Barbershop talks and hip-hop summits: Georgia Black legislators’ group has big plans to build coalitions, boost voter rolls

Rep. Carl Gilliard, chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, the largest Black caucus in the nation. (Credit: Georgia House)

Apr 15, 2024

The nation’s largest gathering of Black lawmakers is slated to meet in Atlanta this summer to discuss ways to boost voter participation nationwide ahead of the upcoming fall elections.

The Aug. 2-4 conference theme is “Testing 1, 2, 3.” The meeting will be the precursor to a series of events the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus plans to hold heading into the November presidential election. 

“Because we’re the largest Black caucus in the nation, we’re reaching out to all of the caucuses from across the nation,” Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Savannah, chairman of the 74-member Georgia caucus, told State Affairs. “This is the first time that I think we’re doing a total reach-out to all of the Black caucuses. We share a lot of similarities. Whether it’s voter suppression in Georgia, the same laws are going to be tried in Tennessee and the same laws are going to be tried in Florida. We share a lot of commonalities.”

Next week, for instance, the Georgia caucus is scheduled to issue a statement supporting efforts to pass a hate crimes bill in South Carolina. The bill passed in the House but stalled in the Senate, Gilliard noted.

Over 700 Black legislators represent about 60 million Americans, according to the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. In addition to the Georgia caucus, Black caucuses exist in nearly three dozen states. 

Shortly after the August convention, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus will embark on a 14-city tour throughout Georgia to focus on “getting out the vote.” 

“We’re not going to tell them who to vote for,” Gilliard said of voters. “But what is happening right now is no one is talking to the people. And if the election were held today, we all would be in trouble because no one is talking or meeting the people where they’re at.” 

The tour is a continuation of various actions the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus has taken this year to align with other organizations of people of color on common causes.

In March, the caucus joined forces with the Asian American Pacific Islander and Hispanic caucuses for a tri-caucus town hall. It was the first time the three groups have aligned. The Black caucus also has “reached out to partner with the Hindus of North America population and the diaspora,” Gilliard said.

“What we’re trying to do is form a coalition to get to as many diverse groups of people as we can,” he said.

Gilliard said the lack of individual and collective involvement in communities he’s seeing concerns him. It’s a far cry from four years ago.

In 2020, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man murdered while jogging in Glynn County, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by Louisville, Kentucky police serving a no-knock warrant for drug suspicion, led to more than 450 protests nationwide and on three continents.

That same year, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams led an effort to increase the voter rolls for the 2020 presidential election. Fair Fight and the New Georgia Projects, two groups Abrams founded, registered more than 800,000 new voters. 

That level of community and political engagement has since subsided, Gilliard said.

“People don’t know what’s going on,” Gilliard said. “No one is really talking to the people. You’ve got a presidential election. I’m talking about on both [political] sides. There are rallies and different events being held, but nobody has gone to the barbershop. No one has gone to the community centers or the neighborhoods. We’re going to be empowering those communities by going and taking those townhall meetings right where they’re at, not in a big municipality but in community centers and neighborhoods.”

The caucus also plans to hold a hip-hop summit to reach young people, many of whom are skeptical of both political parties.

“They’re forming their own opinions,” Gilliard said. “They’re saying, ‘Forget about Trump. We need to hear something different.’ That’s just their perception. That’s why I’m really quietly championing the young candidates behind the scenes who are running right now because we need young leaders.

“We have to get as many people together, but we also have to get them ready to work.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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