In an engaging and energetic conversation, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at HKS and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, and LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund and Southern Black Girls Consortium, discussed Black history, activism, how Black voters impacted the 2020 election, and why that impact is here to stay. The program was hosted by Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, where Brown is a Hauser Leader, and the Women and Public Policy Program, along with Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies and American History, where Brown is an American Democracy Fellow.


History as a learning tool

Brown, joining the conversation from Selma, Alabama—her Selma High School diploma visible in the Zoom background—began the dialogue as she has on so many occasions: singing the African American song Oh, Freedom, which is associated with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “When I talk about the origins of who I am, I have to start with origins of who my people are,” she explained.  “I am a daughter of the “black belt” (a soil-rich area responsible for one-third of the cotton production) and I am sitting in my childhood home right now. I came to visit my family in Selma, Alabama, which was infamous for the civil rights movement. But, also, this is the place where my family were bought as enslaved Africans.”

Growing up, Brown wasn’t connected to that history because she didn’t see herself in the history of America the way it was taught in school, despite being surrounded by it. “There’s no way that you can live in Selma, Alabama and cross the Edmund Pettus bridge every day and not hear tons and tons of stories about what took place here,” she said. It was only when she convinced her teachers to read Black writers that she began to question who owns history, who is in charge. “I got exposed to writers that I had never heard before,” she said, “like Margaret Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. After that, I became obsessed with understanding the origins of power.” But it was The Autobiography of Malcolm X—a book that outlines the human rights activist’s philosophy—that gave her life direction. And Selma is where she learned about politics and laid the foundation for her work.

“We created a campaign around Black voters and our candidate was Black power.”

LaTosha Brown

Early in her life Brown began organizing residents in public housing and advocating for education reform, which led to voter work. “I understood that if we wanted to change policy, we had to engage people in the political process and we had to get people in office,” she remembered.  It was her own run for political office that set her on the track of engaging voters. In a close contest for the state school board of education, Brown lost the election by fewer than 200 votes. After the vote was certified, she was told that the sheriff in Wilcox County, a county she carried convincingly, had put 800 ballots in safe. She remembers her naivety, “Well, that's good, we can count those ballots.” But since the sheriff announced this after the certification, those votes would not count. “When I found out people had similar stories, I became focused on how to strengthen voter rights and end voter suppression.”


Radical people force democracy to be real

Muhammad and Brown agreed that because of this history, the idea of democracy and the actual practice of democracy is different. As Brown sees it, the key to making democracy more than aspirational in the Black community is to get that community invested in the outcomes. To be successful in the long run, people needed to change the idea that Black votes are transactional, merely a count. They need to be transformational, an influence on the outcome. That meant moving voters from being registered to being engaged.

Explaining the Black Voters Matters’ outreach campaign “We Got the Power,” Brown noted success came when they shifted the focus of elections. They started asking, “If someone’s going to govern you, shouldn’t you be a part of that process”? The approach was to go into communities, listen and put their concerns at the center. The “Blackest Bus in America,” a national campaign bus tour, was launched to reach Black voters in 12 states across the South. Another strategy was to lean into the culture to affirm their own power. This led to the famous “collard green caucuses” using a Southern New Year’s tradition to engage and register voters. For Brown, it goes back to her childhood obsession about who has the power. “This is about what democracy says, what the constitution says: we, the people. And so you are the center of the power,” she noted. 

“I think that we do our children, our young activists, a disservice when we essentially capture the drama of the civil rights movement as the end of the story of the struggle.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Muhammad shared his respect for the work of Brown and so many other activists. “One of the things that's so important about your work is that it's through the perspective of people who have seen the worst of America and who have the capacity to make it better,” he said to Brown. “In fact, when I think about you [as a Hauser Leader] at the Center for Public Leadership, I hope you're there teaching them what leadership looks like and not the other way around.”

Brown and Muhammad know the work of democracy doesn’t end at the election, all voters have an expectation of what the new administration can and will do for them. Brown says in working with Black voters, three main issues kept coming up. With the horrors of police violence against Blacks constantly on display, there is an expectation that the administration will tackle criminal justice reform. There is also the expectation that real economic relief will emerge for wage workers due to the significant economic impact of COVID-19. And finally, an issue dear to Brown’s heart, there is the acknowledgement that voter suppression is real and the expectation that the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act will be adopted. Brown is clear about this: “Democracy would not exist in this country if Black voters are not participating in the process. And, so, we have to also see how critical and centered and central they are in terms of protecting and sustaining the democratic institutions we have now.”

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.