Two days, one America

In just 48 hours, 2021 gave us all a stark reminder of the pain and promise of this nation and its people.

By Ben Barge

Sen. Raphael Warnock (left) and Sen. Jon Ossoff. Image by John Ramspott. Used under Creative Commons license.

On Jan. 5, my home state of Georgia made history. Georgians chose to send Rev. Raphael Warnock to Washington, making him Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, the country’s 11th Black senator ever, and the second Black senator from a former Confederate state since Reconstruction. They also chose to elect Jon Ossoff, Georgia’s first Jewish U.S. senator and the body’s youngest sitting member.

Georgians did what many thought was impossible because grassroots organizers — especially Georgians of color, and most especially Black women — fought tirelessly. They responded to absurd levels of documented voter suppression in 2018 by helping register over 800,000 new voters. And when many of November’s white voters stayed home in January, voters of color showed up.

On Jan. 6, Georgians’ choice became even more important. Months after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security labeled white supremacist groups as “the most persistent and lethal threat” to the country, far-right terrorists stormed the U.S. Capitol in a blatant attempt to stop the legal certification of votes for the presidency. In the chaos, 5 people lost their lives.

The president, the majority of House Republicans and several Republican members of the Senate incited and emboldened the insurrectionists. Congress and their staff were forced to flee.

And in the wake of a poorly coordinated and at times sympathetic Capitol Police response, we saw once again how law enforcement so often props up white supremacy and far-right extremism.

Like Georgia, D.C. has long been my home. As I sat awake in my bed barely 2 miles from the attack, hearing sirens late into the night, I felt in my bones what so many Southerners know: This week wasn’t a surprise. This is America. A country of progress and backlash, Reconstruction and Redemption. It’s a history that rhymes, with many more chapters ahead.

Our NCRP team has family who have lived through armed civil conflict around the globe, and we know that we embrace American exceptionalism at our own peril. After all, America has suffered a far-right coup before.

White supremacists in Wilmington, N.C., responded to the 1898 election of a progressive inter-racial coalition by overthrowing the local government and massacring at least 60 people. That coup was successful. It became one of many brutal, anti-democratic acts of terror that laid the groundwork for Jim Crow to flourish long past the end of slavery and into the current day.

That’s why in moments like these — and there will be more in the days and years ahead — I look home for guidance. Whether our history books acknowledge it or not, the beautiful organizing for justice and liberation in Georgia and across the South has always been there, waiting for the rest of us to wake up, to listen and to join the call with our voices, our bodies and our dollars.

This is all the truer for liberal white men like me, who are tempted to distance ourselves from whiteness as if we’re one of the special ones, rather than recognizing our complicity in the violence.

A map of grantmaking per capita per year from 2011–2015 from each of the southern U.S. states.

The oppression so often pioneered and refined in the South, like the resistance to it, always shapes the nation. In NCRP’s joint As the South Grows initiative with Grantmakers for Southern Progress, we pointed out that Southern activists have long known how to overcome regressive policies and unjust rules of the game, despite receiving just 56 cents per person in foundation funding for every $1 invested elsewhere.

So, as we prepare for what comes next, this is a good time to honor the people who have worked for generations to make Georgians’ January choice possible and who will be hard at work long after 2021 ends. Stacey Abrams has a great list to follow.

Here at NCRP, we want to shout out our own nonprofit members based in Georgia fighting daily for a better future:

We also want to thank a few local and regional funding efforts that have been in it in Georgia for the long haul:

Last but not least, the rest of the South deserves love too. We owe a debt of gratitude to our amazing nonprofit members throughout the South:

This year will offer us many more choices. Will we honor what’s been sacrificed with words, but move slowly in our actions? Or will we choose that just, more beautiful future faster? For America’s sake, this displaced Southerner prays for the latter.

Ben Barge is NCRP’s field director. He, alongside Research Director Ryan Schlegel, Senior Associate for Movement Research Stephanie Peng, voting rights activist LaTosha Brown and staff of Grantmakers for Southern Progress and the Institute for Southern Studies were instrumental the creation of As the South Grows. The 5-part series exploring the fundraising challenges and other obstacles faced by those organizing in the South, can be found here.

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For 40 years, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has served as the country’s independent watchdog of foundations.

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For 40 years, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has served as the country’s independent watchdog of foundations.