southern strategy launched by Richard Nixon, who relied on race baiting and garnered White votes by vilifying Black people as innately criminal. Since then, Republicans have gained power by manipulating Whites’ fears of Black protesters, demonizing Black women and their supposed reliance on public services, extolling the virtues of patriarchy and deferential White womanhood, propagating free market ideology and gathering all of these values under the seductive banner of evangelical fundamentalism. This strategy reached its apotheosis in Trumpism.
But Abrams shows us that another Southern strategy has the capacity to reshape national politics. When she stated that “we have the power to redraw the image of leadership so we can all see ourselves reflected in its face,” she echoed Kennedy’s call to harness the power of all those who have been left out of the body politic. Black women like Chisholm, Kennedy and Abrams have advocated feminism writ large, which is also democracy writ large, by deepening our understanding of the importance of diverse coalitions and producing a vision of democracy expansive enough for all.
Abrams’s approach could rebuild the Democratic Party by moving beyond its efforts to court the White moderates and social conservatives whom the party has already lost to the Republicans. Black feminist theorist Brittney Cooper predicted days before the 2018 gubernatorial election that even if Abrams lost the race, her “long game of embracing diversity and building capacity” would win. She was right. As this election shows, the slow, face-to-face work of building broad coalitions that motivated Black feminists throughout the 20th century is a viable strategy for redrawing the American political map today and in the future.