After a mass shooting in Nashville took the lives of young children, educators and a school custodian, three legislators in Tennessee rightly raised their voices demanding commonsense gun reform. The legislators, Representatives Justin Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson were the subject of votes by Republican legislators to eject them from the Tennessee House of Representatives. In the end Pearson and Jones, who are Black, were expelled, though both were reinstated days later following protest. Johnson, a white woman, was spared expulsion by one vote.
While the move was the latest example of the silencing of dissent writ large, it is also a manifestation of something far worse: the danger that arises when decision-makers abandon the South. It is easy to point fingers at dogmatic conservative legislators, and they indeed should face scorn and shame. But they are doing what they have always done — annexing power to uphold white supremacy.
It becomes exponentially harder to hold far right legislators accountable when the Democratic Party fails to invest meaningfully in the South. Democratic donors will never accomplish their aims by siphoning resources away from grassroots groups under the guise of investing in candidates. They can’t succeed in building power without also supporting the development of trained organizers and grassroots groups, since those groups are the ones that will push back on the lurch toward authoritarianism. It’s not enough to hire a standout organizer to lead a political campaign. A party cannot achieve change with strong political campaigns but underfunded grassroots groups. In other words, if Democratic donors are not actively investing in organizers and grassroots groups, they are contributing to their own demise. While there have been significant investments in candidates in places such as Florida, progress requires strong groups and strong candidates. Successful strategies can’t involve doing one without the other.
Let’s be clear: No one is above reproach, and no legislator has an assumption of power. Even in areas where conservatives have a stronghold, Democratic officials must make a democratic bid. This means investing in candidates as well as the grassroots infrastructure that propels candidates and issue-advocacy campaigns. For far too long, donors and party officials have turned their backs on the grassroots. They may give to standout candidates, but that is not the same as investing in the South broadly. Propping up candidates — including those who do not challenge the status quo — while failing to invest in grassroots organizing groups is a recipe for disaster.
Whether a favored candidate wins or loses, our communities still need strong grassroots organizations. The only way to secure and defend victories is to ensure deep and consistent organizing. What’s more, even when progressive movements’ preferred candidates win, strong grassroots organizations can help elected leaders advance an agenda that benefits us all. These groups must never be abandoned or ignored.
Too many Democratic Party officials have gone to war with progressives rather than with Republicans, who pose a far greater risk. Lest you think I am reaching, compare the amount Democratic donors gave in the last election cycle to candidates versus what they gave to grassroots organizers in southern states like Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Then consider how much Democratic donors and parties officials have spent to defeat progressive candidates.
Many democratic donors are preoccupied with funding candidates at the expense of grassroots groups. However, whether a candidate wins or loses, grassroots groups are on the front lines, organizing to improve the material conditions of Black and Brown communities and those living in poverty. As I shared with Philanthropy News Digest in November 2022, we can never take our foot off the gas. Grassroots organizations like the one I lead — the New Georgia Project — organize between campaigns and in every cycle. To make an impact, we must be funded year-round.
When I watch what’s happening in Tennessee and in Florida, with Gov. Ron DeSantis paring back reproductive rights and attacking the teaching of Black history, as well as Black sororities and fraternities, it’s clear to me that the Democratic Party’s current strategy in the South could be more effective. But it cannot resist these attacks without the backing of a strong grassroots which builds organizers — some of which become candidates — as well as communities.
One of the most damning things party officials and donors can do is to divest from the communities that create and sustain change. Whether it is housing, education, jobs or grassroots infrastructure, the communities we serve — largely Black and Brown folks — know the pain of divestment. It’s time we know the joy of reinvestment.