In 2021, the Black political class of Washington should heed the example of “the Georgia experiment.” Blacks in Georgia brought attention to an alternative vision of political progress — and ignited a grassroots movement for statewide governance.
Whatever the outcome of the U.S. Senate elections, the die has been cast for a new direction in African American politics. Consider a few ways that leaders political and cultural can advance the agenda in the new year:
First, Georgia’s Black congressional delegation should assume the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). From that vantage point, they could promote the cause of Black statewide governance in Georgia as a priority. They could begin by hosting a conference in the Peach State, perhaps at one of the historically Black colleges. The meeting would serve to network the civic and political organizations interested in the quest for state autonomy. Among those invited to share ideas should be Black Georgians from both parties. The conference could map out a multi-year plan toward the expansion of political leverage.
Ideally, a Georgia elected official who is new to the Washington scene should initiate the call. For example, Nikema Williams, a former state legislator newly elected to Congress, or the Rev. Raphael Warnock, if he is elected to the Senate. Understand that the purpose is not to revisit the idea of a Black political party — a waste of time and attention. Instead the goal would be to create a Black political force capable of mobilizing people to support the candidates, alliances, and initiatives for state power.
One immediate concern is the redrawing of state election districts in Georgia. Why should a rising blue state be saddled with a legislature dominated by recalcitrant Republicans? Other concerns are fielding amenable candidates (from either party) for county and statewide offices, targeting job markets for Black employment, identifying opportunities for business activity, and educating youths to participate in the management of state government.
Second, the broader CBC membership could participate as Georgia conference observers and advisers. While the organization remains focused on advancing the agenda of the Democrats — and sometimes a politics of racial redress — it could benefit from association with Black political achievements in Georgia. The movement offers the CBC a chance to promote an affirming agenda of Black autonomy.
Looking ahead, the CBC should press the Biden Justice Department to monitor the revision of state election districts by Georgia Republicans. Most importantly, it should make the passage of an updated Voting Rights Act a priority issue. The bill has languished in a divided Congress — yet recent episodes of orchestrated efforts to subvert the Black vote make it more important than ever.
In addition, CBC members could introduce the idea of the “Georgia Imperative” in their cities. The imperative is to build a sustainable political base in the state. They could inform Black residents disaffected with the stagnant cities in the North about prospects for relocating to affordable cities and counties in Georgia.
Ultimately, this is a response to the vulnerability of Black life in American culture, a quest for a safe haven. Joe BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE’s election should not lull Blacks into a false sense of complacency. Let’s not ignore that 74 million people voted for President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE’s reelection, including nearly 2.5 million in Georgia.
Finally, might the CBC gain insights from Black politics in Georgia that could be applied in other states? Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana and Maryland all have about the same proportion of Black demographics — and little Black participation in their state affairs. Georgia’s example may provide answers for unlocking the talent and organization in those states.
As I have written, Georgia holds a special place in the African American experience. Africans sought refuge in the sea islands and woodlands even before the founding of Savannah in 1733. They fled Charleston, S.C., plantations to create free settlements known as “maroon colonies” in coastal and woodland regions of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. On occasion, they collaborated with indigenous Indian nations such as the Yemassee, Cherokee and Creeks, sometimes in complicated relations as both free and enslaved people. Free Black settlements such as Fort Mose in northern Florida were encouraged by Spanish colonial forces as a buffer zone to British incursions.
The prospect of an independent Black state was first evidenced by the racial make-up of the Black Seminole nation. Between 1830 and 1850, the Army and white vigilantes engaged in a series of forced relocations, documented in the “Trail of Tears.” The mission was to eradicate Native American and Black towns for repopulation by white settlers and slave owners.
The perception of Georgia as a base for Black political independence re-emerged during the Civil War. Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 to confiscate plantations on the seacoast. The eastern region of Georgia was turned over to Blacks as a form of restitution. The “reparations” initiative was reversed after Lincoln’s assassination.
Henry McNeal Turner, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was a legislator in the Georgia Reconstruction government. After its overthrow by white supremacists, this once enthusiastic supporter of biracial democracy came to accept reality: Without a base of power, Blacks are little more than a subject people. He wrote, “Until we have Black men in the seat of power, respected, feared, hated and reverenced, our young men will never rise.”
Today, Blacks in Georgia are on the verge of establishing a base of political power under the traditions of federalism. The CBC and Black political class of Washington should embrace this direction as a New Year’s Resolution.
Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston, and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.” Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a curated website on African American history and culture.