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How Can We Build Democracy in the South — in Electoral Politics and Beyond?

Southern freedom fighters have been fighting to build a grassroots democracy that is directly informed by their needs.

People attend a Black Voters Matter event outside First Baptist Church Capitol Hill on June 20, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee.

The myth of U.S. democracy is on the verge of shattering.

In the region where cotton was king and prisons have succeeded the throne, this myth’s falseness is particularly evident in the U.S. South, the epicenter of the nation’s plantation and chattel slavery economy where the majority of Black/African-descended people still exist today. This region is also the land where Jim Crow law/segregation law once ruled and whose specter determines how resources are still allocated today. It’s also the region in which workers are least unionized and often hyper-exploited, with community members disproportionately subject to state violence such as incarceration or deportation.

Given these deathly conditions, the seats of power in our region are filled by those who benefit from these systems and uphold them, oppressing Southerners both historically and presently. In response, Southern freedom fighters have been fighting to build a grassroots democracy that is directly informed by the needs of our region, beginning at the local level. In so many ways, the efforts of Southern freedom fighters are an extension of freedom fighters in the Global South who share experiences of exploitation in the workplace, state violence and increased rates of incarceration, and have led organizing fights that inform strategies in the U.S. South. Formations like the Southern Movement Assembly are uniting U.S. Southern grassroots organizations with comrades across the Global South, particularly Central and South America, to develop a people’s democracy across colonial borders.

The Highlander Research and Education Center, where I work, is a Southern movement school, building democratic participation in the U.S. South and Appalachia through grassroots organizing, leadership development, and movement building. Highlander, which was established 90 years ago, has helped fuel the Southern fight for liberation against white supremacist capitalism.

Highlander supported the integration of labor unions in the 1930s and 40s, was a meeting place for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s and held trainings for civil rights activists during the sit-ins of the 1960s, and Highlander’s Education Director Septima Clark initiated the Citizenship Schools that expanded access to voting rights for Black people.

Although Highlander may be best known as the place where Rosa Parks trained before the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and where Martin Luther King, Jr. attended workshops that contributed to being red-baited as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, we know that many of the same issues these freedom fighters battled continue to face our communities today.

My work as Highlander’s electoral justice researcher and educator seeks to build capacity for today’s Southern freedom fighters and their communities to govern themselves as we move toward building a truly democratic world beyond capitalism and white supremacy.

This work goes beyond maximizing participation in the U.S. electoral system. This work seeks to build Southern communities’ capacity to collectively define their problems, learn and understand current power structures as they exist, and develop collective solutions based on the experiences and abilities of each community member.

There is strategic value in engaging elections, but strategies for grassroots democracy must extend far beyond Election Day. While we understand that participating in this U.S. electoral system is presently inevitable, we also understand it is equally, if not more, vital to build parallel systems that are truly democratic and accountable to every community member.

This work is reflected when we see People’s Movement Assemblies being utilized to build political power in cities such as Nashville, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; Lexington, Kentucky; and so many more Southern cities.

People’s Movement Assemblies are grassroots, democratic gatherings inspired by the World Social Forum in 2003, where collective decision-making spaces facilitated action plans that sparked international protests, leading to the Global Day of Action that year with millions of people worldwide taking to the streets to speak out against the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. These assemblies are used by communities to collectively assess their problems, determine their strategies, assess who has the power to materially change their conditions, and create grassroots solutions to bring their vision for a life-affirming world into reality. The Southern Movement Assembly, a regional formation that has been seeking to build grassroots democratic power across the South for 10 years with Southern freedom fighters and their communities, is inviting Southern community organizations to utilize People’s Movement Assemblies in their work throughout Summer 2022 to build collective power, community governance and action plans for organizing throughout the Global South.

In the midst of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections for gubernatorial and legislative seats, Highlander has developed the People Practicing Power workshop intervention. During this workshop series, organizers and their community members are learning methods for self-protection during Election Day from racialized, fascist terrorism; the process for developing a policy demand into a law; and creating or joining efforts to build democratic institutions rooted in solidarity economy principles.

“Solidarity economy” is an umbrella term for institutions and practices that are grounded in mutualism, cooperation, democracy, pluralism and building a world beyond racial capitalism.

Examples of this include worker-owned cooperatives, time banks, participatory budgeting and community land trusts that place decision-making power and ownership directly in the hands of workers and communities that have been historically stripped of agency under white supremacist capitalism.

The U.S. South is often seen by those outside the region as a right-wing stronghold and a recipient of charity. Our practice of rooting our work in the creation of solidarity economies acknowledges Southerners’ long history of not only surviving under white supremacist capitalism, but leading the charge to develop people-centered democracies and economies within the U.S.

We invite anyone who is interested to plug into the workshops Highlander offers around solidarity economies, join us at our annual Homecoming event September 30-October 2, 2022, where we will celebrate 90 years of Southern movement building, and follow Highlander online for updates on upcoming workshops and learning spaces where Southern freedom fighters will build strong relationships and learn with each other to build a true democracy rooted in community governance throughout the U.S. South.

The U.S. empire is crumbling due to the destruction created by capitalism. As this empire takes its last breaths, it doubles down on its centuries-old fascist violence domestically and abroad. From the ashes of this empire’s burning, people are using tools of community governance and solidarity economies to build a world beyond colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. There is a new world coming, we’re building it together, and the time is here to usher it in.

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