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The battle for democracy is in “flyover” states, not Capitol Hill

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By NAACP President Derrick Johnson and Groundwork Project Founder/former Congressman Joe Kennedy III

From looming government shutdowns to Speaker battles to near physical blows, the political spectacle in Washington, D.C. continues to be a distraction from the true crucible of democracy simmering in places like Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Alabama, and Louisiana.

These states have long been petri dishes for policies that threaten to undermine civil rights, racial justice, and democracy itself. Today we’re grappling with the devastating results of those experiments. The time to shift our focus is now.

Time and again, these states are used as testing grounds for strategies soon to be unleashed across the nation.

democracy states
Tulsa activist and formal mayoral candidate Greg Robinson II leads a protest in downtown Tulsa to protest racial in justice and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020. (CreeseWorks—The Black Wall Street Times)

States unleash attacks on democracy

In Mississippi, a bill like Bill 1020 is a stark reminder of the lengths some will go to disenfranchise communities, attempting to create a white-led, unelected judicial system for the state’s majority-Black capital city.

In Alabama, the proposed 2024 Congressional Map was such a masterclass in gerrymandering that even our conservative-led Supreme Court couldn’t stomach it.

And in Oklahoma, the education system is under siege, with conservative leaders threatening to undermine the sacred separation of church and state in classrooms across the state – and, ultimately, the country.

Organizing Accelerator seeks to support “flyover” states

What’s clear is that those who would like to fundamentally change the essence of American democracy, and to undermine hard-fought advances in civil rights and racial justice, have not forgotten these places. No, their sights have been locked in for quite some time. 

It’s precisely for this reason that the NAACP and Groundwork Project united to launch The Organizing Accelerator – to provide resources to those who are often silenced, disenfranchised and oppressed.

We are two organizations who are deeply committed to so-called flyover state organizing and the true liberation of disadvantaged communities.

For over a century, the NAACP’s organizing efforts have been a crucial tool in advancing advocacy and creating long-term outcomes towards liberty and justice for all. Groundwork Project joins the fight, with a sharp focus on places that have suffered generations of oppression and neglect.

Together, we’re creating spaces–both digital and physical–where these community voices are not just heard but amplified in the national conversation.

Our role is to empower and provide the tools and resources to local organizers from all regions of the country to connect and learn from each other, to collaborate and to create their own strategies for change in their communities, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all approach.

Resistance and resilience amidst attacks on democracy

The real expertise, we believe, resides within the community itself. If you have any doubt, let the headlines speak for themselves. Resistance in these states is not just alive; it’s thriving.

In Alabama, organizers refused to back down to discriminatory and unfair congressional maps – and democracy prevailed.

In Mississippi, courts struck down the state’s lifetime felony voting ban after years of activism. These improbable victories are replicated across the states too many see as flyovers.

In Nebraska, voters have approved a $15 minimum wage. In South Dakota, voters expanded Medicaid by ballot. And in Kentucky, a constitutional amendment on banning abortion was soundly rejected, thanks to grassroots mobilization.

Local organizers are achieving monumental feats with scant resources and almost no national attention. They are democracy’s unsung heroes, and their stories deserve to be told.

Shattering myths and supporting democracy in overlooked states across the country

We see these communities not as lost causes but as untapped reservoirs of democratic potential. By providing tools, training, and platforms, we’re not just supporting local organizers and civil rights leaders; we’re shining a spotlight on the powerful work already being done.

We’re showing the world that these so-called ‘lost causes’ are actually the front lines of democratic innovation, community resilience, and the endurance and expansion of American civil rights.

So, let’s shatter the myth that these areas are beyond saving. They are not only savable but are, in fact, saving themselves. What they need now is the attention and resources to turn their local victories into national blueprints.

That is the mission of The Organizing Accelerator, to build a program that is by organizers, for organizers. And it’s why we believe that the future of democracy lies in America’s forgotten corners. 

While the chaos and dysfunction on Capitol Hill captures national political headlines, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the real battlegrounds for democracy are often far from the halls of Congress.

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