“Out of all the things that we have to fight for, why would we choose the issues that divide us?”
-Rev. Steve Crump,
ret. Minister, Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge
In colonial Virginia, 1676, an event took place that would shape the American racial landscape for generations. Bacon’s Rebellion was led by Nathaniel Bacon, a young and rich Virginian Planter who mobilized a band of poor, landless whites; small farmers and indentured servants; as well as free and enslaved blacks who wanted access to land that was not available to them under the colony’s “Indian policy”. The rebellion was quickly extinguished, but the colonial government was sent reeling over the prospect of diverse groups of poor black and white bondsmen and freemen alike coming together to pursue their common self-interest. (Now, let me take pause here to note that the self-interest they were pursuing, in this case, was the appropriation of more land from the indigenous peoples of the region.) This prompted the colonial government to pass stricter laws governing slaves and free blacks while granting more freedoms to poor whites and indentured servants. Laws were created that prohibited and severely punished enslaved blacks for interacting with free blacks and whites, and slave patrols were formed, requiring non-slaveholding whites to police the slave population. These measures institutionalized a racial divide that inextricably linked the survival of poor whites to the disenfranchisement of poor and enslaved blacks, allowing those who profited from the economic system of slavery unimpeded access to wealth.
Almost 300 years later, on the morning of April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the 2nd-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time of his death, King was organizing a group of sanitation workers in Memphis to protest for fair pay and preparing for the upcoming Poor People's Campaign for economic freedom, which was set to take place in Washington D.C later that year.
About a year before his death, on April 14, 1967, at Stanford University, Dr, King gave what would be one of his final speeches, titled The Other America. In this speech, King paints a picture of two Americas, one that is “overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity”, and another where “millions of work starved men (and women) walk the streets daily in search of jobs that don’t exist,” where people find themselves “perishing on a lonely island of poverty, in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
The action of King’s speech was a call for economic justice for blacks through fair housing access and the eradication of poverty for all Americans by way of a guaranteed basic income. King called for unity between the races in the fight against poverty, saying, “there can be no separate Black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white routes. There can be no separate white path to power and fulfillment short of social disaster.” He went on to say that “integration is not merely a romantic or aesthetic something where you merely add color to a still predominantly white power structure. Integration must be seen also in political terms where there is shared power, where Black men (and women) and white men (and women) share power together to build a new and a great nation.” At the time of King’s death, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover referred to Dr. King as the “most dangerous man in America”.
Although driven by drastically different motivations, both King and Bacon shook up the status quo of their time by reaching across the color line to unite citizens around their common self-interests: economic freedom and access to the “vast ocean” of American wealth. The reaction by those who profited off of the division of the races was the same in (and after) King’s time as it was after Bacon’s Rebellion. In the years following King’s death, the “new right” emerged in the Republican Party, led by Senator Strom Thurman, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. Equipped with what is known as the Southern Strategy, these leaders marshaled an all-out offensive to bolster their party’s support by appealing to middle-class and poor white Americans with a rhetoric of scarcity, fear and entitlement, relying heavily on the language of the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War, which glorified the confederacy and accused proponents of equality of encroaching on their “southern way of life”. They also passed “tough-on-crime” legislation that disproportionately affected black Americans, and a new and more insidious method of division emerged that would sow new seeds of disunity between the races as the wealth gap in America continued to widen. By the 1980s, King’s vision for true integration through shared political and economic power was appropriated by the Reagan administration and named “trickle-down economics”. The richest corporations in America enjoyed fewer government regulations, lower taxes and the freedom to relocate their manufacturing plants to under-developed countries with cheaper labor and less environmental protections. Unemployment sky-rocketed and, once again, the richest Americans were allowed unimpeded access to wealth while the labor class fought over the crumbs of opportunity left behind in their wake.
The broad-based organizing model, implemented by IAF organizations like Together Baton Rouge, reclaims the power of diversity as an organizing tool. As an organization, we intentionally break down racial, socio-economic, religious and political barriers by uniting community members and institutions around issues that appeal to their collective self-interests. In his book Roots for Radicals, former IAF director Ed Chambers writes, “plurality is of the essence in broad-based organizing, because it can produce a base of organized people power, which no single issue or group can match. The haves don’t want to see diverse groups organized. The haves understand the power that creates and want to keep groups divided so that they can keep control.” Chambers goes on to say, “Organized plurality can take on organized money and win.” Once Bacon and King proved that they could organize diversity to address their self-interests, they became a threat to the power structure. There are two ways to gain power:- through organized people and through organized money. Those who wield power through organized money profit from division, because without the organization of people the masses are effectively made politically impotent, unable to recognize and act upon their collective self-interests.
On November 5, 2019, at the TBR/ TLA Gubernatorial and Legislative Accountability Assembly, Together Baton Rouge leader Lionel Bazile addressed a packed house at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, including representatives from 44 religious and civic institutions, with one simple call to action: “Get out the Vote!”
With the gubernatorial and legislative run-off elections eleven days away, TLA/ TBR were in the midst of our “Bridge the Gap” campaign, which aimed to increase black voter turnout well past a concerningly low, 25% turnout rate reached during the primaries, which contributed heavily to an overall 13 percent gap between low-and high-income voters. Incumbent Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards was 45,000 votes short of an outright victory with only 46 percent of Louisiana's total voting population participating in the election. After the 2016 Presidential election, many members of the community, namely our lower-income communities, were disenchanted with the election process, feeling that their vote didn’t matter. The Bridge the Gap campaign targeted voters in lower-income precincts who voted in 2016 but had not voted since. Between the primary election on October 12 and the Accountability Assembly on November 5, 2,100 TLA volunteers reached 64,000 voters in 320 targeted precincts across the state. In Baton Rouge alone, 500 volunteers targeted 60 precincts and reached 15,000 voters. As Rev. James Barret was relaying this information to the audience, Gov. Edwards, almost as if on cue, walked into the church to a flurry of applause. Rev. Barret paused as Gov. Edwards addressed a group of students from Scotlandville Magnet Highschool. What happened next was the most powerful display of civic engagement I have ever witnessed. With Gov. Edwards sitting directly behind them, a representative from each of the 44 institutions present came up to the front of the church, one by one, and presented the number of volunteers and the votes they turned out for the election.
“I’m John Hanely from Spirit and Justice. We have 8 volunteers and 240 voters!”
“Julie Hoffman from Beth- Shalom synagogue and we have 6 volunteers contacting 180 voters!”
“I’m Wilma Barret, we have 6 volunteers. By the way, I'm from Greater 60 Aid Baptist Church, and we have 300 voters!”
“Good Afternoon, I’m Claude Tellis. I'm from Camphor United Methodist and we have 6 volunteers and 120 voters!”
The leaders stole the show that afternoon. There might have been over 1,000 people present both in the church and watching from the nearby civic center, but in that moment those leaders, representing an array of demographics and faith traditions, brought the energy of 15,000 constituents into the church and put them squarely in Gov. Edwards’ lap!
The next segment of the Accountability Assembly involved leaders and community members engaging Governor Edwards around an agenda of issues that came out of our house meetings. The purpose of the house meeting strategy is to create a space for understanding our self-interests by discussing issues that affect our families and building relational capacity to address those issues. Drawing from those earlier meetings, leaders told stories about how issues like blight and food insecurity affect them and their families. After sharing these stories about the issues affecting our communities, we asked Gov. Edwards to commit to work with TBR to address our concerns.
During any Accountability Assembly, the most important question we ask of all the candidates is, “will you commit to meeting with us on a quarterly basis?” Governor Edwards, who kept this commitment over the course of his first term, answered with an unequivocal “yes”.
While Together Baton Rouge is non-partisan and does not endorse or support candidates, we do find allies around specific issues if we can work together on them. Throughout his first term, Governor Edwards worked with TBR on several issues from that day’s agenda—such as ITEP reform, Medicaid expansion and food access. His opponent Eddie Rispone, on the other hand, did not agree to meet with us and rejected our invitation to the accountability assembly, a decision which did not bode well for our prospects of counting him as an ally if he won the election. With a large portion of our communities underserved, and public goods/ services underfunded, the stakes of this election were high.
By election day on November 16, 2019, TLA/TBR and other community organizations were successful in increasing overall voter turn-out by 165,116 voters and helping to raise black voter participation from 25% to 31%. This increase in voter turn-out was enough to give Gov. Edwards a small margin of victory—less than 1%.
This year, East Baton Rouge Parish and parishes throughout the state are facing huge local elections, as well as a highly divisive presidential race. In addition to our house meetings and Accountability Assemblies, TLA has added a new feature to our GOTV strategy, called the Precinct Organizing Project (POP). The POP is a way to engage voters not only for this election but for all future elections as well. To make this successful, we’ve set up a network of Block Captains who are responsible for turning out 10 voters in their neighborhood. Unlike phone banking, the Block Captain process will engage voters all the way from the initial call to the voting booth, and beyond into future elections. By recruiting block captains we are engaging with other members of the community in order to build on our capacity to address issues that continue to affect us beyond election season. The more voices and diversity we’re able to bring to the table, the more organized people power we will have to match organized money power in order to advocate for our own self-interests.
In his speech “The Other America”, King says, “But we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.”
The difference between gaining access to lunch counters and voting polls and receiving a livable wage and decent housing conditions is that one affects one group of people who make up a small portion of the population, and the other crosses all demographic lines. One requires a few white people to fight for the equality of black people. The other requires a mass of white people to stand with a mass of black and brown folks to address issues that affect us all. In other words, one depends on the altruism of the white population while the other simply requires white folks to recognize their own self-interest and reach across racial lines to build the capacity to act on them. White survival was inextricably linked to black disenfranchisement after Bacon’s Rebellion. Like Dr. King, IAF organizations seek to rearrange this relationship by linking the self-interests of both the black and white working class.
We are on the precipice of change. We are in the middle of a moral, racial, and cultural reckoning on one side and a push-back to maintain the status quo on the other. If we hope to break down the structures that maintain the status quo and achieve “genuine equality”, we must answer the question Lionel Bazile asked the packed house at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church—“Are you ready to hold yourselves accountable to working and building a Louisiana that is not divided, but together?!”—with a resounding “Yes we are!”