IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Georgia Senate election in 2021 reveals the need for a new 'Southern Strategy'

When people who have been lied to and pitted against one another unite to organize and vote together, they can reclaim the levers of power.
Image: Candidates Warnock & Ossoff \"Vote GA Blue\" Concert
Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock at a campaign rally at New Birth Church in Stonecrest on Dec. 28, 2020.Paras Griffin / Getty Images

When my father returned from serving in the Navy in World War II, he taught and worked in Warrenton, Georgia. Because of his writing and organizing for justice there in the 1950s, a white police officer put a gun to his head and told him that if he did not stop what he was doing, he would come back and shoot him. But Daddy and others who worked with him didn't stop. He survived, went on to earn graduate degrees in Indiana, and raised me in eastern North Carolina, where he continued to work with white and Black people who knew that a new South was possible if they could build coalitions for true democracy across old lines of division.

This week, such a fusion coalition could elect a young Jewish man and a Black preacher like my father to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate.

This week, such a fusion coalition could elect a young Jewish man and a Black preacher like my father to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate. Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, the possibility of a Sen. Raphael Warnock or Sen. Jon Ossoff in 2021 reveals the need for a new “Southern Strategy.”

For far too long, political consultants for both Republicans and Democrats have accepted that the former Confederate states are “red” states — or, at best, “purple” states where urban and university communities are off-set by white rural areas that are reliably conservative because of their “traditional” values. But this analysis, which has been sustained by predictable electoral outcomes for decades, has always failed to account for voters who became increasingly disengaged as their government failed them.

Georgia, like most Southern states, has a higher poverty rate than the U.S average, but has long been represented by people who have ignored the needs of poor people. According to a study by the Institute for Policy Studies on behalf the Poor People’s Campaign, 48 percent of Georgians are poor or low income. Nearly 2 million Georgia workers earn less than a living wage, and more than a million lack access to adequate health care.

This reality is not helped by the fact that poor and low-income people across the U.S. have voted at rates far lower than their higher-income neighbors. 2020 was an exception. In Georgia, an overall increase in voter turnout boosted participation of voters who earn less than $50,000. Black, white and brown, they went for Biden over Trump by 14 percentage points.

While many observers have attributed Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia to Republicans who turned against President Donald Trump, an emerging fusion coalition of poor and low-income voters could help elect Warnock and Ossoff and begin to reconstruct America by changing the South.

No one sees this more clearly than Republicans and their campaign consultants in Georgia. Drawing on the same divide-and-conquer tactics my father faced 60 years ago, they have leaned in to anti-Semitic and anti-Black tropes, casting Ossoff and Warnock as radicals and lying about their records. Desperate to project power, they have embraced conspiracy theories and pressured Republican officials in Georgia to overturn the results of November’s election. If the two Republican candidates in Georgia, Sen. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, whose term ended Sunday, were confident in their electoral prospects, they wouldn’t be fighting this hard to deny reality.

When poor and low-income people in the South vote together for their shared interests, politicians who have clung to power by stoking fear and division have a much harder time winning. My father and the grassroots leadership of the civil rights movements understood that, and we must lean in to their wisdom today.

The president of the United States is trying to extort Georgia’s election officials on the eve of a runoff election for the same reason that white officer in Georgia put a gun to my father’s head decades earlier: He knows the power of a fusion coalition in the South to transform the political landscape of this nation. When people who have been lied to and pitted against one another unite to organize and vote together, they can reclaim the levers of power in a democracy and pass policies that ensure living wages, access to health care, affordable housing, quality public education and safe, livable communities. When voters recognize our common plight, we have the power to reconstruct this democracy.

Perhaps no one articulated the vision driving Georgia’s turnout in this special election better than Langston Hughes: “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,” the Black poet from Harlem wrote. “I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. / I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek ... ”

This is the Georgia that’s voting together and rising together. It’s the Georgia of Black civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young, but also of white advocates and thought leaders like Clarence Jordan and Lillian Smith. It’s the Georgia of the Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants who helped build Atlanta and essential workers making deliveries in the suburbs today. This is the Georgia that could flip the Senate this week and, more important, that could change our political imagination of what is possible in the South.