The Reckon List 2021: These people are fighting to build the future South

Chokwe Lumumba, the late mayor of Jackson, Miss., used to say, “To change America, you have to change the South.”

That’s been true since the first enslaved Africans were delivered to Virginia in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims landed up North, since the federal government was forced to cut deals to appease Southern states on everything from slavery to women’s suffrage, throughout the tradition of powerful Southern politicians holding America’s pursestrings in Congress and since young Southerners demanded the civil rights guaranteed them under the Constitution.

Of course, the converse of Lumumba’s statement is also true: When the South is dug in — in its defense of the deplorable institutions of slavery and Jim Crow segregation — there is little visible progress in our nation.

To put it another way: The South is where the hard work of building America is done.

The Reckon List recognizes that work and the Southerners doing it. It’s important to be transparent here: We know Alabama and our neighboring states well. We relied on our networks and recent news cycles to develop our list for parts of the South we’re still getting to know. We hope our list representative, but we know it’s far from exhaustive. No shade was intended for anyone out there grinding who doesn’t appear on our list. We still want to hear about them — @ me personally — and include their stories and voices in our future work.

Of course, no one really knows what lies in the year ahead. The same was true when we created last year’s Reckon List. But in spite of everything, several of the people who appeared on the list had the kinds of breakout successes we knew were were possible.

For example, hip-hop artist Chika secured a Grammy nomination for her debut album “Industry Games” while Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, “Transcendent Kingdom,” received as much acclaim as her first. Also, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey inked a new deal with ESPN/ABC and navigated the league through a fraught season, and as for Sprocket the Trash Panda… well, there’s always next year.

In the meantime, we want you to meet these 24 Southerners who will undoubtedly have your timeline poppin’ this year, but who are building and representing the South we all know is possible. — R.L. Nave

It’s rare to see a U.S. soccer player at one of the world’s most decorated clubs, never mind a young African American kid from Alabama. Chris Richards, 20, has reached the fringes of the Bayern Munich team, making his first start for the club in October and assisting for a goal. In November he made his debut for the U.S. Men’s national team and played a game in the Champion’s League, Europe’s premier club competition. Bayern has a long history of promoting its young talent into the first team, rare among the high-spending large European soccer clubs that would rather buy talent than create it — making Richards’ achievement all that more impressive.

Chris Harress

Camille Bennett is a Shoals-based founder and executive director of Project Say Something, a nonprofit whose mission is to confront racial injustice in Alabama to reconcile the state’s history with its present. 

In 2020, Bennett led weekly and sometimes nightly protests in Florence, Ala., for more than half the year, in an effort to remove the Confederate monument that stands downtown. Their protest slogan is: “No shrines to white supremacy.”

She has faced direct threats and standoffs with Confederate sympathizers but was undeterred. She told Reckon’s John Hammontree in July that protesters experienced “overtly racist statements” directed toward them by community members including city employees, nurses, business owners, and others who “work and serve in our community and the public.” She said these reactions “expose how embedded systemic racism is in our everyday lives.” 

Her protest work directly impacted the local mayoral race this year, resulting in a change of city leadership. Musicians at Single Lock Records and the Indigo Girls have supported her publicly, hosting benefit concerts and raising money for Project Say Something as well. 

In 2021, PSS is rolling out a 501(c)4 that aims to challenge political structures of power contributing to structural racism. They’ll continue advocating for the immediate removal and relocation of the Lauderdale County Confederate monument. The organization will implement training for allies and the local Black community to identify, reject and dismantle anti-Black racism in Alabama.

Bennett will also continue her work with the Alabama Child Care Coalition advocating for equitable policies, direct resources and continuous education for marginalized and vulnerable child care providers and the communities they serve. 

Rebecca Walker Benjamin

Haylie McCleney hopes to finish 2021 as a gold medal Olympian as softball returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. The 26-year-old Morris, Ala., native has been part of the U.S. softball team since she played for the University of Alabama between 2013 and 2016. She now plays in the inaugural season of Athletes Unlimited, a sports organization that runs leagues for top athletes in underrepresented sports, like softball and volleyball. The U.S. hopes to win the gold this time around after losing out to Japan 3-1 in 2008, one of the biggest shocks of the Beijing Olympics.

Chris Harress

When John C. Driscoll takes full control over the Mobile-based port at the end of this year, he will be filling big and popular shoes. Predecessor Jimmy Lyons has grown the port substantially over his 20-year tenure into the nation’s 11th largest seaport by total trade. While the Mobile city leaders have backed plans to bring back the passenger rail line, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Driscoll will be a key figure in decisions about the location of a new train station and the operation of passenger trains at the port, boosted in recent years by the presence of major Walmart and Amazon distribution centers in Mobile.

Chris Harress

With the nation’s eyes on a pair of runoff Senate races in Georgia that could determine political control of the U.S. Senate, Abrams seems likely to remain in the spotlight thanks to her efforts to combat voter suppression and turn out Democratic voters.

Read about other HBCU graduates making moves in their community.

After her narrow loss in the 2018 Georgia governor’s race was clouded by allegations of racially motivated voter suppression by now-Gov. Brian Kemp, Abrams launched her nonprofit Fair Fight to combat voter suppression. Since, she’s become the face of voting rights in Georgia and nationally. She was even discussed as a contender for President-Elect Biden’s running mate in 2020.

Abrams, a Mississippi native and former Georgia state House minority leader, has been credited with helping transform the once reliably red Georgia electorate, which in November elected a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Ahead of the Senate races in January, Abrams and Fair Fight are focused on turning out voters, fundraising for the Democratic candidates and fighting potential voter suppression in the courts. Her voting rights efforts and Democratic star power mean she’ll likely remain in the political spotlight well past 2021.

Anna Claire Vollers

The 20-year-old Georgia State University student has amassed 1.3 million followers and 11.5 million likes on TikTok. His creative videos involve high-quality special effects and sometimes feature himself as characters like Spider-Man or a Jedi warrior. After one of his superhero TikToks went viral, it was shared by Hollywood heavies like “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” director Peter Ramsey and Disney CEO Bob Iger. Bass is also a musical theater actor, short film writer and director and a special effects artist. He’s also been featured by outlets including Time, Vulture and Good Morning America. 

Anna Claire Vollers

Crowe founded her company, Goodr, to fight food insecurity, an issue that’s taken on increased urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Hunger is not an issue of scarcity; it’s a matter of logistics,” Crowe says.

The Atlanta-based Goodr picks up unused food from businesses that would ordinarily be destined for landfills and delivers it to nonprofits and pop-up markets that feed the hungry. Her company’s clients include powerhouses like Turner Broadcasting Systems, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the NFL and Netflix. Goodr’s app uses blockchain technology to process each transaction and track food donations, which helps businesses with tax deductions and shows where food is wasted.

Crowe started her company in 2017 after spending several years organizing pop-up restaurants around Atlanta to serve homeless and food-insecure communities. In the three years since, Crowe has expanded Goodr beyond Atlanta into major metros like Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. In the coming year, she plans to continue introducing Goodr programs into cities around the country.

Anna Claire Vollers

Climate change is expected to jump back to the forefront of U.S. policy in the coming year, as President-elect Biden looks to elevate environmental issues when he takes office.

That means climate scientists and activists will likely play a larger role in the national conversation in 2021. And one of Georgia’s most prominent is Kim Cobb, an award-winning climate scientist and professor at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Her research has taken her around the world, studying corals and stalagmites to learn more about historic climate change and inform projections of future climate change.

Cobb is something of a rock star in the climate change community, speaking out in support of climate equity and urging Georgia to adopt solutions to its climate change-related problems. Cobb has 24,000 Twitter followers, regularly lectures and writes about climate change, and last year testified before Congress.

Anna Claire Vollers

Rachel Wammack is a country artist based in Nashville. A Muscle Shoals, Ala., native, Rolling Stone called her a “dynamic new country voice.” Her music is rich with stories of love and heartbreak. Her latest song, “What He Does,” co-written with Jimmy Robbins and Eric Arjes, is a celebration of her husband, Noah Purcell. Earlier this year, Wammack appeared on Rascal Flatts’ “Quick, Fast, In a Hurry,” a song on their July-released EP. She has also been featured by Paste Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and CMT as an artist to watch.

Anna Beahm

This isn’t a political organization, but the Trillbilly Workers Party does talk a lot about politics. Hosted by Eastern Kentucky-based Tarence Ray, Tom Sexton, and Tanya Turner, the Trillbillies offer a southern, leftist perspective on capitalism and class in Appalachia. The trio of friends started the podcast in 2017 in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. The trio frankly discusses issues of class and identity in Appalachia. They even created a term to describe the failure of wealthy people to understand the material needs of poor and working-class people: ”Deeply, deeply diseased.” 

If you’re curious about this “disease” the Trillbillies are talking about, you can listen to their podcast hereWe expect the Trillbillies to hold conversations with more change-makers in the South and Appalachia in 2021. 

Anna Beahm

What differentiates Virginia from the rest of the South, however, is that it has voted reliably Democratic in the last decade. Because of the D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia and the infrastructure the state party and activists built, Virginia may be the only Southern where the real election happens in the Democratic primary. 

Jennifer Carroll Foy represents part of Northern Virginia in the House of Delegates, part of the 2017 wave that secured Democratic control of the Legislature. She was a member of the third female class of cadets to attend the Virginia Military Institute. She’s been a vocal advocate for progressive issues like Medicaid expansion and ending cash bail.

In 1990, Virginia became the first state (we know, we know, it’s a “commonwealth”) to elect a Black governor. That was also the last time any Southern state was represented by a Black governor. In the last thirty years, several candidates have emerged and gotten close (few closer than Georgia’s Stacey Abrams in 2018). 

John Hammontree

Jennifer McClellan is a state senator representing Richmond and is the vice-chair of the Virginia Democratic Party. She’s close with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who officiated her wedding. She also headed Terry McAuliffe’s transition team when he was elected governor in 2013. 

It’s a crowded field but McAuliffe may be the biggest obstacle to either woman securing the nomination. The former governor and national political figure is said to be considering another gubernatorial run. If he chooses to enter the race, Virginia could become a battle between the party’s old guard and new leadership. 

John Hammontree

To many, Addison Rae has already broken out. The Louisiana native topped Forbes’ list of highest-paid Tik Tok stars and has millions of followers. But 2021 could be the year her success goes even more mainstream. She’s starring in a remake of “She’s All That,” continuing her podcast and inching toward TikTok’s highest follower count with over 70 million. She’s charting the course for what breakout success looks like for Gen Z celebrities from the South.

A Louisiana native and LSU graduate, Linda Thomas-Greenfield was tapped by President-elect Joe Biden as his pick for ambassador to the United Nations. She represents many first-generation college graduates and leaders from “tenuous” pasts in racist hometowns and college years. 

She was forced out of her position as a diplomat for the State Department when President Donald Trump took office. In his four years in office, Trump has severed many ties with UN agencies. If selected for the position, Thomas-Greenfield will be tasked with repairing the tenuous relationship between the America and the UN. 

Lily Jackson

Even if national headlines ignored the barrage of storms that slammed Lake Charles, La., Mayor Nic Hunter wants everyone to remember his town. “I am begging, I am pleading for Americans not to forget about Lake Charles,” he told NPR earlier this year. Hunter’s plea came after Lake Charles was hit by Hurricane Laura, a Cat 4 hurricane, and then hit by Hurricane Delta less than six weeks later.

Damage estimates from the federally declared natural disaster were approximately $12 billion. For his part, Hunter is staying true to his plea. In December, he proposed an aid package to further help the city of 78,000 people recovers from the hurricane, including reducing the cost of occupational permits, waiving transit fees and water bill assistance.

Lily Jackson

Arkansas is home to many non-profit organizations fighting for the health of The Natural State. The state will have a big ally in the next Congress with U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican, poised to become the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

A Hot Springs native, Westerman’s committee oversees national parks and forests and other public lands, energy and mineral resources and waterways and wildlife. As 2021 brings in a new administration with new environmental regulation goals, Westerman will be a leading voice on environmental policy and funding.

Lily Jackson

Ashley McBryde, a native of Waldron, Ark., will kick off the new year at the Grammys in January, nominated in two categories. She’s also expected to resume touring for her new album, “Never Will,” which the pandemic postponed. McBryde has already aligned herself with such country music all-stars as Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton and Eric Church. In addition to her musical career, McBryde has taken firm stances on social issues in 2020, like supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Lily Jackson

Beth Ann Fennelly was named as one of the winners of the 2020 Academy of American Poets poet laureate fellowship. The fellowship grants each winner $50,000 for creative projects that focus on community engagement across the country in the coming year. Fennelly was named Mississippi’s poet laureate in 2016 but has lived in the state since moving there to teach at the University of Mississippi in 2001. Since then she has won numerous awards and fellowships. Her 2017 book Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs was named the best Southern book that year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Chris Harress 

Riverkeeper Abby Braman first became involved with Pearl River after moving to central Mississippi in 2016, following a 10-year career as a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot. During that time, she has taken on the executive director role of the Pearl Riverkeeper, helping mobilize thousands of volunteers and removing over 100,000 pounds of garbage from the river. Riverkeepers and others who care for the environment across the country hope to the reinstatement of dozens of environmental regulations scrapped or loosened by the Trump Administration.

Chris Harress

Deion Sanders is an NFL great who recently took the helm as head football coach at Jackson State University in Mississippi, ahead of the start of the spring 2021 season. Over the past three years, Sanders has coached Trinity Christian School near Dallas and completed a B.A. in business administration at Talladega College in Alabama. Prime Time’s ability as a head coach is untested, but he will likely be front-and-center of the college football media glare along with the SEC’s Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach, two big-names hires at Ole Miss and Mississippi State, respectively. 

Chris Harress

When Jeramey Anderson was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 2013, he was just 22 – making him the youngest African American to be elected to any legislature in the U.S. and the youngest lawmaker in Mississippi. Anderson, now 29, gave up his state House seat to run for mayor in his hometown of Mayor in Moss Point after the previous mayor was indicted on federal fraud charges. Anderson also serves on the advisory board for “Let America Vote,” an organization dedicated to winning the public debate over alleged voter suppression in the U.S. 

Chris Harress

With Florida recording one of the highest COVID-19 death rates among states and adopting a laissez-faire approach to containing the deadly virus, healthcare in 2021 will be a big issue in the Sunshine State. Sadaf Knight, the CEO of the Florida Policy Institute, has placed healthcare and pushing for Medicaid expansion, at the top of the group’s policy agenda for next year.

Chris Harress

After a record-breaking hurricane season and daily tidal flooding all across Florida, there are plenty of reminders about how vulnerable the Sunshine State is to the changing environment. As Pinellas County’s first-ever resiliency and sustainability coordinator, Hank Hodde, a Florida native with over a decade of environmental sustainability experience, will play a major part in facing those challenges on behalf of the county’s near 1 million residents. The county is currently creating flood maps to account for possible sea-level scenarios, in addition to tidal and storm surge projections. That information will help the county’s most at-risk communities plan for the future. In addition, those efforts will also include enhanced education and outreach about the impact of flooding and climate change.

Chris Harress

The 59-year-old Republican, born to Cuban exiles in Miami, flipped a so-called safe Democratic seat during the 2020 election cycle. Billed as a rising star in the GOP, Salazar is not only one of the newest 19 Republican women voted into the U.S. House of Representatives this year, she is also part of a growing group of Hispanic conservatives that is changing the norms of American politics. Salazar, a former TV journalist, is moderate on major issues like healthcare, gun rights, the environment and immigration, but has vowed to create a team of GOP House Representatives to take on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and fellow members of The Squad’s progressive agenda. The group will be known as the “Freedom Force,” she has said. 

Chris Harress

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