How Civil Rights Shaped — and Can Still Shape — Our Elections

The way things worked out in Georgia reflected not only changes in demographics in a one-time citadel of the Confederacy but also the evolution of political beliefs and social attitudes.

DeKalb County voters go to the polls on Election Day at the Crossroads Presbyterian Church Tuesday Nov. 8, 2016 in Stone Mountain, Ga. (Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Consitution/TNS)
A few days after last week's elections, I was awakened at 5 a.m. by the ping of a text carrying a tweet of the velvet-voiced crooner John Legend singing "Georgia On My Mind." I knew then that former Vice President Joe Biden, by the narrowest of margins in the yet-to-be-certified vote count, had overtaken President Trump in my home state of Georgia in the race for president. If the results withstand a recount, Georgia is likely to be one of five states flipped by Biden in this historic election.

Watching the videos of thousands of citizens across the nation counting votes was like gazing into a window and witnessing grassroots democracy at work. They mesmerized us as they painstakingly tabulated the votes that elected Biden to be our 46th president and Kamala Harris to be vice president — the first woman, African American, and daughter of immigrants to hold that office.

Evolving from a citadel of the Confederacy, Georgia has become a symbol of the new South: Blacks, Hispanics and Asians constitute nearly 43 percent of the state's population. Along with the changes in demographics are changes in political beliefs and social attitudes. All of this will be on display again as both parties, supporters and special-interest groups pump tens of millions into the state's two senatorial runoff elections pitting two Democrats — a pastor of a legendary church and a young protégé and one-time employee of Congressman John Lewis — against two incumbent Republicans.

The significance of this race for civil rights cannot be lost. The Jan. 5 runoff elections between Atlanta native Jon Ossoff and Sen. David Perdue and between Rafael Warnock and Sen. Kelly Loeffler will take on historic, cultural and social resonance.

Endorsed by the late Congressman Lewis, Ossoff, 33, is a member of the huge millennial class of voters that both parties have tried to appeal to. His candidacy may attract younger voters than normally would be expected to turn out for a runoff election. Warnock, 51, is the pastor of Atlanta's storied Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his father, Martin Luther King Sr., preached for many years. Warnock will unite the old and new civil rights coalitions and, along with the voter-registration and voter-education accomplishments of Stacey Abrams, build a powerful engine and blueprint for turning out Black and brown voters that portend trouble for Republicans in future statewide races, including the race for governor in 2022.

Both Perdue and Loeffler have linked their campaign messages and political careers closely with President Trump. It will be fascinating to see how they do without him at the top of the Republican ticket.

Much has changed since I moved to Georgia from Missouri in 1973. Upon my arrival in Atlanta many counselled me that if I really valued my life, it would be best not to venture far outside the city limits after dark. One day when bicycling with my wife at Stone Mountain Park, east of Atlanta in DeKalb County, I remember being called the n-word by young white men driving pickup trucks with rifles hanging from racks in their back windows.


Stone Mountain Park, Georgia (Shutterstock)

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised: The state park where we were cycling is near the former home of James Venable, who served as mayor of the city of Stone Mountain in the 1940s and as the first Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Stone Mountain Park is also notable, of course, for the massive, Mount Rushmore-like reliefs of three Confederate leaders carved into the rock face of the mountain from which it gets its name.

Experiences like mine at Stone Mountain conjured up memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being snatched from a DeKalb County jail in 1960 in the middle of the night and taken to a state penitentiary in Reidsville, Ga., a rural town 200 miles south of Atlanta. Ironically, Venable's former home was purchased in the 1990s by Chuck Burris, who went on to be elected in 1997 as the first Black mayor of Stone Mountain. As more evidence of just how much things have changed, in last week's elections 83 percent of DeKalb County voters cast their ballots for Biden.

The swing in politics and demographics in the urban areas of Georgia helped create the preconditions for a Biden-Harris victory, but the most significant reason for their win was the way the Biden-Harris campaign hammered away at the president's mishandling of the coronavirus, of which 391,000 Georgians have been infected and 8,400 have died. The virus, a major civil rights issue of today, and the way the president ignored and politicized it motivated Black voters who expressed their pain and dissatisfaction by voting in record numbers.

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, Atlantans elected Q.V. Williamson as the first Black member of the Atlanta Board of Aldermen and Georgians elected Julian Bond and 10 other African Americans to the state legislature. Since then Georgia has traveled far, evolving from being a state that once denied Black citizens the basic rights of democracy, including the right to vote, to one that, on the strength of the Black vote, helped elect a Democratic president for the first time since 1992 and in January could elect two Democratic senators, including the state's first Black senator of the modern era.

All of this demonstrates how the civil rights movement, with its themes of social justice and human rights, has inspired positive changes throughout the world. It may once more do the same for our government and help bend the nation toward justice.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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