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The Spark That Changed Georgia's Politics: Grassroots Activism


This week, two Democrats from Georgia were sworn into the U.S. Senate, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. For decades, Georgia was a reliably Republican state. So what happened? Organizers say it took a years-long campaign that was not aimed at flipping the party that controlled the state, but aimed at building a new and better Georgia regardless of party.

Deborah Scott is one of the organizers. She moved to Georgia as a teenager to attend Clark Atlanta University. She was from Ohio. And she was astonished to realize that in the late 1980s, the KKK would still show up to civil rights marches.

DEBORAH SCOTT: All together in their full regalia from head to toe - it was a sight to behold. It was the first time I saw them face-to-face. I saw their eyes. I saw the look in their eyes. I saw the fear in our eyes. But I also saw the hate in theirs.

KING: Deborah Scott told me the story of how she got to and then helped change the state of Georgia.

SCOTT: I ended up in Atlanta on a Greyhound bus. My mother's car broke down a couple of days before we were leaving for college. So we had to take the Greyhound bus 17 hours - we were actually living in Ohio at the time - and got to Atlanta. And it was a 103 degrees. I had never...

KING: Ooh.

SCOTT: Yeah. I had never been so hot in my life.

KING: When did you start seeing politics as a way of making change? Talk to me about your political evolution.

SCOTT: So I switched my major from psychology to political science just because I was so interested in what was happening in the world and was really excited about being a part of what, you know, was an emerging or continuous civil rights and human rights movement that was happening here, got very involved in what was happening on campus. And then Reverend James Orange, who is a beloved hero of mine, who was an unsung hero of the civil rights movement - he was one of those foot soldiers for Martin Luther King - actually recruited us, a number of student activists, from campus to become what we now are known as the Winn-Dixie Eight, where we were student activists that got involved with the anti-apartheid movement.

So we had this target, which was a grocery store. It was Winn-Dixie. And we were outside protesting because they had found that there were products, in particularly peaches, that were sold at Winn-Dixie that were coming all the way from South Africa. So the outrage of that is - and Georgia is called the Peach State. So we were trying to make the example that even one product from South Africa in this time should not be sold in a place called Atlanta.

And so we were in front of the grocery store locking arms and, not letting people pass by and holding up our signs and having a peaceful civil disobedience session. And when the police arrived, some of our leaders kind of moved to the side because they told us it was our turn. And we accepted it was our turn to get arrested. And we're put in this little small jail, and it - we were crying. And - well, some of us were crying. But I remember when we got out - and the charges were dropped.

But I remember coming back on campus and just feeling just really good about myself. That's when I really realized, OK, this is not only a movement, it's a lifestyle; it's a way of being. But that's when I first started to be called an activist and an organizer and a leader. And not that I didn't see myself that way - I didn't even know that those were terms and jobs. I was like, really? You could be a civil rights activist? I mean, I thought that just happens.

KING: When was the first moment in your young life that you realized political advocacy, activism does lead to real change?

SCOTT: The first time I was working for the Voter Education Project when I graduated from college and we were looking at voter registration in some of the counties - and this is in, like, 1990. We were looking at why some of the counties were not performing, why Black people were not necessarily registering to vote. And we had found there was a county called Haralson County, and we were sent down there to investigate what was going on.

And what we found was there was this one grocery store or neighborhood store, corner store, if you will, that people were registering to vote. But they also had the old-fashioned - they call them credit books, where you can - if you didn't have quite your $2 or $3, they would let you put a portion of your payment on credit. And so people would start to tell us stories about - that the reason they weren't registering to vote is because they would then make our credit be due. And it's like, what do you mean, your credit due? And it's like, well, then they would ask you to pay your whole bill.

And so it was just this whole connectional system of the way that you oppress is really subtle. It's not that they were saying they couldn't register, but they were registering only if their bill was paid. And so we did a report about that. And that was the first time I saw that kind of voter disenfranchisement up close.

KING: I believe it was the span of two days that we learned two Democrats had won Senate seats in Georgia. So much of what we heard was about the state flipping and that two Democrats would be going to represent Georgia in the Senate. What were you feeling when this massive political shift happened?

SCOTT: We started screaming, the people won - because the people elected who they wanted to represent them. So we were screaming. Warnock won. That was the first thing. And then Ossoff won. But it was about - they won. They won. They did it. They chose who they wanted. They won. And we were excited because they could see the connection points between their policy issues that they wanted and the candidates that they voted for. So we were excited. We were excited for the people because the people won.

KING: Deborah Scott runs Georgia STAND-UP. It's a nonprofit community organizing coalition based in Atlanta.