This speech conjured the heroes of the civil rights movement – Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, John Lewis – to denounce the new wave of Republican legislation restricting access to voting at the state and local levels. Biden insisted that the right to vote represented the highest of democratic ideals: “The right to vote and to have that vote count is the threshold of freedom in democracy. Without it, nothing is possible, but with it, everything is possible. Ensuring the right to vote and ending widespread voter suppression were indeed central goals of groups such as the King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and several hundred organizations. local.
At the same time, King and many others affirmed a vision of democracy that went far beyond voting. As researcher and activist Angela Davis wrote: “When democracy is reduced to the mere fact of elections…everything that we could consider freedom is gone. Democracy, in this tradition, is a verb, a collective practice as much as a system of rules and individual rights.
Today, in the absence of federal suffrage legislation, struggles over the meaning of democracy, governance and democratic participation will once again turn to state and local jurisdictions, just as they did. did during the civil rights movement. Their experiences challenging voter suppression to expand democratic practices and consciousness hold crucial lessons for our current moment.
One such example unfolded 58 years ago in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the midst of a voting rights campaign organized by SNCC and featuring famed organizer and trainer Ella Baker. Then, as now, federal suffrage legislation faced years of obstruction in Congress. And while national advocates pressed for change in Washington, it was in local communities such as Hattiesburg that the engine of democracy was turning most powerfully.
In Hattiesburg, a combination of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures prevented almost all black residents in the surrounding county from registering to vote. Blacks who attempted to register were constantly threatened with violence and imprisonment. Suppression of the black vote was essential to maintain the region’s rigid Jim Crow structure and to reinforce the authority of white elites and the one-party system of government they controlled.
In response, a much broader and more transformative model of democratic participation emerged – going well beyond the issue of voting to fostering practices of education, knowledge creation and community development that were themselves forms collective self-governance.
Even before the massive voter registration drives of the early 1960s, Baker spent decades helping to establish small organizations in the South, recruiting people to identify the issues that shaped their lives. She embraced models such as the “schools of citizenship” activated across the region in the 1950s, which argued that democratic participation and governance could not be achieved through voter registration alone. New voters should reflect, teach and learn what governance meant to them and their communities. These popular education programs have harnessed the talents and experiences of black teachers (primarily black women) to educate and engage adult learners. They implicitly rejected dominant models of leadership, in which an exceptional person with unique skills and abilities was elevated and empowered to act on behalf of others.
Baker brought these experiences and commitments to a mass meeting on January 21, 1964, at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Hattiesburg, “with every seat filled, every aisle crowded, the doors jammed.” [with] … a thousand people, massed in the dark. Such meetings were significant tactics and triumphs in themselves, made possible by many thousands of one-on-one conversations in parlors and on porches across the region.
The crowd rose to sing songs of freedom, and finally, 60-year-old Baker took to the podium. With more than three decades of experience organizing and building movements, Baker was deeply respected by the crowd of local people, student organizers, and religious and civil rights leaders gathered at the sanctuary.
She began by noting that some civil rights leaders had recently claimed that “the final stages of the struggle for freedom” had arrived, implying that once the franchise was guaranteed and segregation outlawed, freedom would be achieved. . Baker disagreed. She insisted: “Even tomorrow, if every vestige of racial discrimination were wiped out, if we all became free enough to come down and associate with all the people we wanted to associate with, we are still not free.” The struggle for freedom was only in its infancy. Voting alone wouldn’t solve the “millions of people who go to bed hungry every night.” She insisted, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in the country to give everyone a job.” The right to vote can never be separated from a vision of what the ballot might be used to achieve.
She believed in the power of group political education and consciousness, or what she described as “the information that comes from many, many studies.” She referenced SNCC’s plan to open dozens of Freedom Schools across Mississippi that summer, based on a new curriculum exploring politics, art, history and culture. Unlike the segregated and underfunded schools black students attended in Mississippi that reinforced white supremacy, the Dozens of Liberty Schools would focus explicitly on political awareness and social power.
Finally, Baker clarified that black people fighting for the right to vote were not simply trying to gain an exalted freedom that most white Americans already enjoy.
Rather, they aspired to develop methods and practices of democracy based on new values, relationships and possibilities that had never been fully realized in the United States. “Remember,” Baker told the crowd, “we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all of humanity.”
She pointed out that white Mississippians, who had long been “duped” by the “big lie” that their freedom depended on infringing on black lives, weren’t free either. The Hattiesburg struggle, which was led by local black people and guided by their collective experience and analysis, was about the “right” for everyone “to grow and develop to the fullest of their ability.” For Baker, even the “white brothers of Hattiesburg” could not realize their full capacity as humans, or “the human spirit for freedom”, through systems based on violence and terror.
The next morning, SNCC launched “Freedom Day”. Hundreds of residents converged on the courthouse to register to vote, refusing police requests to disperse. They returned every day for months in what became a “perpetual picket”, facing arrest and harassment, but also emboldened by their collective ability to confront a system that had long insisted that resistance was futile.
The democratic energies released in local communities such as Hattiesburg set the stage for Freedom Summer, the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Within 12 months, hundreds of thousands of black Southerners registered to vote and nearly 400 were elected. As Baker predicted, the right to vote alone did not equal freedom. The broad coalition that Baker convened in Hattiesburg faced powerful backlash forces, and in the 2000s school segregation, economic disparities, and voting restrictions began to accelerate again.
Today, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each election cycle in the hope of tipping the partisan balance one way or the other; Black voters are often only addressed in 11th hour election calls. These efforts often ignore the legacy of Baker and SNCC that is alive in local communities, a legacy that links voter registration and education campaigns to opportunities for ordinary people to connect suffrage to a vision and a broader practice of social transformation. Groups such as Cooperation Jackson, Project South, Highlander Center, and Southerners on New Ground (SONG), among dozens of others, continue these traditions.
As Republican intransigence dims prospects for expanding the national franchise, such grassroots efforts represent the best hopes of renewing and reinvigorating Baker’s vision for a shared, broader vision of freedom.