Rev. James Woodall: Georgia isn’t blue. It’s Black

The same day two Democratic senators secured their U.S. Senate seats, the Georgia NAACP tweeted: Georgia is not blue. It’s Black.  

Black ballots helped President-elect Joe Biden win his campaign. Black women and grassroots activists reinvigorated voter engagement, which led to record-breaking voter turnout. Young Black Georgians like 26-year-old the Rev. James Woodall are bringing new blood to old-guard politics and policies rooted by white supremacy. In October 2019, Woodall became the youngest person ever elected state president of the Georgia NAACP. He’s also an associate minister at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga. 

Woodall discussed how Georgia’s progress depends on the liberation work beyond the election for Reckon’s “Young, Southern and Black” series. Woodall said he ran for state president to fight stagnation in a storied organization of which he has been a member since he was 17. He ensures that the Georgia NAACP is a powerful voice at the table when it comes to issues affecting Black and brown communities beyond election day, such as police brutality and environmental racism.  

“That takes a collective of folks who are more committed to challenging the empire than trying to gain proximity to powerprivileges and political parties,” Woodall said. “We have zero commitment to any of those things. We’re here to do one thing and one thing only, and that is to liberate our people.”  

Accomplishing that mission means challenging the status quo of white supremacy reflected in the state’s laws. The vagueness of Georgia’s Reconstruction-era law barring voting by anyone who have committed a “felony involving moral turpitude” has been used to disenfranchise thousands of Georgia voters.  

After Ahmaud Arbery was chased and gunned down by a white former law enforcement officer and his son in February 2020the Georgia NAACP joined other organizers, lawyers and other social justice organization, including Black Voters Matter, to form the JUSTGeorgia coalition. The alliance sought an end to multiple racist policies, including Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute which permits individuals not affiliated with law enforcement agencies to make arrests for serious crimes committed in their presence. The white men who killed Arbery cited the statute to justify the shooting. 

Woodall said people assume the South is a region of uneducated and unmotivated citizens who bow down to the ways of the Old South. However, Woodall noted that naysayers are willing to throw away the monolith approach when they need something, such as “saving the Senate.”  

But Southerners are not doormats or saviors of the nation, Woodall said. They are generations of grassroots organizers who just want to be and breathe.    

“We weren’t organizing to save anything,” Woodall said. “We just wanted clean water, an  education system that we can send our children to, and not be afraid they’re going to lose their lives. That’s what we want. If it meant sending two races back to the Senate, so be it.”  

Before the general election, researchers at American University believed that Black people under 30 would vote for someone other than Biden and President Donald Trump, were unsure if they would vote, or wouldn’t vote at all. Researchers cited political distrust as the reason why Black voters under 30 were disengaged with the political process.   

 But records show that voters between the ages of 18 and 29 made up 20 percent of Georgia’s voter turnout during the general election in NovemberThe majority of those votes, especially from young Black citizens, were for Biden. Woodall explained that the political engagement of young Black southerners shows up beyond the ballot box. They are pushing climate change and environmental justice to the forefront of today’s issues. They voice demands to defund the police, refund education and relieve student loan debt on social media and in the streets. He gave shout outs to Tiffany Roberts, an Atlanta-based civil rights and criminal defense attorney, and Corina Newsome, a wildlife conservationist known as the Hood Naturalist. 

“The record is clear, and let the record reflectthat young people have always been at the forefront of the movement for Black lives,” Woodall said. “It also should reflect that every single time a young person stands, the system violently oppresses them and keeps them back by reminding them that you have to get a career. You can’t do that because you might lose your job.”  

Just as Georgia was voter suppressed to lean red, there are also financial barriers in place keeping young Black citizens from political participation. Woodall said they the essential workers employed at stores and other hourly jobs during a pandemic. Facing pay cuts instead of pay raises, Woodall said the lack of economic relief can keep them from being engaged.  

“You can’t protest, organize, or be at city council meetings during the day because you have to work,” Woodall said. “But then they want tell you, ‘You got to stay (politically) engaged.’ But they have families to feed, too.” 

Woodall said he’s not asking anything from Biden, who will be inaugurated Wednesday. But young Black voters will keep him accountable just as they are keeping tabs on lawmakers, mostly Republican, who asked for unity and healing after pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6.  

I really think they can heal from the bottom pits of hell,” Woodall said. “For them to now have something to say only because the white rage of our oppressors have now been put into the spotlightI can care less because they are showing us who they are time and time again.”  

Woodall said true unity looks like the work Southerners are already doing. They are coming together to fight police brutality, environmental racism and medical discrimination. And that work won’t stop. Winning the general election wasn’t the end goal. In order to continue progress, Woodall said they must continue to engage with communities that are underrepresented, listen to their needs and advocate for their lives. 

“We don’t have a choice because these are our lives,” he said. “We still have an ever-abiding hope that one day we will be able to be free. Until that day, we shall not rest. We cannot rest until freedom does come. 

Young, Southern and Black is a series by Reckon’s Black Magic Project that amplifies the voices of Black Southerners under 30 who have something to say about the future of the region that raised them. The series was created in response to the 2020 election. Join the Black Magic Project’s Facebook group, where we celebrate Black Southern culture and community. 

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