LaTosha Brown opened with a song.
Speaking about voting rights one recent spring day in Selma, Alabama, the Black activist delivered the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” in a voice showcasing her background as a jazz singer. She told her audience, through music, that the fight for equal access to the ballot box was as urgent as ever.
The song drew cheers from a few dozen listeners, young and old, who had gathered before the brown-bricked African Methodist Episcopal church in a city known for its poverty as much as for its troubled racial past.
For Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, the song served to introduce a question.
“Close your eyes,” she said. “What would America look like without racism?”
“How will we ever create what we’re not even envisioning? There was nothing that was brought into the real world that was not first envisioned.”
A year after the police killing of George Floyd galvanized public attention to racial injustices, amid a barrage of restrictive voting laws being passed by state legislatures, Black Voters Matter is redoubling its march toward its North Star: increasing the political power of Black communities.
Like many groups that serve predominantly Black communities, the organization was flooded with donations after Floyd’s death. A year later, the impact is visible: The group says it gave $10 million to 600 community-based groups in 15 states, mostly in the South, who, among other things, registered voters, held phone banks, sent millions of text messages, and canvassed communities reminding people to vote.
Those efforts are widely credited with helping fuel Black voter turnout in Georgia, which, in part, led to Democrats scoring victories in the presidential and U.S. Senate races that gave them control of both houses of Congress and helped President Joe Biden enact his legislative agenda. Now, in the face of new restrictions on voting in areas heavily populated by people of color, new challenges are emerging.
Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, estimates that Black Voters Matter, which received more than $30 million in donations last year, has about 90,000 unique donors. Most of its donations were small gifts from ordinary Americans.
The group’s operations are run through two channels. One is the Black Voters Matters Fund, a social welfare organization that can engage in political activity, like lobbying. The other is the Black Voters Matters Capacity Building Institute, a nonprofit that funds voter education, registrations and other programs to expand access to voting. (Contributions to the Capacity Building Institute are tax-deductible; donations to the Fund are not).
After the racial justice protests, most of the donations flowed into the Capacity Building Institute, which from June 2020 to the end of last year received $18 million — a 414% jump from the sum it collected in 2019, according to Alexis Buchanan Thomas, Black Voters Matter’s development director, though the increase was driven in part by the 2020 elections.
Brown says $3 million earmarked for advocacy work was distributed to several dozen community-based groups. An additional $7 million was given to help local organizations run their own operations and conduct voter engagement work, including voter registrations.
About $6 million was also used to support Black Voters Matter’s own get-out-the-vote activities and provide local organizations with vans for transportation, graphics support and radio advertising, among other needs. The main goal for Black Voters Matter, Brown says, has been to strengthen these organizations for the long run.
The roots of Black Voters Matter date to 2016, borne of the painful frustration Brown says she and the organization’s other co-founder, Cliff Albright, felt about the “nationalist, racist rhetoric” of former President Donald Trump and a “national discourse that didn’t include Black folks.” In philanthropy circles, Black Voters Matter is what’s called an intermediary — an organization that donors can turn to when they want to fund nonprofits but lack the expertise or connections to do so directly.
“The South is a region that is growing tremendously and shifting tremendously. But it’s also, unfortunately, a hotbed for regressive innovation, such as efforts restricting voting rights,” said Jerry Maldonado, the director of the Cities and States program at the Ford Foundation, which, in 2020, donated $1.8 million to the nonprofit. “The South is a region that is growing tremendously and shifting tremendously. But it’s also, unfortunately, a hotbed for regressive innovation, such as efforts restricting voting rights.”
Many restrictive voting laws have been passed in Southern states since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling threw out a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The provision had required officials in jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices to receive federal approval before making changes to the voting process.
This year, Republican lawmakers in Georgia, Florida and other states have passed new voting restrictions, based largely on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud by Trump and his allies. Critics argue the new laws mainly serve to suppress minority votes.
One Southern state that will always be special to Brown is Alabama. It’s where her grandmother, whom she calls her “soulmate,” was barred from voting for most of her life under Jim Crow laws. And, it’s where she lost a close Democratic primary race in 1998 for a seat on the Alabama State Board of Education by about 200 votes, even though a sheriff found 800 uncounted votes in a safe minutes after her loss was certified.
For Brown and Albright, the focus of the work is not only on presidential and state-wide elections but also on local races that often have a more direct impact on communities. This raises concern about the lack of consistency they see in donations to Black Voters Matter.
“As we got further and further away from the protest, a lot of organizations, including us, saw those donations going down on a daily basis,” said Albright. “We understand that any given month or any given year, the funding world, or individual donors, might be looking for the next shiny thing. We know that we have to find ways to be independently self-sustaining.”
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