The South is Rising Tour 2018 has been to six Tennessee cities to increase voter turnout. Voter turnout in Tennessee is one of the country’s worst.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — If it’s trouble you’ve seen or looking for, chances are the NAACP is already raising hell about it or they know somebody who is.

“We will continue to fight, alright? If you know anybody who wants to fight with us, tell ‘em  ‘come on’. We need fighters, we really do,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, President TN State Conference NAACP.

She was addressing the 72nd Tennessee State Convention of the NAACP that took place at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville last week. Activists and advocates for criminal justice reform, voting rights, fair labor practices, civil rights, and environmental justice talked about their work during the three-day conference.

“Don’t Agonize, Mobilize” was the conference motto. Tennessee has plenty of problems: the incarceration of young black men, no automatic or same day voter registration, wage theft and right-to-work labor laws, driving while black traffic stops, killings by police who are not held accountable, and the 200 workers who cleaned up the TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, TN and became sick from arsenic poisoning and are dying of cancer, to name a few. 

As bad as things are, attendees were upbeat, encouraged to hear from others and talk about their work, the challenges they face, and to savor a bit the victories they have had. None of this is to say progress comes easy. 

But activists and leaders are hoping for change in November if enough people vote in the mid-term election. But there are barriers. Rock the Vote, a national grassroots group of young voters, named Tennessee a blocker state. 

“A blocker state means that the majority of policies around voting are intended to restrict people’s right and access to the vote,” said Ria Thompson-Washington, an organizer with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Washington D.C. 

Thompson-Washington works on election issues in six states. She is in Tennessee to make sure that NAACP coalition partners have a way to reach the estimated 200,000 blacks who have not yet been registered to vote. Tennessee is 40th in voter registration and 50th in voting. 

She addressed a Friday luncheon and challenged some conventional thinking about the right to vote. She said the constitution doesn’t really guarantee anyone the right to vote.

“You received the right from people putting their lives on the line,” she said, referring to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, now half a century behind us. She said voting is actually a privilege that can be taken away.

Voter apathy and voter suppression are two sides of becoming disenfranchised. Thompson-Washington thinks people who don’t vote keep Tennessee a blocker state because they are not going out to vote for automatic registration and same day registration or to vote for candidates who will make it happen. 

She said people who are not involved and engaged are letting others make the laws that manage our lives. And too many of them go out of their way to limit people’s access to the right to vote. It’s a vicious and self-defeating cycle.

“I’m interested in helping people come vote, get to vote, use their right to vote, elect good leaders that help us change our lives. I’m willing to do anything to do that,” she said.

James Curbeam, Southern Region Organizing Coordinator for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), echoed the same thoughts when he spoke Friday. 

“We’re heavily trying to get the vote out. We look towards candidates who are labor-friendly,” Curbeam said. “The ones who helped gut Workmen’s Comp and continue to be anti-union and pass anti-labor laws, those are the ones we have to hold accountable and get out of office,” he said.

 Curbeam said supporting labor’s friends at election times is not enough to make positive changes in the lives of workers and their families. 

“We should be organizing and mobilizing and moving towards a brighter future collaboratively and not just come together once a year. We need to be working 365 days a year to actually make changes in America, not just in Tennessee,” he said. 

LaTosha Brown agrees. She started a group called “Black Voters Matter” and drove a black bus all over Alabama in 2016 to defeat Judge Roy Moore who was running against Doug Jones for Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat. Jones won that race and Brown took her bus on the road. (See video link below)

“The work of the Black Voter’s Matter Fund is amazing,” said Kara Turrentine, CEO of Turrency Brands, a political consulting and marketing firm. “They’ve been going across the Southern states building awareness, infrastructure, and turning out people who normally don’t vote,” Turrentine said.

“We work to support local grassroots groups,” said Brown, who is based in Atlanta, but travels  in a big black bus learning what local groups are doing and then lends them support. She said the work centers around getting more boots on the ground, knocking on doors, getting people registered to vote, and turning out voters. Like IBT’s Curbeam, Brown thinks organizing has to happen between election cycles to be really effective. 

“It’s all about communities building power, communities having local control, communities being organized and having governance and creating mechanisms like the COB (Community Oversight Board),” said Brown.

The bus criss-crossed Tennessee, stopping In Jackson, Memphis, New Market, and Chattanooga  with the same message: “Get registered and make sure you vote”. The bus has been in Nashville for three weeks and made stops at TSU, Fisk, Meharry Medical College, and North Nashville to engage young voters. Students from Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, TSU, and Fisk University attended the convention.