How Joe Biden did so well in Georgia
Atlanta is where people gather to dance and celebrate Joe Biden's election as the next president. AP Photo / Brynn Anderson
For nearly 30 years, the state of Georgia has consistently voted Republicans in presidential elections. The state has not supported a Democrat as president since 1992. Now the handcounting of the 2020 ballot paper has confirmed Joe Biden won the state.
The first returnees from Georgia on election night were Republicans, but the count steadily shifted over the days that followed as ballots from in and around Atlanta were counted. These voices were largely from color communities, mostly African American - and they represent much of the rich history of the state's civil rights organization.
Atlanta, often referred to as the "cradle of the civil rights movement," was the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and made up much of the congressional district represented by the late John Lewis.
I am a political and racial scientist with a particular focus on studying the social justice movement's strategy and the effects of collective action. To me, the story of how these Biden Harris voters were mobilized - with others across the state - is the latest chapter in the history of the state community organization for peaceful democratic political change.
Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a meeting
A long story
Social justice movements and civil rights activism have always been important in Georgia. Even during the post-civil war reconstruction, the organizers worked to educate Georgians about the right to vote and the rules of eligibility to vote in a state that had long denied them that right.
Efforts continued over the years, including rule changes that added more than 100,000 black voters to the state's roster between 1940 and 1947. In the 1950s and 1960s, suffrage campaigns in the south sought to eradicate the traces of a Jim Crow system that used black to suppress voters with literacy tests, grandfather clauses and physical intimidation.
A great effort was the Albany Movement from 1961 to 1962, which was based in the Georgia city of the same name. The effort was initially led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was later supported by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, two of the country's leading civil rights organizations at the time. Initially, Albany's population was 40% black, but many of them were not registered to vote.
The Albany Movement was the first attempt to completely desegregate a community, including by teaching people nonviolence to engage in civil disobedience. The tactics and strategies developed there were successful in Albany and, when King and his movement moved to Birmingham, Alabama, also formed the basis of their work.
Between 1960 and 1964, half a million black voters were registered in Georgia as part of a major voter registration campaign by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the South.
These decades of activism built strong networks for the grassroots organization and taught many people how to effectively combat segregation and racism through boycotts, sit-in strikes and other non-violent methods of direct resistance to action. After King's assassination in 1968, the movement slowed down significantly, showing the importance of decentralizing future civil rights efforts rather than focusing them on a specific person or location.
Decades later, the Black Lives Movement emerged in response to police brutality against black Americans, and built on lessons from the 1960s.
Stacey Abrams speaks to a crowd
A new movement
The most recent push for black voters in Georgia came in 2018 after former State Representative Stacey Abrams, a black Democrat woman, narrowly lost the governor race to Brian Kemp, a white Republican.
Their loss was largely due to efforts by Kemp, who had been the state's top election official to suppress black votes. These efforts included kicking more than half a million voters off the list - most of them black - and tightening other voting rules.
After these elections, Abrams pledged to fight voter suppression in Georgia. She founded an organization called Fair Fight to put the purged voters back on the list and register others who were also eligible to vote.
It began these efforts when the attention of black Georgians had turned heavily to politics following the assassination of Ahmaud Arbery. The death of the civil rights icon in 2020 and longtime Congressman John Lewis have brought racial inequality to the fore. Many people found that they were disenfranchised and suffered from "intolerance fatigue", the feeling of "being sick and tired, being sick and tired".
Abrams and Fair Fight benefited from the state's implementation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 in 2016, sometimes referred to as the "Motor Voter Act," which gives people the ability to register at the same time as applying or renewing to vote for a driver's license.
In total, 800,000 new voters have been registered in Georgia since the loss of Abrams in 2018. Some of them were likely among the many that Foreign Secretary Kemp had pushed off the roles, but many were also people who had never been put to the vote in Georgia before.
Not only have these groups put people's names on the voting lists, but they have also highlighted the importance of actual voting and taught people how to vote safely, including by mail or in person before election day. Their efforts resulted in a 63% increase over 2016 statistics for mail-in and early personal polls.
Overall, voter turnout in Georgia in 2020 was around 800,000 higher than in the 2016 presidential election.
Another factor behind the Georgia election result may have been President Donald Trump's statements that kept his supporters from voting, but the real key was grassroots organization, the modern echo of the Albany movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other efforts that led new voters to the fold.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Bev-Freda Jackson, American University School of Public Affairs.
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Bev-Freda Jackson has volunteered for the National Council of Negroes and the NAACP on occasion.
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