Breaking Down Systemic Racism Through Collective Action in the South
By JaTaune Bosby, executive director, ACLU of Alabama February 23, 2021
This month, the ACLU launched its Systemic Equality agenda — an initiative designed to center equity and attack our country’s legacy of systemic racism by addressing the imbalance of political power, challenging policies that ravage Black communities, and furthering efforts to advance our racial justice work. As a part of this ambitious effort, the ACLU is making an unprecedented investment in the people and region where vulnerable communities are most affected by local and national regressive policies: the South.
From Reconstruction to the attacks on democracy following the Black Lives Matter movement mobilizations this summer and the historic 2020 election, there is and has always been political backlash in retaliation to the advancement of marginalized people — particularly in the deep South. Those rooted in on-the-ground organizing and advocacy work in such places as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana know that investment in people who live and fight in the South will lead to results that reverberate across the nation.
The ACLU has a long history of protecting civil rights and advancing racial equality in the South. We were founded nationally more than a hundred years ago, and by the late 1960s had an affiliate office open in every state in the South and a Southern Regional office. ACLU staff here have worked closely with our partners over the last 50 years to make progress in dismantling the Jim Crow system and to fight for the right to vote. Over the last several years, the ACLU invested deeply in its affiliates across the South, creating new opportunities for additional legal, communications, electoral, organizing, and legislative staff.
But if the last four years have taught us anything, it is that the South is still ground zero, and we have much work to do. Two years ago, the leadership of our Southern affiliates began to talk about how to take our work to the next level: How can we more effectively address the challenges in the region together, rooted in the South’s unique history of racial oppression and violence and equally remarkable history of civil rights struggles and victories? By the end of last year, we launched the Southern Collective, a collaborative project of the national office and the ACLU affiliate offices of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Together, we launched the Southern Voting Project, a regional initiative to protect and expand voting rights — one of the most critical racial justice issues — to operate at our highest capacity during the 2020 election. We engaged in election protection and get out the vote efforts, fought back against voter suppression efforts, and helped people get access to absentee ballots during the pandemic. We invested funds, ran electoral bootcamps, built new voter contact infrastructure, and joined together to educate and activate historically disenfranchised communities in the South. And we saw immediate results.
As a result of this investment, Alabama and Mississippi, which do not have early voting, saw record-breaking numbers in turnout boosted by the ACLU’s litigation and advocacy efforts that focused on expanding absentee access before Election Day. The ACLU of Tennessee’s voter contact program more than doubled its goals for volunteers taking action. The ACLU of Kentucky reached tens of thousands of newly eligible voters with criminal convictions whose right to vote had recently been restored. And after a chaotic and understaffed June primary, the ACLU of Georgia recruited nearly 3,000 people to be poll workers to address the massive staffing shortage due to COVID-19 and helped place almost 500 poll workers in key locations. In Alabama, we launched the state’s first statewide election protection initiative. We achieved these results by working together, learning from one another, and standing on each other’s shoulders to reach new heights.
Over the next two years, the ACLU will increase its investment directly in these Southern states to grow our Southern affiliates’ work on strengthening voting rights and democracy, ensuring reproductive justice in Black and Brown communities, and fighting for reparations.
Our Systemic Equality initiative is more than a policy platform; it is a culmination of the ACLU’s commitment to racial justice and our goal to be in alignment with the work we do externally. The support and information sharing we provide to local organizers and advocates in our affiliates across the country — and in the South — is paramount. We have long understood that systems do not create change, but our desire for liberation, equity, and equality ignites it.