It’s a late Saturday morning at Fort Valley State University, and Jayden Williams is sounding the alarm like Dap Dunlap in “School Daze.”
“Knock knock! It’s time to vote!” the 19-year-old shouted inside a residence hall just before noon in mid-September. Williams serves as the youth and college division president for the Georgia NAACP. He and his team members spent about 20 minutes venturing through the building’s third-floor corridor, knocking on every door.
Several drowsy students wearing scarfs, bonnets, and du rags cracked open their doors and poked their heads out. FVSU freshman class president Kennedy McIntyre was there to greet some of them. Moments later, dozens of students flooded a first-floor common area before making their way outside and across the lush, freshly landscaped campus during the hot and sunny day. Williams, McIntyre, and campus NAACP president Aniya Warfield led the way.
Their destination was a grassy field across the street from Wildcat Stadium where voter engagement activists from the Black Voters Matter Fund, the NAACP, the ACLU, Represent Georgia and Georgia Stand-Up, among other groups, had set up tents and tables to catch the attention of people who came to watch the school’s undefeated football team take on the Allen University Yellow Jackets.
A DJ blasted southern rap music while some students stood in line for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Others couldn’t resist snapping selfies in front of the eye-catching Black Voters Matter charter bus parked nearby. FVSU’s Blue Machine Marching Band and drill team members strolled down a nearby street as volunteers passed out Black Voters Matter T-shirts, drawstring backpacks, bracelets, and other swag to students and alumni.
This was day two of the Black Youth Renaissance Tour, a collaborative, nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote effort organized by Black Voters Matter and several of its local grassroots partners.
The goal of the five-day caravan and charter bus trek to six HBCU campuses across the state — beginning a day prior at Albany State University on Sept. 16 and ending at the Atlanta University Center on Sept. 20 — was to register and energize as many Black students as possible before Nov. 8.
All of the fanfare — the fancy bus, the music, the ice cream, and the free apparel — is designed to attract crowds, particularly young, Black potential voters.
“They are very sophisticated and nuanced voters. … We take them for granted,” said BVM deputy national field director and FVSU alum Fenika Miller. “We want to make sure that they’re activated and lean into their power in November.”
Georgia’s last gubernatorial matchup in 2018 was decided by fewer than 55,000 votes. Since then, at least 1.6 million more people have registered to vote across the state. An additional crop of potential new voters resides at the state’s HBCU campuses. FVSU alone has a population of more than 3,000 students, most of whom are adults between the ages of 18 and 34.
That demographic group of young voters cast ballots in record numbers in 2020 and last year, helping Democrats in Georgia secure landmark victories in the process. Young and rural Black voters are expected to play pivotal roles in the outcome of this year’s midterm contests as well, despite being among the least motivated groups.
Violent crime, COVID, monkeypox, lack of affordable housing, low-wage employment, hospital closures, student loans, higher utility bills, and overall inflation are some of the major issues disproportionately impacting Black Georgians this midterm election season.
BVM’s Georgia state organizing manager Melinee Calhoun is one of the activists who’ve worked tirelessly in recent years to mobilize the state’s rural Black population. She acknowledged that Black voters she’s encountered this year aren’t as energized as they were during the past two election cycles.
“People aren’t as motivated right now, but that’s why we’re pushing hard,” Calhoun said.
Represent Georgia Executive Director Kimberlyn Carter also recognized the frustrations that Black voters she’s encountered this year have expressed. Many voters in rural parts of the state voted for the first time ever during previous election cycles, only to have problems plaguing their communities get worse during the pandemic economy.
“Every presidential year, we go, ‘This is the election of the lifetime,’” Carter said. “We have gotten voters to the point where, ‘OK, we’re tired of hearing that.’”
Focused on issues, not candidates
Many students who participated in the voter engagement festivities said they don’t usually follow politics closely. Some were only vaguely familiar with household names like Gov. Brian Kemp, Stacey Abrams, Raphael Warnock, and Herschel Walker.
But most were aware of and concerned about the issues affecting their state and local communities. One major issue was the recent reinstatement of Georgia’s 2019 abortion restriction law following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade, which had a galvanizing effect on young voters this summer.
“Once those rights have been taken away from you, it kind of makes it harder on you,” said Albany State University sophomore Chasely Sellers.
More than 100 people visited FVSU’s voter engagement site on this leg of the bus tour. Many of them filled out voter pledge forms — written promises to cast a ballot later this fall.
Some time before Election Day, BVM will mail those pledge forms back to those who signed them to remind them of their promise and the campaign issues they said they care about the most.
BVM also works with volunteer residence hall captains on campus to ensure students have what they need to vote on or before Election Day.
“If they need a ride to the polls, their hall captain is going to ensure that,” Miller said. “If they need to vote by mail, their hall captain ensures that they get that vote by mail application.”
Freshman BreAnna Mitchell, 18, was one of the FVSU students who registered to vote for the first time. The nursing major said addressing gun violence is her top issue this year following the fatal shooting of her cousin in Atlanta three years ago.
Mitchell recalled Kemp enacting a law earlier this year that made it legal for “lawful weapons carriers” to carry concealed handguns without a permit.
“It should be illegal to carry a gun,” she said. “Even if you have a license, you just shouldn’t have it.”
Addressing gun violence was a recurring desire for students and activists throughout the five-day tour. One of those people was FVSU freshman Tynika Howell, 18, whose family moved from Buffalo, New York, to nearby Warner Robins, Georgia, about five years ago.
Howell recalled a 13-year-old boy being arrested and charged in Warner Robins last year in the fatal shooting of his own mother.
“When I was in high school, there were 15-year-olds with guns,” she said. “There is no reason anybody 13, 14, 15 should have a gun in my opinion.”
‘We have no jobs’
Catholine Walton, 31, was more focused on getting her new podcast idea up and running than who’s running for office when BVM activists did some door-to-door canvassing in her Buena Vista neighborhood on Sept. 18.
The Blessed Crown Beauty Supply store she opened in March 2020 recently closed due to slow business caused by the pandemic, she said. Walton suggested financial literacy and entrepreneurship are better paths to empowering Black folks than politics.
“If we are not out here being a part of the system making money, putting jobs into the community, I mean, what do we really benefit from whoever is in [office]?” she said.
Like many Black residents in Buena Vista, Jade Kendrick sees the poor local job market as a major concern. The 26-year-old is a stay-at-home mother of two who said she’s been unemployed for about a year after dropping out of nursing school at Valdosta Tech to take care of her children amid the pandemic.
“We have no jobs for moms down here who don’t have help,” she said. “We need more babysitting. We need more income, period, for moms who don’t get it.”
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll from September showed Abrams receiving about 80% support from Black voters who were surveyed. Black voters tend to favor Democrats by an overwhelming margin in most elections. Abrams received 93% of the Black vote during her first matchup against Kemp in 2018.
Georgia and beyond
BVM hasn’t released final figures on how many people registered to vote and filled out voter pledge forms during the tour. Miller said the group served about 250 to 300 students between registering voters and getting pledge forms from others.
The largest crowds on the bus tour occurred at the AUC in Atlanta on Sept. 20, where hundreds of students from Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College participated in National Voter Registration Day festivities.
Members of a local Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. chapter led a step show in front of CAU’s student center during the early afternoon.
Louisiana native Rayven Bryant, 19, is a sophomore at Spelman who said she plans to vote absentee in her home state’s midterm elections this year. She’s most concerned about abortion rights after a Louisiana judge blocked a trigger law from taking effect in July following the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade.
“Just being on campus with women, it’s always very hard to continuously see us be oppressed,” Bryant said. “My heart is still in Louisiana. … I want to be an active part of those politics and changing those issues as well.”
Several of the students who showed up for the fun were already registered to vote in other states, which Miller said is common at HBCU campuses.
“They don’t have to change their voter registration because they still are impacted by issues in their home state, but what we do is we give them a plan and a pledge to vote wherever they are,” she said. “Hopefully, a majority will choose to register here. Most college students stay in the state where they went to school or graduated from college.”
Morehouse senior Jalen Curry is a Rock Hill, South Carolina, native who plans to vote absentee in his home state.
“I think right now it’s very hard just to live,” he said. “It’s hard to go to school. It’s hard to get a job. It’s hard to find somewhere to stay. It’s just hard to exist.”