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Meet the New Chairman of Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus

Rep. Carl Gilliard has a plan to let community engagement guide lawmakers’ decisions.

State Rep. Carl Gilliard will take over as Georgia Legislative Black Caucus chairman when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. (Russ Bynum/Associated Press)

State Rep. Carl Gilliard has a simple message for Black folks as he prepares to take on a critical new leadership role in the Georgia General Assembly.

“It’s movement time,” Gilliard said. “We are going to have to be more unified than ever. We need an agenda. We just can’t be reactive.”

On Dec. 15, Georgia Legislative Black Caucus members voted in favor of making Gilliard their next chairman. He’s set to be sworn in when the General Assembly’s latest legislative session begins this month.

For nearly five decades the GLBC has focused its efforts on the welfare of Black residents, people of color, and disadvantaged citizens when it comes to health care, education and cost of living, as well criminal and social justice. In terms of membership, the GLBC is the largest caucus of Black state legislators in the country.

Gilliard’s new job is one for which he is uniquely qualified. The 59-year-old Savannah native and Morris Brown College graduate is a self-described child of the Civil Rights Movement who joined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference during his youth.

He was mentored by the late Rev. Hosea Williams, one of King’s most trusted advisers. The late Rev. Randall T. Osborne, who served as chief strategist for the SCLC, and the Rev. Fred Taylor, another SCLC activist, also took Gilliard under their wings early on in his career.

“I was able to sit at their feet, travel with them, be on the SCLC Advanced Team as a young man and learn about movements,” Gilliard said. “We developed several youth programs, the programs that we had all across the city. Some of them are still in place.”

Capital B Atlanta spoke to Gilliard about his goal as GLBC chairman to cultivate the next generation of Black leaders in the state the way his mentors did for him years ago. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Capital B Atlanta: What’s your message to our readers, to Black Georgians, about your plans to advance the issues that are important to them coming into the next General Assembly legislative session? 

Carl Gilliard: My focus would be to get a justice package of a few bills that we need to address for Black folk and underserved folk across Georgia. One is dealing with economic inclusion. The number of contracts in the state of Georgia for our minorities and Black businesses are less than 2%. We need to be at the table. …

That is a conversation that needs to turn into movement, into action. We need to be able to draft legislation or come to the table and look at the process that we’re using across the board to support minority and Black businesses. Black farmers must have inclusion to get the same support all across the board so that they can be able to survive as well. …

Minimum wage has to change. Dr. King said, “Be true to what you say on paper.” The minimum wage in Georgia is written down as $5.15, even though most businesses recognize $7.25, [and] $15 an hour is still not a livable wage in Georgia.

If Georgia is the No. 1 place to do business, then let’s do business with the people of Georgia. So those are three parables. … The last thing is we plan on taking GLBC across the state to do at-the-table tours. It’s time to listen to the people. I mean, we’re a  nonprofit 501(c)(3), but as we move into 2024, it’s essential that we know what the heck is going on with the people we call the street committee.

I mean, we can’t lead them and represent them if we don’t know what they are wanting and going through. And so the best way is to sit at the table with citizens from across the state. 

What are your top priorities right now as the head of the GLBC? 

Black farmers is one. We’re going to have to deal with what Black farmers are able to get to survive and just get strengthened and to be relevant. [Two would be] that the GLBC be relevant across the state. [The third is] that we focus on economic inclusion for Black and minority businesses. Those would be the top three.

And policy would be the fourth one, to get a few viable, strong pieces of meaningful legislation that would affect the lives of Black and underserved citizens.

Tell me a little bit more about what you’re looking to do to help Black farmers specifically.

Resources. I sit on the Appropriations [committee]. … We appropriated millions and millions of dollars, years ago, when there were [tornadoes], and they affected the crops of farmers. Some farmers would never be the same. We gave millions and millions and millions of dollars, but African American farmers didn’t get in. The twofold thing is educating them on the resources being there, which you need to do to line it up to get the resources. But on the other end, they didn’t get any resources. 

I was one of the co-authors of House Bill 213, dealing with the hemp industry, and the processing fees are too high. We need those fees to be amended, and we need to open up the portal of how many processors can come from Georgia. We’re talking about inclusion again. We have a number of Black farmers that have grown hemp and not been able to get it processed in Georgia. 

You mentioned some round tables that you are looking to have across the state. Could you elaborate?

We’ve got to have a presence, and for every African American, every municipality, even Black elected officials, to be involved with the GLBC. I’ve done it in my district. I would travel around the district and just be quiet and listen. We need to hear the pulse of the people — from millennials, especially — and those that are elders and others to say, “What’s your pulse?” 

We could talk about expansion of health care and all the above. We’re talking about it, and we know it’s important. What might be the most relevant thing to that person might be a food desert. It might be something that they need, the essential just to live. What’s important to the average Black man and woman? What’s important to the average Black citizen? We need to be able to get that dialogue, so that when we write the vision, when we write the plan, when we write the agenda, we are not just being able to dictate to them. We got elected by them, we didn’t elect them.

I look forward to traveling across the state to have these at-the-table discussions, and while we are there, to organize the Black elected officials and let them be a part of the chairman’s round table. They’re going to need us, and we are going to need them. And this is a big focus. I think it will help us not only be relevant, but be effective.

You mentioned promoting Black and minority businesses. Could you talk a bit about what you would specifically do along those lines?

Just sitting down back at the table. We’re back at the table with the Georgia Department of Transportation commissioner. What percentage of contracts do minority businesses and African Americans get from the Department of Transportation? What about the construction jobs? What about all the different [requests for proposals] of services across Georgia, the number of bids, and all the above? So it’s a table inclusion discussion that we’ve got to do better through Georgia to give them a higher percentage of African American businesses, and minority businesses an opportunity to get a piece of the rock. It’s just that simple. That’s billions of dollars that’s being made. 

Are any of these things, in your mind, realistic goals when you have such staunch, united Republican opposition to just about anything that would address disparities along racial lines? Do you think Republicans will be receptive to any of your agenda?

Let’s talk about corporations and businesses versus parties. The number of corporations and businesses who can’t get skilled labor and get people to fill those positions, even CEOs and administrative folks, they’re going to need us when it comes to votes. We need to ask for relevancy and permanency of something that’s going to benefit the people and not ourselves.

We’re not afraid of those vote conversations, and we’re looking forward to sitting down with the governor and sitting down with Republican leadership and Democratic leadership to say, “Let’s get relevant.” The challenge is not that we’re in the minority, the challenge is that we stop challenging. And it’s time, right now, that we put that on the plate and just be bold and tenacious enough to say, “Listen, our people need this. We’ve got to have this. This is what we need for the people.”