Fifty years after civil rights activists famously descended on Mississippi to register black voters, what would a modern Freedom Summer look like?
There are 3.7 million unregistered blacks and 4 million unregistered Hispanics and Asian Americans in the “Black Belt” region of the American South. According to Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Ben Jealous, this is an enormous source of untapped political power.
The former national NAACP leader – who oversaw the nation’s largest door-to-door voter registration campaign ahead of the 2012 presidential election – released a report Monday analyzing the latent potential of voters of color in the Black Belt. “True South: Unleashing Democracy 50 Years After Freedom Summer” makes the case that a massive drive to register voters of color could upset the political dynamic in many southern states.
Jealous defines the “Black Belt” as the 13 states stretching from Delaware to Texas, all of which have had a heavy black population since the days of slavery. In recent years the name has taken on a deeper meaning, as black remigration as well as Hispanic and Asian American immigration have resulted in a wholesale reinvention of the region’s demographic profile. Yet the fact remains that in most Black Belt states, progressive candidates generally favored by communities of color rarely win statewide office.
What would it take for these voters to make their voices heard?
“True South” takes a long view of history, drawing lessons from the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights activists risked their lives to register voters in the racial powder keg of 1960’s Mississippi. While community organizers today do not have to deal with lynchings and church burnings, they do have to work around voter suppression laws – which are more prevalent in states where minorities turn out vote. Jealous believes that the most important lesson from Freedom Summer is a timeless one: voter registration can overcome voter suppression.
Jealous’ report shows what would happen in each Black Belt state if certain portions of the unregistered voters of color were registered to vote. Registering 60% of black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters would “upset the balance of power” in eight of the Black Belt states: Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. In a presidential election year, when turnout is higher, Alabama would be added to that list.
In Georgia, Republicans have won the past three gubernatorial elections by an average margin of victory of 260,703 votes. But there are also somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 unregistered people of color in the state, depending on the year. “True South” finds that registering three out of every five of them would yield 290,000 “new voters” of color – even after accounting for turnout rates.
The balance of power in North Carolina is even more tenuous, favoring Republicans over the past three elections by 24,288 votes. “True South” estimates that are about 370,000 unregistered people of color in the state in a given presidential election year, when the state holds gubernatorial elections. Registering just 10% of them would be enough to flip the balance in the state.
Finally, Texas offers an interesting test case for the combined power of black, Hispanic and Asian voters. The balance of power in the second-most-populous state in the nation favors Republicans by 616,807 votes. But there are also an estimated 1.8 million unregistered Hispanic people in the state, and just under one million unregistered blacks and Asians together. Registering 60% of unregistered voters of color in Texas would be enough to upset the balance of power.
Jealous’ report does not get into how these “new voters” of color would vote – though given historic trends, they very well may support Democratic candidates. But no matter which political party they favor, the very fact that they are voting at all would impact the political dynamics in each state. As Jealous writes:
We have established that voting patterns in the Black Belt states have long been racially polarized, and that this has made it difficult for black voters and voters of color to elect candidates who support their views and concerns. However… increasing political participation by black voters and voters of color in general could remedy this problem in one of two ways: by helping blacks elect candidates who share their concerns; or else by forcing candidates who would normally write off the black vote to pay attention to the community’s concerns.
Fifty years after Freedom Summer, voter registration may provide the spark for a more inclusive and representative American South.
Ben Wrobel is a Project Manager at the Center for American Progress.