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, Brown's group 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, distributed flyers about the importance of voting, held phone banks, sent millions of text messages, canvassed communities reminding people to vote and rented buses to drive people to the polls.
Jessica Fortune Barker, cofounder of Lift Our Vote, speaks about voting rights during the John Lewis Advancement Act Day of Action, a voter education and engagement event Saturday, May 8, 2021, in front of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
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 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 jump of more than 400% from the amount 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, like the Alabama Association for the Arts, run their own operations and conduct voter engagement work, including voter registrations.
Using a $17,000 grant from Black Voters Matter, the Alabama-based group funded a project called Lift Our Vote. It rented buses to help Alabamans get to polling locations, said Lauren Barker, the project's co-founder. On Election Day, they drove 10 routes across north Alabama.
An additional $6 million was used to support Black Voters Matter's own get-out-the-vote activities and its 21 state staffers who coordinate with local groups. The funding also went toward providing local organizations vans for transportation, graphics support and radio advertising expenses, 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.
In the South, Black Voters Matter has become the powerful heart of an ecosystem of community-based organizations that are often too small for institutional funders to notice — church groups involved in voter engagement, for example, or informal group of women with backgrounds in voter drives.
"This really provides an important infrastructure to touch places, and communities, that national philanthropy has not necessarily been able to engage in deeply," said Jerry Maldonado, a program officer 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."
Henry Allen, left, and Charles Mauldin stand for the protection of voting rights at the John Lewis Advancement Act Day of Action, a voter education and engagement event taking place at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, Saturday, May 8, 2021, in Selma, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
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. Supporters say the overhauls strengthen election security. But critics, backed by many election experts, argue that the new laws mainly serve to suppress minority votes.
In Georgia, Black Voters Matter's advocacy wing worked with its partners, and other civil rights organizations, like the Georgia NAACP, to design a campaign that urged corporations based in the state to publicly oppose the law and divest from politicians who sponsored it.
Under pressure from activists and Black executives, Coca-Cola and Delta issued statements opposing the law. But their statements came days after the bill was passed. The Black Voters Matter Fund, along with other organizations, has since filed a lawsuit challenging the Georgia and Florida laws.
Brown's trip to Selma was part of a national event in support of a federal bill, named after John Lewis, to re-establish the mandatory federal oversight that was thrown out by the high court. The event, the "John Lewis Advancement Act Day of Action," was also intended to advocate for a federal overhaul of elections proposed by congressional Democrats.
The group's voter engagement work is slated to receive more money. Last year, the Capacity Building Institute was chosen as one of 10 Black-led organizations that will receive a total of $36 million over three years from the Democracy Frontlines Fund. It's a strategy developed by 12 foundations to fund Black-led groups that are fighting for "free and fair elections," among other priorities.
The donations, in part, help the group hold events to benefit local communities. To counteract food insecurity, for example, Black Voters Matter and its partners have held free grocery distributions. In Georgia, Brown says it distributed free groceries to 200,000 families last year.
In Selma, when Brown finished her speech about voting rights, Black Voters Matter staffers and their partners hopped on the group's tour bus for a distribution event in Montgomery. After an hour-long drive, the vehicle stopped at a parking lot across from a distribution site that its partners had set up.
Soon, Montgomery residents began lining up cars, waiting to pick up collard greens, toys and Black Voters Matter merchandise, from T-shirts and masks to hand fans. For the nonprofit, it was also a way to obtain contact information from attendees, who had to scan a QR code after getting their items.
The Black Voters Matter bus leads a “votercade” — a motorcade of voters — across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Saturday, May 8, 2021, in Selma, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Alabama will always be special to Brown. 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.
After a weeklong vote count, Brown failed to oust the Democrat incumbent by barely more than 200 votes. But minutes after the election was certified, Brown says she received a call from the state Democratic leader, telling her that a sheriff from a county she had overwhelmingly carried had found about 800 uncounted votes in a safe. Yet at that point, her only recourse was to file a lawsuit, which she could not afford.
"After that experience, I understood the impact and the power of voting, and voter suppression in ways that I had never experienced before," she said. "I became more committed than ever that I would not allow anybody to take away my agency, the agency of the people that I love, or my community."
More than two decades later, well into Brown's career in philanthropy, her work is now most pronounced in Georgia, where the organization is based. Its work in the state, alongside organizations like Stacey Abrams' Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project, has been credited with helping flip Georgia blue during the 2020 presidential election and in the subsequent U.S. Senate runoffs.
Sekou Franklin, who teaches political science at Middle Tennessee State University, says this was due, in part, to the group's network of activists and organizations in dozens of cities, from Savannah and Albany, to Atlanta.
"They laid some of this groundwork in the 2018 election, so they have history in these communities," said Franklin, who worked with the fund that year on a campaign that called for a civilian oversight board for Nashville's police department. "I deem them just as important to Georgia transitioning from a red, to purple, swing state as Abrams."
For Brown and Albright, the focus of the work is not only on presidential and state-wide elections but also local races that often have a more direct impact on communities.
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, talks about expanding voting rights at the John Lewis Advancement Act Day of Action, a voter education and engagement event, Saturday, May 8, 2021, at King s Canvas in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
In Brunswick, a Georgia city where three white men are charged with the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, Black Voters Matter supports A Better Glynn. That nonprofit, launched last year by local minister Elijah Henderson and his friends after Arbery's slaying drew international headlines, seeks to advance equity in Glynn County beyond the Arbery case. It counts the ousting of Jackie Johnson, a Republican prosecutor criticized for her office's response to the fatal shooting of Arbery, as one of their successes.
Henderson says that while the nonprofit didn't endorse independent candidate Keith Higgins for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit Court, it worked hard to get people to sign a petition to put him on the ballot. Then, they went out nearly every day, and registered voters.
That's the kind of intensity Black Voters Matter wants to keep one year after Floyd's murder.
"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 Cliff Albright. "We would like for people to continue to have structural racism and racial justice on the top of their minds, just as much as they did in the summer of protest."
Black Voters Matter will continue to pursue three things Brown often mentions: organizing people, organizing money and organizing ideas. Ultimately, Albright says, it would like to work toward self-sufficiency and reduce its reliance on donors.
"We understand that any given month or any given year, the funding world, or individual donors, might be looking for the next shiny thing," he said. "We know that we have to find ways to be independently self-sustaining."
Brown and Albright's trip to Alabama ended with a block party at a Montgomery park. Police blocked off traffic, allowing two truck vendors selling pasta and other food to set up. Flanked by "Black Voters Matter" signs, community members lined up and, at one point, cheered on a man whose dance moves to Usher's "Yeah" captured attention.
Attendees were offered free Black Voters Matter merchandise. And they could register to vote. Near the end of the event, Brown once again came before an audience to speak about voting rights.
This time, she opened with another civil rights anthem: "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round."