TUNICA, Miss.—Devin Gordon was standing outside his second-floor apartment when LaTosha Brown asked to have a chat.
“How you doing young man?” Brown asked. “Can we talk to you for a second?”
She was out canvassing the neighborhood with Tunica Teens In Action, a local organization that helps young people become politically engaged, when one of its members knocked on Gordon’s door and asked if he was registered to vote. He wasn’t, but Brown wasn’t only interested in Gordon’s voting habits. She also wanted to understand how he was feeling about himself.
That’s because Brown’s goal is not simply to get black people to vote. It is to convince them of their power. Raised in Mobile and Selma, Alabama, Brown understands that to get black people to believe in their political power, you need to get them to believe in themselves first.
We were in the city of Tunica, where locals said voter turnout was unusually low during November’s midterm elections. Brown wanted to understand why. Tunica County is more than 77 percent black; the city of Tunica is 29 percent black. Most of the locals work at one of the nine casinos, according to Ashley McKay Dandrige, who leads Tunica Teens.
Gordon, 19, who likes cars and attends a local community college to prepare for a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, doesn’t pay much attention to politics. But he knows there is too much crime and too few jobs. If he got the chance to leave Tunica, he would. He doesn’t believe voting can make much of a difference.
For Brown, that’s why Gordon is the ideal person to empower: smart, well-meaning, but under-engaged.
“He’s the person I’m looking for,” Brown said. “In five months, we’ll have him out getting people to vote.”
Dandridge, whose group would help Gordon register, said much of the work her group does is educating young black people about governance and race, providing them a kind of Civics 1010, so they will be fully informed when it’s time to vote.
“If the street lights don’t work in your community, you don’t go to the school board, you go to the school board of supervisors,” she said. “We will mobilize them to get out to vote that one day but [also] get them to understand the full process. We also teach the history of Mississippi. We never want our young folks to think that race does not matter.”
As Mississippians prepared for Tuesday’s runoff, Brown was hoping the gains black activists enjoyed across the south during the midterms, particularly in Georgia and Florida, would take place here. While there is optimism Mike Espy may pull of an upset in Mississippi US Senate race, Cindy Hyde-Smith is still expected to win. Her public lynching comments, while clearly racist, aren’t expected to hurt her in a state where Donald Trump is immensely popular and visited Monday. A recent poll had Hyde-Smith leading 54 percent to 44 percent.
Espy needs a very high black voter turnout to have a realistic chance. White voters outnumber black ones 2-1. But the Associated Press notes that if black voters make up 40 percent of the electorate Tuesday, Espy will need fewer white voters. It is a very tough ask but not impossible.
As Brown sees it, once black people feel liberated, they will vote. She saw this in Alabama, where she worked with black female-led groups to push Doug Jones to an upset victory over Roy Moore. While national Democrats took credit for that win, it was black women who feared their state would be represented by an alleged pedophile who fueled Jones’ victory. After realizing the power of black women in that race, Brown decided there needed to be an apparatus designed to not only organize political actions, but to fund them as well.
And, yes, Brown sees Georgia and Florida as successful actions because black activism nearly got two red states their first black governors—even against massive voter suppression.
“We absolutely want to win. I worked my fingers to the bone in both of those races, so of course there is a part of me that was absolutely disappointed and extremely hurt about Stacey Abrams because they stole that election,” she said. “But there is a part of me that is absolutely ecstatic. Those were supposed to be so-called red, conservative states. Democrats have not done that well in 20 years. You have progressive, powerful courageous black folks running and they lose by less than a percentage point? That is amazing progress. Those of us who are movement leaders understand we are in am protracted struggle; we are going to have transformation over time.”
Black Voters Matter has a fundraising arm, Black Voters Matter Fund, a 501(c)(4). This year alone, Brown said the fund has raised more than $700,000. Before Brown started the organization, she worked in philanthropy, where she fostered relationships with deep-pocketed supporters, many of them white. She and co-founder Cliff Albright quit their jobs last year to run the organization full-time.
As a child, Brown was always interested in power. When she and her parents entered a restaurant, one of the first thing she did was ask who the owner was, because she wanted to know who was in charge. In her 20s, she worked on political campaigns and ran for a state board of education position in 1998 and seemed to win but ended up losing because of voting irregularities, she said.
Brown also ran for a House seat in 2002 but didn’t get to assume the seat then, either. She said she spent $30,000 fighting but still lost because GOP voters crossed over to support her Democratic opponent. Even Fox News reported on the case, albeit with its skewed conservative angle.
“So what happened to Stacey [Abrams], the world knows, but that has happened to me twice,” Brown said. “That is why we have to shift how we look at this entire paradigm within politics. There have to be consequences for folks for stealing elections.”
On our journey, we were supposed be in Jackson at 1 p.m., but too many people in nearby towns wanted to meet Brown along the way. They especially wanted to board the $100,000 bus Brown’s group rents from a black-owned company. They had to return the first bus because the owner was a Trump supporter who didn’t approve of the group’s activism.
Before we left Tunica, members of Tunica Teens boarded the bus to take selfies.
“Yoooooo, this bus is hot,” one teenage girl said.
Brown intentionally chose an expensive bus. The interior is decked out with surround sound stereo, flat screen televisions, and leather seats.
“When this bus rolls into town, I want it to make a statement,” she said. “I want people to see that we deserve to have the best.”
On our way to Jackson, we stopped in Glendora, a small town that hosts the museum dedicated to Emmett Till, who was murdered in nearby Money when he was 14 years old by white men after a white woman falsely accused him of making a pass at her. Brown planned on stopping for just a few minutes, but we stayed for nearly an hour because Johnny B. Thomas, who was elected mayor of Glendora during the 1980s and managers the museum, wanted to show Brown around the museum.
He told Brown and the rest of the group that a gunshot may not have been the cause of Till’s death. One of the killers may have used a wood screw to drill a hole through the boy’s head.
“I can’t take it,” said Brown, who was on the verge of tears as she walked into another room.
That bloody history is itched in the soul of black Mississippi. That is why black people in the state refused to accept that Hyde-Smith’s public lynching comments were tongue and cheek. More people were lynched in Mississippi between 1882 to 1968 than any state in the country, with 581 recorded lynchings. The state is also home to the the infamous Shubuta Bridge, where teenagers Ernest Green and Charlie Lang were hanged in 1942 after being accused of trying to rape a white woman.
“That seal it for the black community,” Thomas said. “I hope that situation that happened with the senator let’s other whites know there is no need for comments like that in this day and time.”
Like the young people in Tunica, Thomas also had to take a moment to be part of the symbolism of what the bus represented. He took a few photos in front of the bus. Images of black people with their fists in the air covered most of the frame.
Mississippi has a history of brutalizing black residents, but it also has a legacy of black resistance. It is the home of Fannie Lou Hamer, founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Hamer, tired of the national party refusing to give black people equal representation, felt it better for black people to start their own. Brown draws inspiration from Hamer’s independence.
What makes Black Voters Matter powerful is that it doesn’t have to get sign-offs from the Democratic Party, or any other power player, to do its work.
“I got complete agency over my work,” Brown said. “I can do whatever the hell I wanna do. The power of having an organization for the power of black liberation is a gift for me.”
Her work doesn’t come without challenges. On Saturday, a retired Mississippi state trooper was riding on the bus to provide security. Over the Labor Day weekend, someone threw a rock through a window in the bus as it made its way through Alabama late at night. A pickup truck pulled up behind them but sped off before anyone on the bus could identify them. Last Tuesday, people drove around the bus throwing up their middle finger and driving dangerously close to it. That was one of the few days they went without security.
Now, an armed guard and a car trails the bus wherever it travels.
We finally made it back to Jackson at about 5 p.m. that day. The bus parked at the M W Stringer Grand Lodge, which hosts the office of former NAACP field director Medgar Evers, who was killed in 1963 for his civil rights work. The lodge is on John R. Lynch Street, which was named after the first black speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and one the first black Americans to be elected to Congress during Reconstruction.
A young man was outside playing music with a DJ set. Mouse and Level’s “I Bet You Won’t” was bumping from the speakers. Prominently hanging from the ceiling inside the lodge was a banner of Evers, who was killed by white supremacists in his driveway in Jackson. Local activists who hadn’t boarded the bus before got on to take selfies.
We traveled hundreds of miles with the goal of getting more more black people to the polls. But Brown was happy just to talk to so many black men and women who appreciated that someone cared enough to listen to their concerns.
“The focus for us is not to get them to vote,” she said. “The focus is to get them to tap into their humanity and remind them that they are loved and they got power. That’s when transformation happens.”