Waynesboro, Georgia—Sarah Jenkins has long had to deal with simmering community tensions. She owns a small business in a white part of town that caters to senior citizens and people with mental disabilities, an arrangement many of her neighbors frown upon.
But since “Ms. Jenkins,” as folks like to call her, became a big supporter of Stacey Abrams—who is trying to become the first black woman to become governor anywhere in the nation—those tensions have boiled over. They’ve grown especially ugly since Abrams won the Democratic nomination in her quest to lead Georgia.
The Abrams campaign signs Jenkins placed on her lawn were frequently stolen; she would replace them. But then came the one-word, handwritten messages on white pieces of paper that started showing up in her mailbox.
“Coon,” some of them said.
There were other choice racist terms Jenkins didn’t want to repeat.
“It’s people intimidation,” Jenkins said. “They don’t want us to exist as a business. They especially don’t want us to go vote for someone who may be able to help us.”
Still, Jenkins was among the throng of Abrams supporters, maybe a hundred or so, who gathered to listen to the gubernatorial candidate deliver her stump speech in a church parking lot in Waynesboro, Ga., on Wednesday afternoon.
It will be choices such as the one Jenkins is making—remaining steadfast in the face of intimidation in a state where charges of voter suppression have increased the past few weeks—that will likely decide what polling data says is a close race between Abrams and her Republican challenger, Brian Kemp.
Georgia made national headlines recently after the Associated Press found that 70 percent of the voter registration applications being held up by Kemp, who is also Georgia’s secretary of state, are African American. (Georgia is 32 percent black.)
Like the tension in Jenkins’s neighborhood, Kemp’s dual role as Abrams’ opponent, as well as the man in charge of voter registration, has become a prominent feature of this election cycle. Kemp has justified his decision to hold up so many applications because of the “exact match” policy that can invalidate an application if something as simple as a hyphen on a last name of a license is missing on the form. Most civil rights groups consider it a voter suppression tactic. While those whose applications are among the 53,000 can still show up to vote with the proper identification, many black Georgians see this as a 1960s-era attempt to scare them away from the polls.
“I come from the generation where we had to march to be able to vote,” Evelyn Ellis, 72, of Augusta, said after Abrams spoke. “I’m the last of that generation who can tell that story. It was a terrible thing my generation had to go through. For there to be any kind of suppression is just awful. So I am hoping and praying that even though that effort is out there that we will still be able to overcome it.”
The interstate that takes you to and from Waynesboro is lined with cotton fields many black folks in this small town will remind you were picked by their ancestors. They will tell you that the very ground you are standing on was likely a plantation where their now free bodies were chained to America’s chattel slavery system, and how the remnants of that past loom large today. To have Stacey come to town to speak on that very soil reminds them of how far Georgia has come—and how much further it needs to go.
Maybe that’s why Jenkins kept knowledge of voter intimidation tactics to herself; because they are neither new nor does she expect them to work.
“Why didn’t you tell me, mom?” Mamie Parks asked Jenkins.
A friend, Lizzie White, was standing nearby.
“I didn’t know, either,” White said.
Jenkins stood quiet for a few moments before breaking her silence. Looking at her daughter, who just finished law school in Colorado, Jenkins said she didn’t want her worrying about mom back home.
“I didn’t know this was happening here in Burke County,” Parks said. “I’m appalled.”
The city of Waynesboro is about 70 percent black and 25 percent white, but Burke County’s population is roughly split down racial lines. Hillary Clinton won the county in 2016. Abrams won it in a landslide during her primary. The area is suffering economically, making the small town relationships here vital for survival. There are few jobs for which people can apply. Black locals say white people still hold gatekeeping power. Something as simple as expressing a political opinion can move white folks from patronizing your businesses or, in the case of Jenkins, resort to harassment.
Jenkins is considered a local hero. Many people have a story about how she helped them in some way, like how she helped them grow their businesses when no one would give them a loan, and how she caters to people that most have given up on. White said Jenkins was her most supportive customer while her business was up and running for a year and half until it closed because she couldn’t get financing.
Francys Johnson, a local pastor in Burke County running for U.S. Congress in the 12th District, told The Root his campaign signs have also been defaced with the word “nigger” and that folks have told him they have been threatened with violence, fired from their jobs, and gotten nasty voice messages.
“Make no mistake about it, it’s 2018,” Johnson said. “A lot has changed, but a lot still remains the same. And at the root of this is the same cravenness for power that has always reserved the right to use violence to have their way.”
Polls have Abrams and Kemp in a close race that’s expected to go down to the wire on election night. But Abrams campaign and her supporters have long asserted that those polls are not considering the new voters that her campaign is reaching: newly-naturalized citizens, Latinos, colleges students, registered voters who have sat out elections, residents of rural black communities.
Early voting is underway in Georgia. Locals say they have waited in line for three hours to cast their ballots. As folks in Waynesboro see it, the type of energy they feel for Abrams is similar to when Barack Obama was running for president in 2008—but more intense and personal. Abrams is a Georgian and a black woman, a child of the South. No one is going to stop them from supporting her. Not Kemp, nor the people who destroyed their lawn signs.
Betty Debbie Green traveled from the nearby county of Millen to hear Abrams speak at the church. She’s aware of the 53,000 people whose voter registration status remains in a state of uncertainty. But she feels strongly that Abrams will overcome it.
“I still feel like she is going to win,” she said. “I have that feeling because we have been under depression for the last two years. And if you think straight and you want things to get straight, you better get some of us in that White House and in these states so everything can smooth out.”
White says she sees the challenges about voting clearly.
“I’m hurt and sad to think about 2018 that we still have that level of hate around us,” she said. “It hurts.”
None of this, however, will stop them from going to the polls and supporting Abrams.
“Oh, no. No,” Jenkins and White and said defiantly.
“I’m standing,” White said. “I will stand. Because I am not afraid of what is right. We will stand for what is right. I will vote. I will vote.”