Growing up in Alabama, LaTosha Brown knew the importance of voting.
Her family wasn’t necessarily made up of activists, and she doesn’t remember anyone having a conversation with her about it. But she does remember her grandma dressing up to head to the polls, pulling out her good pocketbook just for the occasion.
Taking Brown along, her grandma made her feel like she was helping out. Afterward, civic duty completed, her grandma seemed taller, her back straighter.
“I didn’t know what voting was,” Brown told CNN, recalling the memory. “But I knew it was pretty special.”
Now, in 2020, Brown is keeping that same spirit alive, with her organization Black Voters Matter.
Founded by Brown and Cliff Albright in 2016, Black Voters Matter aims to “increase power in our communities,” they say. And this year, the organization is doing just that through “We Got Power,” a bus tour spanning Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and California.
“The sole purpose of our organization [is] to actually help connect folks and remind people in our community that they have power, and they have power to stop those that use that power against them,” Brown said.
So when the organization rolls into town, with its big black bus featuring words like “Love,” “Vote” and “Black voters matter,” the founders immediately get to work, partnering with other local organizations to help in any way they can – everything from providing funding and training seminars to hosting events.
Though the organization was first founded in 2016, the group didn’t start doing bus tours until 2018. And a huge part of what pushed them, Brown said, was Alabama’s Senatorial election in 2017 between Roy Moore and Doug Jones. Jones became the first Democrat in the state in a generation to win a senate seat, and his victory was fueled by a huge turnout from Black voters, with 98% of Black women casting a ballot for the blue candidate. His win came amidst allegations toward Moore regarding child molestation and sexual assault.
The race helped amplify the work of Black Voters Matter, Brown said, but it also changed national perceptions of Black voters in the South.
“The Alabama election shocked the world because people had such low expectations for Black voters in the South,” she said. “So when you have overperformance of Black women voters that led to this remarkable outcome … it sent the message that people underestimated the power in the South.”
The next year, they launched their first tour, fittingly dubbed “The South is Rising,” traveling to four southern states and focusing on rural areas that Brown said were often overlooked.
“That’s where oftentimes you see the most voter suppression and abuse of power,” Brown said. “There were pockets of our communities that were not being touched or talked to or even supported.”
This was keenly felt in Randolph County in Georgia – a county in the southwest part of the state in a region formerly known as the Black Belt. Brown had just left a meeting about the closure of voting sites, and was walking out of the building with an older woman, who was a resident. When they got outside, the woman looked up and saw the bus – with its inspirational messages and bold purpose – and started crying.
Everywhere they went, the bus got similar reactions, Brown said. Cars on the street would turn around and chase the bus down, and it was all because of the messages.
“We were affirming that we were Black and we were proud, and that we had power and we were unapologetic in it,” she said. “Something about that would unite people.”
This year, the organization has invested millions in over 500 Black-led community organizations, aiming to center Black voters “in a way that’s about power and not just about participation.”
But 2020 has thrown some unexpected curve balls. With Covid-19 continuing to surge and an increasingly divisive election season, Brown, who contracted the virus while working in Kentucky, said they’ve had to do everything differently.
The bus tour will last only a month, as opposed to multiple months. Where they normally would have met in person, they’ve instead had to rely on virtual town halls. On each side of the bus, there’s a giant QR code to limit contact.
And the group has also felt increasing hostility toward its work, Brown said. If President Donald Trump makes a comment, the group sees a jump in hate emails. They’ve upped their security, both cyber and physical. A couple weeks ago, Brown even received a suspicious package from Russia.
It doesn’t feel good, Brown said, but none of it has slowed the organization, which is expanding its work to 15 states, primarily in the South and Midwest. This month, they did an event with Snoop Dogg, where the rapper voted for the first time. And they get requests from as far away as Hawaii.
Reinterpreting former first lady Michelle Obama’s famous quote, Brown put it like this: “When they go low, we go hard.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the partnership between Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown. Brown is the co-founder of Black Voters Matter. Albright is the executive director and a co-founder of the group.