I grew up queer in a white working-class North Carolina clan during the 1970s, that moment in history when the backlash to civil rights and feminism and unionism was beginning to gather itself into the regressive forces that became Republicanism and Democratic Clintonism. If I learned anything from the history I would huddle in my room and read obsessively—and later, from the black friends and boyfriends I could not bring home, and from my reporting on the politics and progressive movements of the South—it was this: our only hope for freedom was a radically different future.
Emphasis on “radically.” Not the kinds of victories that won legal rights—which labor, African Americans, and women had sort of done, and LBGTQ folks now, sort of, have too. No: the only hope, thin though it was, was in attaining real power. There could be no real progress without destroying the white corporatocracy that passes for democracy—the ultimate victory that the left’s brave and battered standard-bearers, among them those who figure in Elizabeth Catte’s moving essay, have so persistently failed to achieve.
Many of the progressives I have reported on and protested with over the years dearly love to celebrate old glories by singing old songs and lauding old martyrs, as if the breakthroughs they had occasionally inspired were not profoundly depressing for being exceptions to the rule of defeat. These folks were my allies, but how sad and delusional they could be—firing up the candles for another midnight vigil, passing the talking sticks, murmuring another round of “This Little Light of Mine,” and otherwise luxuriating in righteous failure. The left has been as addicted to its various Lost Causes as the neo-Confederates I also knew and wrote about. And that, I came increasingly to believe, was why we never stopped losing.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not immune to sentimentality. Like most on the left, I fell prey to it all over again when Barack Obama burst forth in all his symbolic and rhetorical glory in 2008. Ten years later I was briefly falling for Beto O’Rourke, another charismatic agent of airy hope and change whose actual politics, when you finally take a hard look, are every bit as corporate-friendly and unchallenging as Obama’s proved to be.
Thankfully, though, while Beto was peddling the same old snake oil, genuine change-makers were rising down South in the wake of Obama’s betrayals and Donald Trump’s ascendancy. Hardly anyone took notice at first, when in 2017 the largest cities in Alabama and Missisippi elected young black mayors backed by Bernie Sanders—Randall Woodfin in Birmingham and Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, the latter of whom won (can you believe it?) on a promise to build “the most radical city on the planet.” Little ink was spilt, as well, when an all-black slate of officials and judges, including Black Lives Matter activist khalid kamau, took power in South Fulton, Georgia—the city they had worked to incorporate by uniting a string of majority-black, overwhelmingly poor counties in the Atlanta suburbs.
A few eyebrows did lift in 2017 when Virginia’s first transgender and Asian American and Latina delegates ousted right-wingers in the statehouse, and thirty-eight-year-old Justin Fairfax became the state’s second African American lieutenant governor and chief executive in waiting. Fairfax had an ancestor’s freedom papers in his pocket when he was sworn in. “They tell people to get in line, but the problem is there is no line,” he has said. “This generation has figured it out. People will say that your future is bright. . . . I say your future is now . . . . It’s a very different paradigm.”
Different indeed. The strongest signal that something truly new has been emerging down South came with Alabama’s election of a white centrist, Doug Jones, to the U.S. Senate in a runoff against Bible-thumping, Confederacy-loving Roy Moore. How in God’s name had that gone down? The sexual assault allegations helped, but the real answer was a grassroots upswelling of black activists who saw their opening and aimed at far more than electing Democrats.
DeJuana Thompson is one of them. When she organized for Obama in North Carolina and Florida, she saw firsthand what electoral victories could be achieved when Democrats stopped obsessing over winning back Reagan Democrats and focused instead on galvanizing the Sunbelt South’s emerging majority of non-whites and liberal millennials. She later saw how little those victories meant in terms of tangible progress. The group she founded in the waning days of Obama’s presidency, Woke Vote, is among those that now aim at more radical change. The message to Democrats, she told me last summer, has to be clear as day: “We’re not waiting for you anymore.”
You will hear the same thing from insurgent politicians such as Lumumba and kamau, and from the whole raft of young southern organizers bent on liberation. Black, Latino, Asian, and millennial turnout shattered state records in 2017, and national ones again in 2018, thanks to the work of fellow organizers LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright of the Alabama-based Black Voters Matter, and Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez of Texas’s Jolt Initiative, which helped to seed a similar insurgency among young Latinos. Yes, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum did lose—if just barely—their bids for the governorships of Georgia and Florida. But we should take note of the success they found by throwing away the old Democratic playbook of Republicanism Lite, running on ambitious left-wing platforms that have more in common with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Bill Clinton, and building their campaigns on empowerment. Rather than appeal to white people’s “better angels,” they called, as Thompson has said, for “liberating ourselves through our voting power.” And they met their defeats with defiance.
“Democrats in the South have to reject the notion that our geography requires that politicians soften our commitment to equality and opportunity,” Abrams said during her campaign. And this time it was not mere rhetoric. Like the organizers who damn near overcame rampant voter suppression to lift her and Gillum and O’Rourke to victories in races Democrats had not won for two decades or more, Abrams does not indulge in rose-colored recollections of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other progressive heroes of the past. She knows what King, the real King, knew: that the freedoms won back then by the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were important but also completely insufficient. Rather than bask in the glow of those victories, King recognized their limitations: “The prohibition of barbaric behavior, while beneficial to the victim,” he wrote, “does not constitute the attainment of equality or freedom.” In 1966 he called the more consequential battle to come “the last steep ascent.”
The man who wrote these words was not the “dreamer” we have chosen to recall and celebrate, but a clear-eyed realist. I imagine he would be saddened but unsurprised to see that we have failed to scale that last steep ascent. But he might have taken heart at the rise of a new generation of radical realists who eschew nostalgia and have their eyes set firmly on the future—one that will not be built on “fighting old battles” and looking for “continuity,” in Catte’s words, but on the collective, determined accrual of power. “We are going to rescue ourselves,” Lumumba says. That is not a backward-looking expression of hope; it is a revolutionary promise, entirely in the future tense.