The Soulful Singer Making Sure Black Voters Matter
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
LaTosha Brown is building a national movement while pitching a “radical reimagining” of America.
- The co-founder of Black Voters Matter, LaTosha Brown is targeting rural Black communities in the South — often overlooked by other groups — to boost turnout.
- The goal is not just participation, Brown says, but power.
She comes from a family of farmers who worked the soil of the Black Belt in Alabama, growing vegetables and, yes, cotton, although her grandfather’s real cash crop was probably moonshine. She grew up in Selma, with history that could not be forgotten, and her activism started in an everyday setting: Working at a clothing store as a young college dropout mother, she turned her gig into a soapbox when customers asked her what she was reading behind the counter. Through it all, she sang: spirituals and freedom songs, gospel and Americana, with that “dirty voice” — raspy, soulful — her Auburn University teachers had tried to clean up. “There is a heaviness to my voice,” she says, and to her work too.
LaTosha Brown is the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a social welfare nonprofit formed in 2016 to, among other things, expand African American voter engagement. At a time when people of color face a pandemic that disproportionately claims their lives and a criminal justice system in dire need of reform as protests following the killing of George Floyd continue to ripple across the United States, Brown makes an unusual admission for the leader of a group whose explicit mission, at least on paper, revolves around registering voters and boosting turnout. “I don’t believe voting is the end-all, be-all,” she says, adding, “The goal is never participation. The goal is power.”
Brown has been obsessed with power since she was a child. At a McDonald’s or a Kmart or any other business, she pestered her mom with the same question: Who is the owner?
The founders’ vision was limited. They couldn’t see my leadership.
Today, the 49-year-old knows her job isn’t to wield power, but to empower others. That has been the operating mission of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which funds local activist and relief groups across 10 states. When coronavirus closures began, Brown’s organization developed a COVID-19 fund that has since amassed nearly $400,000 to dole out in high-risk areas throughout the South, such as Albany, Georgia. The fund also sued state governments, including Alabama’s, to put pressure on Southern governors to not reopen their states too early. Once the George Floyd protests erupted, the organization donated more than $250,000 to 20-plus bail funds nationwide. Twice-a-week Zoom town halls have had as many as 1,000 attendees, with Brown hosting ones for residents of Georgia and Pennsylvania right before their June elections.
Since the election of Alabama Democrat Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate in 2017, the strategy of Black Voters Matter has been to pinpoint rural Black communities in the South that often get missed in the targeting of voter-rich urban areas. Still, it may be difficult to get the residents to turn out in large numbers when many African American voters are disillusioned by the electoral system, a fact that Brown readily admits, particularly after Democrats nominated Joe Biden, a candidate who has his own mixed record on civil rights and criminal justice issues.
Regardless, building a vision is just as important as ramping up turnout, Brown says. She considers herself a Black futurist, and a founder of a new America. “The founders’ vision was limited. They couldn’t see my leadership,” she says. Her work — and the work of others like her — must also be rooted in what she calls “a radical reimagining of America.” Brown imagines technology that allows companies to pay workers a living wage for a 10-hour workweek and a police force that drops its guns and picks up tools for community healing instead. “If we’re organized, we can do that. We can respond not just to what is, but to imagine what can be,” she says.