By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
“When I was 17, I set up my first voter registration table helping to sign up people to vote long before I was old enough to do so. By December, I’d made it, and when I turned 18, I registered to vote. In 1992, I helped set the course of America – I was one small voice, but I was part of a mighty wave of young people from around the country who were tired of war, tired of poverty, tired of being left behind. Not everything changed that election, and we’re still fighting some of the same battles, but we’ve made progress. And if we want to make even more progress, if we want to lift up the names of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery – if we want to talk about the legacy that we can leave, it begins by casting a vote.”
Amen!!! My extraordinary Spelman College sister Stacey Abrams shared this advice with Spelman students last year reminding a new generation of young gifted women they have the power to make a difference in our nation by turning out to vote. When she arrived at Spelman in 1991 she already was passionate about helping others understand and use their power to vote and make their voices heard. Thirty years later, her passion and skillful strategic leadership and organizing in Georgia were crucial to tipping Georgia to the Democratic column.
On an Inauguration Day filled with historic ‘firsts,’ a powerful one happened when Vice President Kamala Harris, our first woman, Black and Asian American vice president, stood on the Senate floor to swear in Alex Padilla, the first Latino senator from California; Jon Ossoff, the first Jewish senator from Georgia; and Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and the first Black senator from Georgia. The Georgia senators’ wins and President Biden and Vice President Harris’s win in Georgia signified a new day for the voters of color, women voters, and young voters who were among their strongest supporters, and many people who cheered those victories praised Abrams’s tireless voter registration and protection work in that state.
She and her five siblings grew up with parents like mine who stressed the importance of service to others, and she is living up to those lessons. She served in Georgia’s House of Representatives for ten years where she became minority leader and the first woman to lead either party in Georgia’s General Assembly and the first Black leader in the House. She founded the New Georgia Project to register and engage eligible unregistered Georgia voters, building on decades of voter registration work by Black women and other organizers. She ran for governor in 2018 and became the first Black woman nominated for governor by a major party in the United States. Her run only underscored the urgent need for voter registration and protection in Georgia. Her opponent, Brian Kemp, was Georgia’s Secretary of State. In his role administering the state’s elections he was accused of denying and delaying new registrations, purging voting rolls, and other actions disenfranchising voters before he won the race for governor by less than 55,000 votes.
After that loss Abrams said “I sat shiva for 10 days. Then I started plotting.” Instead of mourning there was action: Fair Fight, her national organization promoting fair elections and encouraging voter participation and education in Georgia and across the country. Fair Fight helped register 800,000 new voters in Georgia between 2018 and 2020, greatly expanding the electorate with new young, Black, Latino and Asian American voters. The 2020 elections nationwide and the January Senate runoff elections in Georgia saw record-breaking turnout – including new voters Abrams has been fighting to engage. Fair Fight, When We All Vote, and other organizations with similar goals demonstrated what can happen when the electorate looks more like America. The razor thin margins in Georgia and elsewhere also proved how much every vote matters and how one person, like the extraordinary Abrams, can make a difference.
It’s a lesson we can’t ever forget. As Donald Trump made every illegal effort to force Georgia officials to overturn the results of their presidential election, the state’s Republican leaders made it clear they also wished the election had turned out differently, but there was nothing they could do to invalidate the legally accurate wishes of a majority of Georgia’s voters – this time. In Georgia and across the country, the next step for leaders disappointed with this election’s results will be attempts to abolish the measures that made it easier for people to vote during the pandemic and in their place install a new wave of voter suppression methods to make it much harder for people to vote in the future. We all knew this was coming and Abrams is already geared up for the fight. Our children deserve a fair, functioning democracy where as many eligible voters as possible are registered and able to vote, and the fight to make this basic democratic principle real for everyone is already Abrams’s legacy.
Thank you Stacey Abrams!
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.