How Can We Build Democracy in the South — in Electoral Politics and Beyond?

The myth of U.S. democracy may be on the brink of being discredited.

In the region where cotton was king and prisons have succeeded the throne, this myth’s falseness is particularly evident in the U.S. South, the epicenter of the nation’s plantation and chattel slavery economy where the majority of Black/African-descended people still exist today. This is also where Jim Crow/segregation law once reigned and whose specter still determines how resources will be allocated today. It’s also the region in which workers are least unionized and often hyper-exploited, with community members disproportionately subject to state violence such as incarceration or deportation.

These conditions are so fatal that the seats of power in our region have been filled by those who can benefit from these systems, and uphold them, oppressing Southerners historically and today. Southern freedom fighters have been working to build a grassroots democracy that is directly informed from the needs of our region. This began at the local level. In many ways, the efforts made by Southern freedom fighters are an extension and support of freedom fighters in other parts of the Global South. They share similar experiences of state violence, exploitation in work, and increased rates in prisoner detention and have led organizing fights that help to inform strategies in America’s South. Formations like the Southern Movement Assembly are uniting U.S. Southern grassroots organizations with comrades across the Global South, particularly Central and South America, to develop a people’s democracy across colonial borders.

Highlander Research and Education Center is where I work. It is a school for Southern movement schools that aims to build democratic participation in the U.S. South and Appalachia by grassroots organizing, leadership development and movement building. Highlander, founded 90 years ago, is a vital part of the Southern struggle for liberation from white supremacist capitalism.

Highlander supported the integration of labor unions in the 1930s and 40s, was a meeting place for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s and held trainings for civil rights activists during the sit-ins of the 1960s, and Highlander’s Education Director Septima Clark initiated the Citizenship Schools that expanded access to voting rights for Black people.

Although Highlander may be best known as the place where Rosa Parks trained before the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and where Martin Luther King, Jr. attended workshops that contributed to being red-baited as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, we know that many of the same issues these freedom fighters battled continue to face our communities today.

My work as Highlander’s electoral justice researcher and educator seeks to build capacity for today’s Southern freedom fighters and their communities to govern themselves as we move toward building a truly democratic world beyond capitalism and white supremacy.

This work goes beyond maximising participation in the U.S. election system. This work seeks to build Southern communities’ capacity to collectively define their problems, learn and understand current power structures as they exist, and develop collective solutions based on the experiences and abilities of each community member.

While engaging in elections has strategic value, strategies for grassroots democracy must go well beyond Election Day. We understand that participation in the U.S. electoral process is inevitable. However, we also recognize that it is vital to create parallel systems that are democratic and accountable to all members of the community.

This work is reflected when we see People’s Movement Assemblies being utilized to build political power in cities such as Nashville, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; Lexington, Kentucky; and so many more Southern cities.

People’s Movement Assemblies are grassroots, democratic gatherings inspired by the World Social Forum in 2003, where collective decision-making spaces facilitated action plans that sparked international protests, leading to the Global Day of Action that year with millions of people worldwide taking to the streets to speak out against the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. These assemblies allow communities to assess their problems and determine their strategies. They also assess who has the power or ability to change their circumstances. The Southern Movement Assembly, a regional formation that has been seeking to build grassroots democratic power across the South for 10 years with Southern freedom fighters and their communities, is inviting Southern community organizations to utilize People’s Movement Assemblies in their work throughout Summer 2022 to build collective power, community governance and action plans for organizing throughout the Global South.

Highlander developed the People Practicing Power intervention during the U.S. 2022 midterm elections for gubernatorial, legislative seats. The workshop series will teach organizers and their community members methods for protecting themselves against racialized and fascist terrorist attacks on Election Day. They also learn how to develop a policy demand into legislation and join efforts to build democratic institutions that are rooted in solidarity economy principles.

“Solidarity economy” is an umbrella term for institutions and practices that are grounded in mutualism, cooperation, democracy, pluralism and building a world beyond racial capitalism.

These are just a few examples. worker-owned cooperatives, time banks, participatory budgeting community land trustsThese empower workers and communities to take control of their own destiny and be owners of the land, which is a direct result of the historical exclusion of agency under white supremacist capitalism.

People outside the region often view the U.S. South as a right-wing stronghold or a recipient charity. Our practice of rooting our work in the creation of solidarity economies acknowledges Southerners’ long history of not only surviving under white supremacist capitalism, but leading the charge to develop people-centered democracies and economies within the U.S.

Anyone is welcome to join the network. workshops Highlander offers around solidarity economies, join us at our annual Homecoming event September 30-October 2, 2022,We will celebrate the 90th anniversary of Southern movement building. follow Highlander onlineKeep checking this page for information on upcoming workshops, learning spaces, and other opportunities where Southern freedom fighters can build strong relationships with one another and learn from each other in order to build a true democracy that is rooted in community governance throughout all of the U.S. South.

The destruction caused by capitalism is causing the U.S. Empire to crumble. This empire is taking its last breaths and will continue to redouble its fascist violence both domestically as well as abroad over the centuries. From the ashes of this empire’s burning, people are using tools of community governance and solidarity economies to build a world beyond colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. There is a new world coming, we’re building it together, and the time is here to usher it in.