Campbell is the convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, one of the largest networks of women focused on using civic engagement to improve the lives of Black women, their families and their communities — improving access to health care, ending systemic racism, reforming the criminal justice system, lifting people out of poverty. It is a unique blending of Black women across experiences – corporate board members and labor activists, college professors and student activists, nonprofit leaders and grassroots volunteers.
The Roundtable was prepared to do double duty this year, making sure Black people participated in both the census and the national election. But the pandemic has created new challenges.
Instead of mobilizing voters by going door to door, the Roundtable is connecting with voters digitally on smartphones and tablets. When in-person early voting began, the women donned masks and worked the long lines at polling places, passing out water and snacks to keep people comfortable while they waited to cast their votes.
Now, with Election Day here, Campbell is worried about a Republican legal campaign to attack pandemic-related rule changes and limit access to the ballot.
“There is a lot of concern — like this real concern — that there is such a systematic approach to suppressing people’s votes,” she said in a recent interview. “This is how democracy crumbles.”
The Black Women’s Roundtable is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates. But Black voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and President Trump is deeply unpopular with them. In a Washington Post-Ipsos poll of Black adults this summer, 88 percent disapproved of the way Trump has handled his job, with 76 percent strongly disapproving.
In 2016, more than 94 percent of Black women voted against Trump, more than in any other group of voters. This year, many are hoping to both boot Trump and make history by electing Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) the first Black female vice president.
Campbell has been talking with voting rights groups about to how defend the count. As she told organizers on a Zoom call a few weeks ago: “We will do what we have to do . . . . We know what’s going on — that folks are trying to just steal our vote from us — and we’re not going to have it on our watch.”
Campbell grew up in Mims, Fla., a small town on the Atlantic Coast. Her parents were educators and active in the local NAACP chapter. One of her earliest childhood memories was the night she huddled on the floor with her mother and sisters while her father and other men took up posts in trees and under houses to await a visit from the Ku Klux Klan, which was still active in Florida during the 1950s.
The youngest of six children, Campbell followed her older brothers and sisters to Atlanta, where she enrolled in Clark Atlanta University and took a corporate job upon graduation. But she soon found herself missing the action of the movement, and went to work for Maynard Jackson, then the mayor of Atlanta and one of the country’s highest-profile Black political leaders. While running the mayor’s office of youth services, she hired an outspoken student leader from Spelman College named Stacey Abrams, who had publicly questioned Jackson’s understanding of the frustrations of young people.
By 1995, Campbell had moved to Washington to work for the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, where she found a mentor in Dorothy I. Height, a founding board member. Campbell became the coalition’s executive director in 2000 and president and CEO in 2011.
“My mission in life is to do my part, but also to lift others along the way, make sure Black women are not invisible,” Campbell said.
Oleta Fitzgerald is Southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund, based in Jackson, Miss. She said Campbell has helped to elevate the voices and stories of Black women in the rural South.
“Not only does she say, ‘Come to the meeting,’ she puts you in the news conference. She talks about your report,” said Fitzgerald, who also works with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative. “She’s a builder and makes space for people.”
Fitzgerald credited Campbell with helping Black female activists in Alabama influence the 2017 special election in which Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate. Jones is unlikely to win reelection Tuesday in heavily Republican Alabama, but Campbell says she believes that over time the Roundtable can help loosen the GOP’s grip on the levers of power in the South. A large contingent of Roundtable women in Georgia is working to help turn that state blue.
“The majority of Black people live there,” she said of Southern states. “As a leader of an organization that focuses on Black civic engagement and empowerment and power-building for Black people, the South is key to that.”
This spring, Black voters in South Carolina resuscitated former vice president Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and set him on a path to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. A week later, the Black Women’s Roundtable held its annual meeting in Northern Virginia. The gathering pulsed with energy.
Once again, Black women had flexed their political muscle. They were eager to talk about next steps.
Within days, however, the nation began to shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Like many organizations, the Roundtable was forced to move its operations online.
Through the summer, Campbell joined forces with other Black women leaders to push Biden to select a Black woman as his running mate. When Harris gave her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in August, Campbell celebrated with friends at a virtual watch party.
Then Campbell attended a family funeral over Labor Day weekend. Despite taking precautions, she was infected with the coronavirus. After she struggled to get admitted to a hospital, a close friend connected her with a doctor who was able to get her into George Washington University Hospital, where she spent most of September.
Salandra Benton, a Roundtable convener and executive director of the Florida Coalition on Black Civic Participation, has lost eight relatives during the past several months – some of whom had covid-19 and others who had serious illnesses but couldn’t afford adequate health care. She was terrified when she learned that Campbell, who she has known for more than 20 years, had fallen ill.
With Campbell’s support, Benton had been able to help restore voting rights for Florida felons who had been released from prison. Last month, Benton partnered with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to host “Free the Vote” rallies around the state, aimed at encouraging felons to take advantage of their newly restored right to vote.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can do, so that when Election Day comes we can say we left nothing on the table,” Benton said.
Latosha Brown, a Georgia organizer who also grew up under Campbell’s wing, said Black women are being asked to do too much. Brown is co-founder of the organization Black Voters Matter, which had to sue the state of Alabama to expand absentee voting so people could safely cast ballots during the pandemic.
“Black women are out here leading the charge of registering people to vote. Comforting voters at the polling sites. Advocating to make sure people are not being marginalized in the process — all those things that a government in a functioning democracy would normally have,” Brown said.
“If Black women ever decide we don’t believe in democracy anymore, it’s over for this country,” she added. “It’s a wrap.”
On Sunday, Campbell held a virtual gospel hour, featuring music, prayer and a call to arms.
“We know what’s up, we hear the drumbeat. We know what they’re trying to do,” she told the gathering. “So many of us are so worn out and tired. We needed this moment — I know I did — to remind ourselves that we are not in this alone. God is in control.
“But He told us to work, work, work,” she said. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Sandra Benton lost eight relatives to covid-19. Not all of them had the disease, and the story has been corrected.