The Power of the Black Vote: We Save Ourselves
Maisie Brown: Jackson State like other historically black college and university, we are the hub for just like black intelligence. We are the hub for black energy for, you know, young black people, we’re the leaders. (DRUM ROLLING).
Trymaine Lee: Jackson State University, home of the Sonic Boom of the South, is the pride of Jackson, Mississippi. (DRUM ROLLING).
Brown: Jackson, I mean, like the (nine colleges), the City With Soul (DRUM ROLLING).
Lee: Maisie Brown is bursting with pride for her school and her hometown (DRUM ROLLING), which is one of the blackest cities in the country (DRUM ROLLING).
Brown: Being from Jackson means, you know, being resilient, being welcoming, and just really having a lot of pride from where you’re from. Anybody who’s from Jackson, you’re gonna make sure you know they’re from Jackson before you (inaudible) (DRUM ROLLING).
Lee: Jackson spirit of resiliency and self-reliance has been forged over centuries, facing some of the country’s most brutal racial violence, segregation, and voter suppression. Jackson became a hub of the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. Leaders made a name for themselves by bravely protesting for basic rights, like Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, who up lead a boycott against white stores in Jackson in the early 1960s.
Medgar Evers: Don't shop for anything on Capitol Street. Let’s let the merchants down on Capitol Street feel the economic pinch, stores that help to support the White Citizens Council, dedicated to keeping you and I second class citizens.
Archival Recording: Yeah.
Evers: So, let us not trade at these stores. Finally, ladies and gentlemen, we will be demonstrating here until freedom comes to negroes here in Jackson, Mississippi. (CROWD CLAPPING).
Lee: Evers was murdered by white supremacists in 1963. But Evers’ assassination didn’t stop the movement. The next year, a coalition of students and activists organized the Freedom Summer project of 1964, including Bob Moses. Originally from New York, Moses moved to Mississippi to join the civil rights movement. He became a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Bob Moses: We hope to send into Mississippi this summer upwards of 1,000 teachers, ministers, lawyers, and students, who will engage in voter registration activity, and in general, a program designed to open up Mississippi to the country.
Lee: The Freedom Summer drew national attention to Mississippi and shine the light on the horrors that the white power structure inflicted upon black citizens.
Moses: We had to tell the students what we thought was going on because if, in fact, anyone is arrested and then taken out of the jail then the chances that they’re alive is just almost zero.
Lee: That same season, Mississippi took center stage again at the ‘64 Democratic National Convention.
Fannie Lou Hamer: My name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.
Lee: Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper turned activist, addressed the convention on national television.
Hamer: It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first class citizens.
Lee: Mrs. Hamer told the country about how she tried to register to vote. At the time, almost no black Mississippians were registered.
Hamer: The plantation owners came and said, “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.” He said, “Then if you go down and withdraw that you still might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.” I had to leave that same night. On the 10th of September 1962, 16 bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. (DRUM ROLLING).
Lee: Her testimony about the violent consequences of trying to vote while black in Mississippi played a pivotal role in passing the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Medgar Evers, and countless other civil rights activists worked out of the headquarters of the Council of Federated Organizations or COFO, which still sits on the edge of the Jackson State campus. Over the years, the campus has been home to organizing protests and state violence.
Archival Recording: Three young negroes, a high school student named James Green and a college student named Phillip Gibbs were shot to death early today by police who fired into a crowd in front of a women’s dormitory at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi. Fifteen others were wounded.
Lee: On May 15, 1970, white law enforcement fired hundreds of rounds at young black students and protesters. This was just days after the Kent State massacre, but received much less national attention.
Archival Recording: They all started firing. And what the students didn’t see or someone didn’t see what I saw is when they got to fire, the first thing they did was reach down and pick up their shells and put them in their pocket. And the girl right over here by this boy that died.
Lee: Law enforcement claimed there had been snipers on the roof, which was later found to be false. Today, this state is still at the center of some of the most contentious political fights of the moment.
Archival Recording: The justices have reached a final ruling on the Mississippi abortion law that prohibits nearly all abortions after 15 weeks and directly challenges Roe v. Wade.
Archival Recording: (Inaudible) in this historic decision, the Supreme Court has now overturned Roe v. Wade.
Lee: For our series, The Power of The Black Vote, Into America is visiting HBCUs across the South, talking to students about what’s most important to them this midterm election. One of these schools is Jackson State. And when we first started our reporting, it was clear, one of the biggest issues was the end of Roe, which came from a Supreme Court case centered right in their backyard.
Archival Recording: Well, the doors are now closing at Mississippi’s only abortion clinic. The (inaudible) law banning nearly all abortions is now in effect in that state. Doctors at Jackson Women's Health Organization were trying to see as many patients as possible in the clinics’ final hours of operation.
Archival Recording: Mississippi is already the most unsafe place for black babies to be born.
Archival Recording: And are you concerned that this ruling will make those numbers--
Archival Recording: These will just make it - well, those numbers will increase.
Lee: But as our visit to Jackson State drew near, the organizing over reproductive rights was eclipsed by another crisis.
Archival Recording: Years long, water problems have reached crisis in Jackson, Mississippi.
Lee: Jackson, the capital city, had almost no running water for a week. And the water that was running through the city’s pipes was contaminated, some of it running brown.
Archival Recording: The governor declaring a state of emergency, the White House monitoring, the President briefed and ready to offer help.
Archival Recording: This morning in Jackson, Mississippi residents are already lining up for limited supplies of water.
Archival Recording: Because some 180,000 people are in the middle of a third world like hell.
Lee: For Jackson residents who faced diluted voting power and a state government that refuses to help the city fix problems it helped create, the converging crises were a tipping point.
Archival Recording: And so when you couple like can’t get an abortion here, also might not have clean drinking water also, you know, it’s like a, “Okay, like what do I have, like, what do I as a citizen of this country and of this state, what do I have access to?”
Lee: Reproductive justice activists in Jackson who were used to staring down odds are stretched in.
Archival Recording: I definitely have to redirect a lot of my energy. So, that’s, like, what I’ve been doing all this last week is just water, water, water, water, water, water, water.
Lee: For centuries, black people in Mississippi have risked and in many cases, given their lives, pushing for the rights and freedoms that America had promised its citizens. Today, the fights might be different, but the attacks on all sides echoed the past. It’s the same feeling that Nina Simone put her whole soul into when she sang “Mississippi Goddam” during the Freedom Summer, one year after Medgar Evers was murdered.
Nina Simone: (SINGING) I don't know. You don't have to live next to me, just give me my equality ‘cause everybody knows about Mississippi, everybody knows about Alabama, everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam, that’s it. (CROWD CLAPPING).
Archival Recording: You know, that feels like it’s Jackson versus everybody like that’s the truth.
Lee: I’m Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, as part of our series, The Power of The Black Vote, we go to Jackson State University and meet two organizers, a student and an alum, who are drawing on the lessons of the past to help their people today because when no one is coming to save your community, you take matters into your own hands and try to save yourself.
Archival Recording: So, in the document that I had y’all shared like the agenda, John was - wants to put in the pamphlet. And then tonight, we can kind of all collectively work on like talking points in the Instagram caption.
Lee: At Jackson State University, junior Maisie Brown is organizing a group of student volunteers for an upcoming voter education event on campus.
Brown: (Inaudible) the Google Form, they can register for the event so then we can kind of have like--
Archival Recording: And the eyeball with who are going to be there?
Lee: With the midterms approaching, the work is really picking up.
Lee: So, how often are you all meeting, like, is this been like labor?
Archival Recording: Yes.
Archival Recording: Yeah.
Archival Recording: Yes.
Archival Recording: (LAUGH).
Archival Recording: It’s a job.
Archival Recording: It is a job. It is a part-time job.
Archival Recording: Yeah.
Archival Recording: And this is labor intensive like we’re - it’s not a day that goes by that we don’t text and a group chat at least once, asking questions, trying to get clarification, half on the phone, half on FaceTime, I’m like--
Archival Recording: Yeah.
Archival Recording: I have classes with Maisie and Kennedy and I catch him in the hallway after class and we’ve been in there for an hour. And I’m like, “(Inaudible) meeting tomorrow?”
Archival Recording: Yeah. (LAUGH).
Lee: At just 20 years old, Maisie has already made a name for herself as a leader in her community. So, when the latest water crisis hit, she put her organizing skills to work. She knew other groups were stepping up so she took a step back and found where she could make the most impact.
Brown: You know, Mississippi Rapid Response, a coalition came together very quickly and started setting up distribution sites all over the city. But one thing that, you know, I noticed was the lack of services that were strictly about delivery. And so in Jackson, we have a large elderly population, we have a large disabled population, and those who just simply don’t have transportation. And so, we were just trying to fill that gap of making sure that regardless of your circumstance, you will have access to get some of those water cases that were coming into the city.
Lee: Maisie also looked to social media to share resources and raise awareness about the crisis, and her post took off.
Brown: I now started literally from like a Twitter thread of just different places that you can donate to different organizations that are doing the work. And now also, within 48 hours, we had about $5,000 on cash app, we had people calling from all over saying, “I’m trying to send you a truck of water, like $250 lower from Brooklyn, love from LA.” You know, different things like that, that really showed that people cared back there and so--
Lee: She was able to gather a group of about 20 people to help make the deliveries.
Brown: Within that first week, you know, we had delivered, I think now, it’s over 300 households. We’ve delivered at least 1500 to 2,000 cases of water. And we’re not stopping.
Lee: After the meeting, Maisie takes me to a storage unit about five miles from campus, and it’s full of cases of water.
Archival Recording: Okay.
Brown: Here we go. Okay, yeah, so, we’re just gonna load up as much water as possible as we can into this library. Let’s just make sure that when we - when we’re setting it up that we’re like trying to stack it up in rows so like it has like tumbled down because then the cases were like burst open.
Lee: They load up a U-Haul van and head out to make the deliveries.
Brown: Let me pull it around. Oh, okay.
Lee: As we drive, Maisie starts telling me about what makes Jackson so special.
Brown: You know, and Mississippi would even inspire, you know, like the Poor People's Campaign with, you know, Dr. King and they came down to places like Jackson and the Mississippi Delta, you know, seeing the level of poverty that was here but also the fact that people were willing to scrap up their last when they came through to give or to make them feel welcomed or to, you know - you know, in Mississippi food is how you show like love, it’s how you welcome people into your space and into your home. So, for those people who are already just getting by, you know for these people who have more than them, they were still willing to give their last to show their hospitality and to be so welcoming.
Brown: There’s really good food right there.
Lee: (The Med Spa Bar and Grill)?
Lee: What’s the - what’s good there?
Brown: The burgers.
Lee: Burgers are good?
Brown: Yeah, yeah, handmade, homemade like--
Lee: Oh, it’s not the frozen - it’s not a frozen--
Brown: Yeah, number one scene, number one homemade burger, it tells you right there.
Lee: First of all, it looks like a good burger in there.
Lee: You’re gonna know.
Brown: It’s open 11 A.M. (inaudible).
Brown: You might catch it, (LAUGH), you might not.
Lee: Maisie loves Jackson, but life here can be tough. According to the census bureau, a quarter of the city’s residents live in poverty, more than twice the national average. The streets are scarred with potholes and they jostle the truck as Maisie points out some of the rundown empty buildings.
Brown: So, many abandoned buildings and houses in Jackson. They are actually owned by people that are just not being like kept up and just kind of forgotten about.
Lee: Has there been any effort? And again, I know you’re relatively young and you’re still in college.
Lee: Have there been any different efforts to like attract the young people to the city? We obviously need something to attract them with, but like (inaudible).
Brown: Yeah, they don’t take a look at the light. I mean there’s nothing to, what can they attract this way? I mean one of the things that really keeps the city going, of course, in Jackson State, you know, we have a pretty boom in medical school to the University of Mississippi that’s here. But as far - I mean if you’re moving here, you’re moving here usually for a reason. Like, you don’t just move here because, “I want to move to Jackson.” That typically doesn’t happen (LAUGH).
Lee: Let me ask you this. So, I mean when you graduate, are you - are you sticking around, are you leaving, what do you think?
Brown: This is definitely the state that I like. If I run for Congress, I’ll run for - you know, I want it to be the (title) of Mississippi. I do know that. But as far as like my graduate school then I don’t see that being here, and also I was just like, “I want to change the scenery, I want to experience new things, talk with new people, you know, be the new space,” but, you know, my heart is here, so I’ll come back at some point.
Lee: Running for Congress someday would be a natural progression for this student organizer. She’s majoring in Political Science and she’s already learning to juggle. She’s got school and work, and she’s the mother of a one-year old baby girl.
Brown: A day in my life, okay, I’ll wake up, my daughter is like a rooster, she wakes up before 7 A.M. So, I don’t have to set an alarm clock, I’m already up (LAUGH). I drop her off to school. I have classes, so I hit the class. Usually before class, I try to get a little bit of homework done, try to answer some emails, respond to some calls. I try to schedule my like conference calls and everything in between the breaks I have in class.
Usually, sometimes I’m in class, sometimes do a little organization work. On the side, I have things like this like different interviews people who kind of want to shadow and see the work that we’re doing. Usually, somebody’s gonna bring some water to the storage unit so either going there myself or trying to find one of my team members to meet them there. I go to work. Oh, it’s crazy. I don’t know how to do it. Google Calendar, I guess.
Lee: (LAUGH). Maisie got her start in activism young way back in eighth grade.
Brown: We had an assignment in my Algebra I class on redesigning the state flag. At that time, I had no idea what was wrong with the state flag like while we were redesigning it.
Lee: At the time, the Mississippi State flag had three horizontal lines colored red, white, and blue. And in the top left corner with the stars and bars of the Confederate flag--
Brown: So, that kind of caused me to go down the rabbit hole like research, and then when I actually read what our then state flag was and what the Confederacy was, there was like a big rabbit hole.
Lee: Young Maisie was outraged that her state flag which was supposed to represent her as a Mississippian would include a symbol of slavery and the oppression of black people. So, she wrote an op ed about the need to change the flag and sent it around to local publications.
Brown: And it got published and it just kind of took a life of its own and that just kind of pushed me into the world of advocacy.
Lee: In June 2020, Maisie helped organize a protest in Jackson following the murder of George Floyd. At 18, she was the youngest speaker. One of the key demands of that protest was to change the state flag.
Brown: I come to you as a concerned Mississippian, wondering how long she can hold on to a state that she loves with all of her heart.
Brown: People are watching.
Archival Recording: Mm-hm.
Archival Recording: Yes, yes.
Brown: Bob Moses reminded us that when you want to look at America, you got to look where?
Archival Recording: Mississippi.
Archival Recording: Mississippi.
Brown: That Mississippi is ready for change?
Brown: Then everybody is ready for change.
Lee: Later that month in a rare bipartisan move, the state legislature passed a law to create a new flag ending a decade’s long fight. Today, Maisie is the Executive Coordinator of the ACLU of Mississippi, and she runs the Jackson Chapter of 601 for Period Equity, a grassroots organization that provides period supplies to people across the state.
Over the summer, she channeled a lot of her energy into the fight for reproductive justice. She remembers the moment she learned about the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe.
Brown: I was actually writing to call my best friend. Well, when I went to get some coffee when my phone just started blowing up, but people asked me, okay, they say this all the time, what does this mean?
Lee: Maisie immediately got to work.
Brown: So the first thing that a lot of times I do in the wake of a crisis or in the wake of an issue, social media. So, it was about like, “Hey, I know abortion is not legal anymore here and there’s not going to be a place within a thousand miles that you can get it. Here are links on how you can get free emergency contraception. There are links to how you can get free condoms. Here are free links to different abortion funds that will bus you or fly you to these different sites to make sure it’s happened.” So, we have to be as reactive as quickly as possible because just because abortion wasn’t legal anymore, wasn’t mean people weren’t going to get pregnant anymore or people weren’t going to want to end those pregnancies because they had the right to do.
Lee: As the summer went on, Maisie continued to focus on reproductive rights, and she wasn’t alone. In an NBC News, Generation Lab poll of current HBCU students, abortion rights was the most common top issue ahead of the election. But then in Mississippi, a setback.
Archival Recording: We are drafting a state of emergency declaration with regards to Jackson’s failure to produce running water.
Lee: People across the city were unable to bathe or flush the toilets, let alone have access to clean drinking water. So, obviously, the attention had to shift. Maisie sees a connection between these two issues in Jackson, a lack of reproductive rights and poor water infrastructure, both disproportionately impacting black people.
Brown: You know, we think of racism as just a police officer, we see brutalizing somebody on TV or like a confederate flag being a part of a state flag, but not thinking about the way that our water systems are maintained or not maintained and how that is ingrained in racism as well.
Lee: For years, Jackson residents have dealt with constant boil water notices, and the city advises against pregnant people and children under the age of five from drinking it. But the origins of the water crisis go back decades.
Robert Luckett: You know, for me, that was specifically to the water crisis in Jackson. I think you have to take it to 1970. And that is a specifically important year to Jackson because that’s the year of the desegregation of public schools in Mississippi.
Lee: Dr. Robert Luckett is a history professor at Jackson State University.
Luckett: Now, how’s that tied to the water crisis and what does that have to do with this larger story of civil rights? Well, within about a two-year period in Jackson public schools, the only urban school district, the largest school district in the state, you saw roughly 10,000 white students leave the public schools overnight.
Lee: Those 10,000 white students made up almost a quarter of all public school students in the city.
Luckett: But the truth is, it’s not the children who are leaving Jackson in 1970, it’s the parents, right? And who are the parents in Jackson in 1970? It’s the political, economic, religious, social, white elite of the state. And when they withdraw from the City of Jackson so too does their support for all things Jackson and the infrastructure and schools and roads and health care and water systems.
Lee: In 1970, Jackson was over 60% white, but as middle and upper class white families fled the city, they took their money with them to the suburbs, devastating Jackson’s tax base.
Luckett: And so, what you see over the next 50 years is an increasingly antagonistic relationship between the white leadership of the State of Mississippi and City of Jackson that grows blacker and blacker to the point where today we’re a city that’s over 80% African American.
Lee: Today, Jackson is just 15% white, and the white-dominated state government has systematically withheld resources from its own capital city.
Luckett: But what’s happened in Jackson is, again, a story of 50 years of disinvestment. And that’s not something that just gets fixed overnight, not something that gets fixed even within kind of the four-year span of one mayoral term.
Lee: To outsiders, it could seem like there’s a simple solution, harness the black electorate and vote more state legislators into office who are willing to tackle the water crisis. But while Mississippi does have the second highest number of black state representatives in the nation, gerrymandering and redistricting have diluted black Mississippians’ voting power. And because white people make up a majority of the state and Republican and Democratic voters fall largely along racial lines, it’s nearly impossible for Democrats to gain a majority or win a statewide election. Meanwhile, Jackson’s elected officials are nearly all black.
Luckett: In many ways, there is this kind of internal hostility between a white leadership that doesn’t want Jackson to succeed, but they also recognize it as the capital city and they’re jealous that is controlled by black people and there’s this real kind of palpable tension that they wish that they had--
Lee: Recent evidence of this happened just last month, the day after Governor Tate Reeves announced that clean water was being restored to Jackson. He visited Hattiesburg just a couple hours away.
Tate Reeves: I’ve got to tell you, it is a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It’s also as always a great day to not be in Jackson (CROWD LAUGHING).
Lee: State politicians like Governor Reeves have ignored the state’s role in the crisis, and long blamed it on mismanagement by the city leadership. Reeves often says, “The city needs to take care of its own problems.” And in 2011, he claimed that he helped black money to repair Jackson’s water system when he was running for lieutenant governor. We reached out to Governor Reeves’ office for comment, they did not respond.
This is what Maisie is up against, a city without resources and a government without proper representation. But Dr. Luckett says, no matter the odds, black folks in Mississippi have been working to make life better for their people.
Luckett: You know, what’s interesting is that Mississippi in many ways and, again, coming back to the space that we’re in, laid a foundation for kind of grassroots organizing and activism that was really centered on the people and trying to lift the people up and empower the people. There still continues to be incredible grassroots organizing, there still continues to be really remarkable efforts by people in organizations to lift up the people who are hurt the most. You still see it playing out here in really kind of tangible ways (DRUM ROLLING).
Lee: When we come back, meet another member of the Jackson State community working to fill the gaps left by the state. Stick with us (DRUM ROLLING).
I’m back in the U-Haul with Maisie, driving around as she makes water deliveries.
Brown: So, right now, we are headed to the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. Since we have such a crap ton of water, we’re gonna, you know, drop off at least 10 cases to them just so they can distribute or, you know, have around the house.
Lee: And as we’re driving there, there’s so much water in the back (inaudible) we hear it like shifting around.
Lee: That’s what that’s you’re hearing.
Lee: A few minutes later, we arrived. The headquarters for the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund is a brightly painted house on a residential street across from a cemetery and public high school.
Brown: Oh-ho-ho, oh (KNOCKING).
Archival Recording: Hello.
Brown: Hi. Start (Inaudible) water.
Archival Recording: (Inaudible) to the West and back.
Brown: Okay. Well, I’ll just keep this one for the (inaudible) so that you can put the other one. Uh-oh. Right here in the pantry. (Inaudible) you, guys, put them right here? One, two, three, four, five. We got five more.
Archival Recording: Five more here?
Brown: Yeah. Oh, hey. Well, thank you. We’re gonna drop that off and then I will definitely be back to bring some more when we get to U-Haul again next week. That’s where--
Lee: The Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund is a nonprofit health care organization that offers emergency contraceptives and support for people seeking an abortion as well as those going through pregnancy. Even before Roe was overturned, this organization has played a central role in coordinating travel and care for Mississippians to travel out of the state to receive abortions, and its founder Laurie Bertram Roberts is a force in Jackson.
Laurie Bertram Roberts: You know, like we got history of greatness all around us.
Lee: Laurie grew up in Wisconsin and found her way here to attend Jackson State through an academic scholarship.
Roberts: I don’t like just talking like spiritual kind of ways because I feel like it sounds hokey, but honestly, I felt like I came home and I don’t know how to explain it but like I just felt a deep connection.
Lee: Laurie immersed herself in the state’s history of activism.
Roberts: To me, Fannie Lou Hamer is a goddess. I don’t care what anybody says, like, I’m not sure if she would have been comfortable with that. But like I don’t know how you can’t respect Fannie Lou Hamer as a woman, as an activist, as an organizer, to be a sharecropper who hadn’t graduated school, you know I’m saying, who was like a bookkeeper who helped the freedom movement in so many ways, right? She’s definitely a hero of mine.
Lee: When she first got to Mississippi, she focused mostly on her studies until one day, a brief encounter changed the course of our life.
Roberts: We had a speaker on campus one day, my second year, and I was just so moved by everything he said. And I ran after him out in the parking lot and I was just like, “Oh, my goodness, everything you said was amazing. I’m from up North too, like, I’m a transplant down here. Like, I don’t know if I’m gonna stay, but I really want to be an attorney too, and it was it was Chokwe Lumumba, City Mayor.
Lee: Mm-hm, wow.
Lee: Chokwe Lumumba was a famous lawyer and black nationalist from the civil rights era. He was later elected Mayor of Jackson, and his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, is the Mayor today.
Roberts: And he stops me and I’m like, I’m talking so fast, “Blah-blah-blah.” And he stops me and he goes - says, “That’s amazing.” He said, “But let me ask you a question, what are you doing for Jackson while you’re here?”
Lee: Laurie thought about what Jackson needed and what she could do about it. She quickly landed on reproductive justice. She had grown up with her white mother’s conservative family and their strict religious community, which deeply opposed abortion. But as a teenager, she handed out condoms to friends and was a peer-to-peer sexual educator. And she intimately understood the stakes of inadequate reproductive care. When she was 17, it almost killed her.
Roberts: Got pregnant at 16. I already had twins. So, at 17, I’m a mom of twins, I go into this hospital because I’m having a miscarriage. They tell me they cannot help me because there’s a faint heartbeat in the embryo. And I’m like, “Okay.” So, they send me home and I start hemorrhaging.
And by the time I come back, I’m in shock. And like the fact that they sent me home to possibly die based on the fact that they would not give me “an abortion” based on their Catholic beliefs, this is a Catholic hospital, really stuck with me in the back of my mind. And then several years later, I found myself wanting and needing an abortion and I could not get it because one, Medicaid wouldn’t pay for it, two, I didn’t have enough money before the cutoff date at the clinic that I needed to go to. And so, like, that solidified kind of my - like moving the bar for me.
Lee: After college, Laurie worked for NOW, the National Organization for Women. She even ran that Mississippi Chapter for a while and she created a clinic escort program for the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, commonly known as the Pink House. From 2006 until it closed in June, the Pink House was the only abortion clinic in the entire state. Through this work, Laurie often met people who couldn’t cover the cost of an abortion.
Roberts: Every now and then, we would have people who were short money and it wouldn’t be necessarily a lot of money, it would be about $10, $50, right?
Roberts: But you can be turned away for being short $50. And for me, that was just like a trauma trigger, like every time I’d want to fall crying, I was like, I can’t.
Roberts: And we’re out there like digging in our pockets, calling friends, trying to get folks to send us money on PayPal, you know.
Lee: Seeing this need inspired her to start the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund.
Roberts: So, we’ve been around for almost 10 years since 2013.
Lee: Abortion rights in Mississippi had been under threat for decades. In the mid-80s, there were over a dozen abortion clinics in the state. But legal restrictions began piling on and violent protesters created a dangerous situation for providers, causing many of them to leave. By 2006, only the Pink House remained.
But Laurie says the politics of abortion in Mississippi aren’t that simple. In 2011, voters soundly rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have legally defined life as starting at the moment of fertilization. Then, in 2018, the state legislature banned abortion after 15 weeks. This was the law that led to the Dobbs case which overturned Roe. The decision triggered an older near total ban on abortion. And now, the procedure is illegal in Mississippi. Laurie has had to adapt.
Roberts: We’re getting calls from people who have never gotten calls from before. So, like, you know, lower middle class people who would have been able to afford an abortion in the state before are now having to travel out of state. And so, they need money where they wouldn’t have needed money before. And then, you know, just the logistics of getting someone out of state, I mean that’s something we’re not new to. But just the absurdity of having someone go to Illinois, that’s six months pregnant is just beyond.
Lee: This is what Laurie has always done, to help people the system has left behind as she herself is often struggling. That’s how she knows what her community needs. She’s living it.
Roberts: I’m just gonna be honest, I lean into the fact that I think all organizing should be (FUBU) style for us, by us--
Roberts: --like all the time. It needs to be people-powered because we’re the ones who know best what we need. What often have is there’s these top or down organizing or this out of state organizing that looks at some kind of newspaper article or a study or a poll and then they go, “You know what the South needs?” They haven’t asked anyone on the ground if that’s what we need or if we’re already talking to each other, and then they throw money at that.
Lee: So, Laurie knows her organization can’t have a single focus, that money for abortions or contraception isn’t enough. They have a diaper closet, organized a food pantry, and like Maisie, one of Laurie’s main focuses these days is water.
Roberts: I definitely have to, you know, redirect a lot of my energy to fundraising more money for water so then that means I’m not focused on the other work that we do. So, that’s like what I’ve been doing all this last week is just water, water, water, water, water, water, water, which is fine, because let me just be clear, this is a reproductive justice issue too. It just means that like whatever else we were working on with sex ed, with whatever, kind of gets off, put on pause, and everything is water because without water, who cares if you got a condom?
Lee: So, how is the water crisis affecting your clients? So, you told us how it affects your work, but how is it affecting the people that you serve?
Roberts: Yeah, it’s been - I mean - how do I put this? I feel like the most drastic thing that’s happened is like one of my clients, I hadn’t had a chance to get back to her to let her know when we were distributing our water for the first time that we were distributing it, and I knew she needed water, I told her that she would be on our list. And all of a sudden, she called me like an hour before we were about to distribute.
Now, mind you, she just had a baby three weeks ago, she had a C-section, and she’s driving in her car, she has a minivan, with all her kids in the back and she’s like on a cell phone and she’s telling me, “Look, I’m out looking for water, we have no water.” And she like stops and she goes, “Oh, and look at the baby,” and she’s got the baby in her lap with no car seat and I’m like, “Please go home.” I’m about to cry. Sorry.
Roberts: (BREATHING). And in the moment, I like laughed it off with her, right? I’m like, “Girl, (LAUGH), please go home. Girl, we got you (LAUGH).” But in the moment - like I got off the phone, I’m just like, “Please don’t get into an accident.” And like--
Roberts: I felt like it was my fault too. I felt like it was about me, but like, it’s not our fault, it’s the government’s fault. But the fact that, like, she did not have water and she was felt so desperate that she put her kids in the car, she’s not even supposed to be out the house.
Roberts: She’s three weeks post-op. She was not even supposed to drive. And she out then looking for water with a baby. COVID is still out here.
Lee: The factors that drove Laurie’s client to desperation to drive around the city looking for water less than a month after giving birth all point back to the state government. And while Laurie operates outside the system to help her community, she believes Mississippi has the power to change, but she’s under no illusion that this change will come easily.
Roberts: Our problem is the state and our problem is federal, and that’s where we need to focus. And then our other problem is voter disenfranchisement and GOTV. So, that’s what I focus on, is letting folks know, “Listen, we got to vote, right, but we also need to know what our structures are, like what this looks like and what we’re battling in Mississippi as far as overcoming a statewide voting--”
Roberts: “--to be able to make a,” because as black folks, we can’t make a statewide vote pop without white votes.
Lee: Mm-hm., yeah.
Roberts: So, they got to stop being wishy-washy.
Lee: Laurie says that’s why the support and camaraderie from other groups and activists like Maisie in Jackson is so important.
Roberts: You know, we hype each other online and we make sure to donate to each other stuff and they’ve dropped off stuff for us and we’ve dropped off stuff for them. And I just - I love the work that they’re doing. They - like they have way better graphics than we do and like just the engagement that they’ve done and the passion that they’ve brought to the work that - like, we weren’t able to do, because we didn’t have the capacity to do it, I just love it, and they’re amazing.
Brown: I have (inaudible) Jackson versus everybody like that’s the truth.
Lee: Back in the U-Haul, Maisie is heading to South Jackson.
Lee: So, how does it feel to be doing this? Obviously, like you believe in this work and you’re helping people.
Lee: But how does it feel to be like delivering this kind of - what are the people in need?
Brown: I mean it’s definitely like in - it makes you feel good that you’re, you know, directly impacting and helping people. But it also feels like, “This is not my job.”
Brown: Like, I shouldn’t have to do this, you know, like, I don’t get paid to do this. I didn’t run for the election, you know, be serving other people or my salary is paid by taxes, like, why?
Brown: Why is this happening (LAUGH)?
Lee: So, (inaudible) feels good, but like why am I the one--
Brown: Yeah, it feels good. And I’ve talked about this before like resilience, of course, is like a positive connotation like, you know, it’s all about being resilient, being resilient, and whatever you can do, but it’s also just like, why do we have to be so resilient all the time?
Brown: Like, you know, and then why do we as black women, like, have to constantly, like, come in on the backend? It’s like, “Okay, well, I’ll do it.”
Lee: Right, right.
Brown: You know. So, that part is not the best.
Lee: Maisie may get frustrated that she has to take on so much to help her city, but she’s not slowing down. Back at Jackson State, we talked about the challenges of Get Out the Vote efforts, like the one she’s organizing with other students.
Lee: How do you connect these issues, right, to a voting and the political process to young people? How do you connect the dots for people to say, “You know, policy and politicians matter in this”?
Brown: I think that for a lot of people, they feel like, “Okay, I voted. You know, I voted in 2020, Trump’s out of office, you know, I did what they told me to do, but it seems like things are getting worse.” So, I think sometimes for us, it’s like the instant gratification thing, like if something doesn’t change right now or very soon, I’m kind of feeling like what I did was in vain, like that’s not true. Being a part of the political process altogether is important, but I think that we also have to shift like just voting is not enough. Like if you, guys, are out here helping us at the rallies, if you, guys, are out here when something’s going on, helping us, supporting us, showing up, especially in the times that we’re living in - when, you know, these people are trying to, you know, take over and make this a society not friendly to us, not friendly to black or brown people, not friendly to women, it’s gonna take more than voting now. It’s going to take everybody being engaged on every stage of the process. Just voting is not enough anymore.
Lee: Just voting is not enough. This is true across the country, but it’s especially important here in Jackson. It’s a community whose voting power has been diluted through centuries of white oppression, a city that hasn’t had the means to take care of its own citizens with state leaders who openly mock their troubles.
People like Maisie and Laurie know that’s why they can’t afford to let up. They know their history and they’re following the great leaders in Mississippi with always taking matters into their own hands and never taken no for an answer. Even the place where Maisie and I are talking is a reminder of this history. It’s the COFO Building right there on campus, the former headquarters for the Council of Federated Organizations. The council included the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, and Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, all would have worked in this very spot. And that’s not lost on Maisie.
Brown: So many incredible people have like sat in the same - like, they could have been sitting right next to where I am right now. And so, knowing that, you know, walking on this campus, you know, with so many great people, you know, have graduated from here or done work, you know, just the fact that this building was such a hotspot for activism, you know, just a few decades ago.
I feel very deeply connected to them. These people were not very different than we were like Medgar Evers was a college student just like we were. So many of them were young people, 18, 19, 20, 21 when they started out and got into this work. I’m just like, that’s always so many people asked me like, “You’re doing this at so young of an age.” I’m like they were young to when they got started. And so, definitely just looking back and seeing, you know, how young they were, how fiery and how aggressive they were with what they wanted, it definitely shows me that it can be done, and age has nothing to do with it (DRUM ROLLING).
Lee: As I’ve crossed the South visiting different HBCUs, I’ve met student after student with the same incredible energy that radiates from Maisie. There’s something about these young people with all their intelligence, passion, and determination, mixed with the optimism of youth that seems to create this unstoppable force. They know they’re up against a tough adversary, nut trust me, they’re ready and they believe they’ll win (DRUM ROLLING).
The Power of The Black Vote tour continues next week with our final episode in our series. We’re going to Georgia visiting the Atlanta University consortium of Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, and Spelman. In 2020, young black voters were able to turn Georgia into a swing state. But 2022 is an off year election where the stakes are high but enthusiasm isn’t.
Archival Recording: I don’t want to say the steam is lost, but I definitely do think that we were promised a lot of things that we haven’t seen coming to fruition. Prior to this, I don’t necessarily think that young people were being looked at as like this core voting demographic. And so, we know that we’re a target, we’re aware that people make false promises because they want our votes, right? And so, I think that’s where a lot of the lack of excitement comes from. But I also want to make sure that I’m clear that that doesn’t necessarily make us apathetic because we’re still very engaged, very political, very much so still organizing and activating around our communities and their needs.
Lee: Join us as we meet the young people who are trying to rally their peers and turn out the youth vote this midterm season. These are the young people shaping the future of America and showing us the true power of the black vote. Hit us up on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and tell us what you think of the series. Our handle is @intoamericapod or you can tweet me at Trymaine Lee, that’s @trymainelee, my full name. And you can help us spread the word about the show by rating and reviewing Into America on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening right now.
Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Mike Brown, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Olivia Richard, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our Executive Producer is Aisha Turner. Engineering this week by Cedric Wilson. Special thanks to Stefanie Cargill, Gilbert De La Rosa, and Randy Foster. I’m Trymaine Lee. We’ll be back next Thursday for the final episode of The Power of the Black Vote.