Georgia has symbolized freedom in the Black imagination since the arrival of enslaved Africans in the 1700s. Its dense forest and coastal islands gave safe haven to thousands of people fleeing bondage for better conditions.
The gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Stacey Abrams rekindled a desire for an autonomous space in the thinking of many people. The possibility came close to fruition, but for alleged voting shenanigans.
The question now for Black leaders is, where to go from here? Clearly, the Congressional Black Caucus has an obligation to investigate claims of voter suppression and to promote a stronger Voting Rights Act.
But just as importantly, the CBC has a role to play in developing a strategy to win the state. A key component to any strategy is to grow the Black voter base — and a tactic for growing the base is to promote a new migration to Georgia. Here’s how a coordinated migration might work, and why Black leaders should promote it.
The midterms revealed that the margin for victory in Georgia is within reach. Abrams lost to Republican Brian Kemp by about 55,000 votes out of nearly 4 million votes cast. Clearly, a surge in the size of the Black voter base could close such a gap and end a drought in state representation dating to Reconstruction.
A Georgia migration would tie in with a pattern of migration to the region since the 1990s. According to a 2004 study, “The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965–2000,” published by the Brookings Institute, many students and professionals flocked to colleges and jobs in Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and Orlando, among other southern cities. Older migrants were drawn to the culture and family ties of the South.
A new migration could build on this trend with an eye towards maximum political impact. Promoting Georgia as a destination for Black retirees would help to develop sustainable growth in a voter base of over 30 percent today.
A migration project would require an effective ad campaign to the desired market – people nearing retirement with stable incomes from pensions, Social Security benefits and other assets. This generation understands the importance of voting from the civil rights movement.
The ad campaign would have to appeal to the ideals of freedom and resistance in the Georgia territory. Even before the founding of Savannah in 1733, defiant Africans had run away from the rice plantations of Charleston, S.C., to create free settlements in its dense woodlands and isolated islands. These were known as maroon colonies. They teamed with indigenous Indian societies such as the Yamassee in raids against the British.
After the Civil War, the emancipated slaves of the Georgia Sea Islands gained temporary ownership of coastal lands. In 1865, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 to break up the plantations and present ex-slaves with plots of land in compensation. The discredited President Andrew Johnson stopped the reparation policy before it could take root.
During the Civil Rights Movement, the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a network of churches founded by Martin Luther King in 1957, was a powerful symbol of Black cooperation. In 1968, “The Republic of New Afrika” was a controversial proposal to create a Black nation in the South. The Malcolm X Society, influenced by anti-colonial movements in Africa, imagined a new country carved from territory of 10 southern states including Georgia. And let’s not forget the 1973 Gladys Knight recording of the iconic song, “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
In short, Georgia holds a special place in African American folklore and its appeal could be used to market the state as a destination.
Any ad campaign should target the black media outlets of northern centers — television shows, talk radio, news websites and newspapers in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit, and St. Louis, and in less politically competitive southern states. Stakeholders with an interest in serving a moneyed black retiree clientele could underwrite the advertisements.
To promote cities outside of Atlanta, the ads should tout the cost of living advantages of Macon, Savannah, Athens, Augusta, Columbus, and many smaller municipalities. Politically, it makes sense to encourage the spreading out of new residents and the utilization of the state’s open primary system.
Black retirees can help to grow the voter base, but it will take younger people with roots in the community to handle state affairs. People need to understand why state governance matters and why young people should seek offices. No doubt it will pose a challenge to depict state service in an attractive way.
Black congressional leaders have an obligation to discuss this proposal. Perhaps Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) could introduce the question: What are the merits of a program of coordinated migration to achieve black political autonomy?
Roger House, is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. The op-ed is reprinted from The Hill.