In this August 2018 photo, Black Voters Matter Fund co-founders LaTosha Brown, left, and Cliff Albright, right, lead Mississippi grassroots partners in some empowerment cheers aboard a bus tour to Greenville, Mississippi.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
In this August 2018 photo, Black Voters Matter Fund co-founders LaTosha Brown, left, and Cliff Albright, right, lead Mississippi grassroots partners in some empowerment cheers aboard a bus tour to Greenville, Mississippi.
CNN —  

This week, voting right activists Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown will board a 53-foot bus and kick off a tour through the South. Their task: Rally public support for federal legislation to combat the raft of new state laws aimed at restricting voting rights.

They face big obstacles. Among them: Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist who is a key vote in a 50-50 Senate and has opposed a sweeping voting rights bill, in its current form, that the Senate is slated to consider this month. He also has resisted changing Senate rules to allow Democrats to pass legislation by a simple majority, a position that could doom another measure that would restore some voter protections first enshrined in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But hard jobs are the specialty of these two friends who co-founded Black Voters Matter Fund five years ago to increase political power in African American communities.

In 2017, they mobilized voters in Alabama to help Doug Jones become the first Democrat elected to the US Senate in that deep-red state in a quarter century. And in 2020, they were among the Georgia-based activists who helped turn the state blue and elect Joe Biden to the presidency.

They helped repeat that feat this year with the runoffs wins of Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia, giving the party a slim majority in the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris empowered to break tie votes on some measures. Black turnout in the special election surged, helping drive the Democratic victories.

The duo have paid a high price for their activism, however. They’ve faced threats to their safety on the road and back at home in the Atlanta area. On January 5, the day Ossoff and Warnock won their elections, Brown got a call from the FBI, she said, warning her to stay alert for suspicious activity.

She said she soon learned the organization’s name was on a list of potential targets devised by a far-right group. So instead of celebrating the Democratic takeover of Washington, Brown and Albright fled their homes – spending the days following the special election in temporary housing.

“Normally, after you secure a victory, there’s some reprieve,” Brown told CNN in a recent interview. “But we got punished for being successful.”

Still, Brown and Albright say that little could deter them from their latest campaign to confront the glut of new laws in Republican-controlled states that limit ballot access.

“What other choice do I have?” Brown asked. “We’re seeing these attacks because we are gaining ground, not because we are losing. This isn’t the moment to get dejected and pull back. We have to keep our eyes on the prize.”

At least 22 new laws restricting voting had been enacted in 14 states as of May 14 – beating a record of 19 such laws in 2011, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. They range from provisions that make absentee voting harder to those that empower partisan poll watchers.

Broad campaign

Black Voters Matters’ latest mobilization campaign, dubbed the Freedom Ride for Voting Rights, starts Saturday on Juneteenth – the holiday commemorating the day in 1865 that enslaved residents of Galveston, Texas, learned of their emancipation.

The nine-city tour comes 60 years after the original Freedom Rides through the South, the bus trips that Black and White activists took together to protest the bus terminals that remained stubbornly segregated despite a 1960 Supreme Court ruling deeming the practice unconstitutional.

The Black Voters Matter tour is part of a broad effort by voting rights groups and Democrats to fight the new restrictions – with lawsuits, pressure campaigns on lawmakers and voter registration drives aimed at flooding competitive states with new voters likely to back Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.

The Texas Democratic Party, for instance, is spending $1.7 million this year on a pilot project that aims to register 2 million likely Democratic voters in the Lone Star State before the 2022 elections, said Luke Warford, the state party’s chief strategy officer.

Nationally, the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee this week said it would spend $10 million on new voter protection programs in Senate battlegrounds.

Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, recently launched an advocacy campaign called “Hot Call Summer” to rally young voters of color to support the For the People Act. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has pledged a test vote this month on the far-reaching elections and campaign finance overhaul.

And a coalition of some 70 groups, including Indivisible and Common Cause, has announced a Deadline for Democracy campaign to urge the Senate to pass the bill by August.

Alabama activism

For Albright and Brown, the tour is a homecoming in many ways. It will begin with stops in Jackson, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama – the state in which they began their work together.

Brown, 50, grew up mostly in Selma, Alabama. Albright, a New Yorker whose activism began when he was an undergraduate at Cornell, followed his wife, April England-Albright, to Selma in the late 1990s, where he became steeped in the city’s living civil rights history. He co-hosted a radio show with J.L. Chesnut, Selma’s first Black lawyer and a pivotal, if lesser-known, figure in the city’s voting rights struggles.

One of the first joint projects between Albright and Brown involved offering Black history and leadership training to middle school students in the city. They also worked on an independent campaign in 2000 that helped elect Selma’s first Black mayor and ousted Joe Smitherman, whose tenure as mayor of the majority Black city dated to 1965 – the year that civil rights icon John Lewis and other activists were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.

The brutality unleashed by the sheriff’s posse and state troopers that day helped spur Congress to pass the original Voting Rights Act.

Albright, 51, said a key principle guides their political work: Black voters matter everywhere, including in the Southern states that Democratic political operatives had long written off as Republican strongholds. They work mainly in 11 states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

They partner with groups on the ground, directing money and other assistance to grassroots organizations that have track records in communities. In 2018, for instance, Black Voters Matter collaborated with organizations in Tennessee to pass a referendum that established a civilian board to oversee the Nashville Police Department.

They provided grant money to the groups gathering signatures to put the measure on the ballot, but “some of it was just giving us moral support,” said Sekou Franklin, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University and an activist who worked on the Nashville policing effort.

“Letting us know that we were on the right side was a big deal for us,” he added.

Steve Phillips, a longtime Democratic donor who has worked with Brown for more than a decade, said the group plays a “critical role” because they “are strategically focused on the places that have the greatest untapped potential.”

The organization has a combined $27.2 million budget this year between its two nonprofit arms. A recent tax return shows the organization dispensing modest sums – $6,000 or $8,000 at a time – to church groups, voting rights organizations and nonprofit child care centers operating in the often-overlooked communities they try to reach.

Bus tours

Black Voters Matter also is known for its big, motor-coach tour buses. They serve as traveling office space and mobile advertisements of their activism. Albright and Brown roll into towns, dispensing T-shirts, registering voters and urging their followers to text voting messages to their friends and families.

They get very hands-on, too. When voting snarled in heavily African American counties during a Georgia primary last year, Albright joined other activists at a polling place, providing snacks and encouragement to voters who had waited until nearly midnight to cast their ballots. (That practice is outlawed by Georgia’s new voting law, which makes it a misdemeanor to provide food or water to voters waiting in line. The group has sued to stop the law’s implementation, one of at least seven lawsuits challenging Georgia’s new voting rules.)

And wherever the Black Voters Matter’s bus shows up, music follows.

Brown, a soulful alto who’s developing a one-woman show of freedom songs, often belts out a few bars of the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” to open her talks. “Sometimes I have to sing to soothe my own soul,” said the mother of two.

Sometimes, though, they and their bus – emblazoned with their logos and messages of Black empowerment – receive unwanted attention.

Last fall, about 15 minutes after the bus dropped off their group at an Airbnb rental in Cleveland, a neighbor began knocking frantically on the front door, Albright recalled. A trash can next to the house had been set ablaze, in what he believes was an act of vandalism, targeting their group.

They both took seriously the FBI warning this year on the day of the Georgia runoffs. The organization paid for private security, and Albright moved with his wife and two of their three sons to a short-term rental for about eight days, he said. “Anytime the FBI calls you, you know something’s up,” said Albright.

An FBI official in Washington declined to comment when asked about the bureau’s January 5 warning.

This month’s bus tour will wend through the South with stops in cities such as Nashville, Atlanta and Columbia, South Carolina. It will include a visit to Manchin’s home state of West Virginia.

Manchin, the only Democrat holding statewide office in a state Donald Trump won by 39 points last year, has proposed changes to the broad voting rights measure in hopes of winning some Republican support.

He’s not the only hurdle that voting rights advocates must overcome. Other Democrats have had reservations about the sweeping For the People Act, with its Christmas tree of provisions that include public financing for congressional elections, limits on partisan gerrymandering and ethics rules for Supreme Court justices. And only one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, had publicly endorsed, as of Wednesday, another voting rights bill supported by Manchin. That measure, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, seeks to restore and could expand a key provision of the original Voting Rights Act: a requirement that states with histories of racial discrimination obtain federal permission, or “preclearance,” before changing their voting laws.

Currently, it takes 60 votes – which, under the Senate’s current makeup, requires the support of 10 Republicans – to advance most legislation in that chamber without dismantling the Senate’s filibuster rule.

If Congress fails to provide a federal backstop against the new voting restrictions, it will fall to Black Voters Matter and other activists to continue their fight, Albright said.

“We believe we will outwork and out-organize them and find ways to overcome voter suppression,” he said. “That’s been the history of our experience with voting in this country – having to overcome those barriers.”

“But at the end of the day, we shouldn’t have to make history,” he said.