The fight for the right to vote, and to have the voices of the Black communities in Mississippi be heard, has been an ongoing war with many bloody, tear-filled battles for more than a century. From Black soldiers in the Civil War, to Black elected officials during Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement, each generation of Black Mississippians has stood on the front lines to demand justice and equality in some form or fashion.
Civil rights leaders – those who put their lives on the line and lived to tell the tale like Hollis Watkins and James Meredith and those who became martyrs who spurred thousands into action such as Emmett Till and Medgar Evers – understood the inherent value and right as citizens of the United States to use their voices and exercise the right to vote. Even moreso, the power and voices of Black women during the Civil Rights Movement shone and resonated in waves throughout the state and nation, showing courage in the face of extreme adversity to achieve what should have already been granted to them.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, Constance Slaughter Harvey, Dorie and Joyce Ladner, Ella Baker, Unita Blackwell, and Peggy Jean Connor all shored up the Movement in Mississippi. And perhaps the woman who has had the most ubiquitous influence on the continuation of women organizers in Mississippi is none other than Fannie Lou Hamer.
In 1962, Hamer lived in a 70% Black county where there was no voting power amongst the larger demographic and all elected officials were white. She attended a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting that year in August and found her voice sitting on a bus headed to the courthouse to try to register to vote. Literally, she began singing “This Little Light of Mine” as white men in trucks drove by the bus waving guns to warn away any Black person who dared to exercise their rights in Sunflower County, MS. Two years later, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and again used her voice at the Democratic National Convention to recount the story of what it was like to live as a Black person, a Black woman, in Mississippi. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law a year later.
That passion and that innate ability to mobilize and to create a space where the issues of the people are not only heard but written down, studied, and amalgamated into something tangible that can be presented to those who create and enact policy has not died in the Magnolia State. Now, more than ever, young Black women are fanning the flames of the fire that is social justice in Mississippi. One organization that is continuing that legacy is Mississippi Votes led by 29-year-old Arekia Bennett-Scott.
The mission of Mississippi Votes, from Bennett’s viewpoint as executive director, is an organization “led and ran by young people of color who are from Mississippi, mostly Black women, who really believe in the idea of the democracy in its purest form and are trying to shake and shift the way that young people view themselves as part of the democratic process. That includes how they participate, how Black people engage generally with our elections process, and what that means for the future of reckoning with who the land of the free and the home of the brave is.”
Started in 2016 by a group of college students at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University, who were no doubt a reflection of many of the democratic voters who woke up on November 9 of that year when Donald Trump became president, they became curious about elections and the electoral process. “In 2017, [the organization] started to test this theory of what it means to do mass voter registration in the same ways that folks did during Freedom Summer,” says Bennett.
Though the theory was to target the almost 445,000 eligible unregistered voters in Mississippi, who were largely from marginalized groups, the initial approach only reached the students from Ole Miss and MSU – Mississippi’s predominantly white higher education institutions. “No HBCUs were involved at the time of inception. To talk about the eligible but unregistered voters in the Blackest and the poorest state in the United States,” expressed Bennett, “and to have folks going into communities doing mass voter registration that were not from the community, did not look like the community, and did not understand how to culturally approach the community, I had questions.”
Bennett, who is a scientist and researcher by nature with a degree in physics from Jackson State University to boot, was laser-focused on the hypothesis at hand and adamantly pushed for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, like JSU and Tougaloo, to be a part of the method in which the organization tested its original theory.
Also around 2016, the city of Jackson elected Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. Bennett was the youth organizer for his campaign and was immersed in the politics of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Black Feminist Theory.
So the question became how could the Black and Brown people of Mississippi be reached if it didn’t seem like they were part of the equation? In Bennett’s words, “Why are you canvassing white communities when your theory is to change election outcomes for folks who live on the margins of what it means to be marginalized in America?”
Folks within the organization began taking notice of Bennett’s inquiries and by 2018 her consistent challenges to the organization’s structure maneuvered her into a leadership position. She became executive director with the knowledge that her leadership would contain youth-led grassroots activism at the forefront while actualizing the goal of ensuring that the marginalized people of Mississippi’s voices were heard. Volunteers and organizers were now mobilizing on all 17 colleges and universities in the state and connecting to these voters and potential voters by engaging them in issues that matter to them.
Bennett said that MS Votes is “not just telling Black people or communities or young people to go vote. Because that ain’t enough. But vote, why? Vote, because what? What impacts you? And then trying to make a connection between the issues that people care about and a very real, tangible place on the ballot where they could see the issue. Voting is a tool that we have to use and we have to imagine beyond this.”
MS Votes became a blank canvas and the young people that Bennett came across wanted a political home – a place where they could talk about reproductive justice, climate change, and race, among the myriad of issues they are facing. During the 2018 midterm election, the organization registered approximately 4,000 people. Bennett was the only one on staff and she had 17 volunteers.
This was the start of MS Votes’ signature Up2Us campaign, which is a 16-week voter registration, voter mobilization, and voter education initiative that organizes thousands of people across college campuses and in rural areas of the state. Community academies and training sessions are held in areas that have low voter engagement and turnout to educate and inquire about the needs of the people in those specific areas. The key in MS Votes’ success is its ability to couple traditional grassroots organizing with new technology, which enables them to meet young people in the modes that they communicate in while ensuring that older voters or potential voters don’t feel not isolated. Figuring out how various demographics consume information the best increased the 4,000 registered voters from 2018 to the approximately 50,000 voters they’ve registered over the last four years.
Though Fannie Lou Hamer may not have considered herself a feminist at the time she was tirelessly advocating for the right to put her voice into action by vote, the principles she stood for and the oppression she endured because of it, especially by white male landowners, white male law enforcement, and white male healthcare professionals, spoke to the intrinsic need for the nation and for the world to understand the concept of “when Black women are free, everyone is free.” Thirteen years after Fannie Lou Hamer spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1964, the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black feminists, created a statement on the importance of democracy in America from the perspective of the Black woman and that concept was their mantra.
In 2019, Bennett continued to mold her personal brand of activism which, of course, infused into the bones of MS Votes, helping to shape it into what it is today. With the Combahee River Collective creed at the forefront of her mind, along with the modern philosophies of Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, Bennett employed other like-minded young Black women. Hannah Williams is the Policy & Research Analyst and Velvet Johnson is the Programs Manager. Together they created a robust field team and policy team to continue to continuously and effectively re-energize the organization’s purpose.
While shaping and molding MS Votes into what it is today has looked a lot like the struggles that every Black woman in America faces when they speak up against injustices and inequities in a place like Mississippi, Bennett expresses, “The truth is – how we got here ain’t pretty, but we’ve been continuing to build programs that make sense. And every time young people say or demand something, we try to meet the moment.”
Velvet Johnson remembers meeting Bennett back in 2016 when MS Votes was in its infancy. With a background in economic justice, she originally applied for the job of special project officer for the organization and came on board in August 2019. Johnson realized the difference in how the corporate world is from how the work at MS Votes directly impacts the lives of the people they work with. “We’re dealing with people’s issues and we’re directly impacting how things can turn out for that person or for a community,” said Johnson.
Her “Aha moment” came in 2020 when MS Votes helped organize one of the largest protests in the state of Mississippi’s history. A feat that was accomplished in the middle of a global pandemic nonetheless.
“We were in a leadership retreat, and the young people that are in our base – that call us their political home – they called us and said, ‘Hey, we want to have a protest around the murder of George Floyd, but we also want to address the Mississippi state flag.’ They had their direct ask, they had their goals, and it was very specific as to what they wanted to change. Being in the room, seeing them organized, seeing how many hours they put into it, how we were up there from eight o’clock in the morning to just about midnight every single night, just planning, organizing, calling people, and actually seeing the work that it takes to pull something off to where it brings out 5,000 people. That did give me a different appreciation for how MS Votes organizes.”
Johnson also admires the leadership that Bennett has cultivated within the organization. That march solidified Johnson’s trust in Bennett as MS Votes’ leader. “It’s just a different feeling when you know that someone is leading you in the right direction in this work,” she expressed. Johnson also comes from a science background, studying neuroscience, and identifies with how Bennett looks at social justice from that lense. Johnson notes that she has seen Bennett evolve as a leader, especially in terms of balancing between taking care of herself and mentoring young organizers year-round.
Bennett believes that her leadership style is very vulnerable. She admits that, in the beginning of her time at MS Votes, she was very passionate and angry. “For as long as I can remember, I have been in love with Mississippi, have been in love with Jackson, have been in love with Black people, have been in love with Black girls, and to see violence on every level of governance from policy creation to the way people actually govern against the body of people that I love and care for did something to my soul.”
Over time, Bennett realized that she couldn’t continue to separate herself from her work at MS Votes. The work of MS Votes is inherently tied to parts of her identity. Black women living in Mississippi are automatically along the margins of people that Bennett is tirelessly working to move to the place(s) where they are seen, understood, honored, and appreciated. Having to continually see that reflection mirrored back was a recipe for frustration and anger when Bennett took over as executive director.
“The responsibility is just so great,” she relayed. “Looking back on the girl I was in 2018 at 25 and looking forward, and even in the present at the girl I am at 29 almost 30, I am appreciative for the anger and the passion of whoever Arekia at 25 was and cannot discredit her. I am also now mature enough to say, not only did I make mistakes in earnest, but I made mistakes because I didn’t realize that I am very much so part of the community that I fight for. I am a Black girl. I am a girl from the South. I am Mississippi. I didn’t realize that I didn’t need anybody’s permission to just be.”
These sentiments broaden the infamous verbiage of Fannie Lou Hamer: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” During her time, Hamer surely recognized the mirror images and situations of other Black women and men living in Mississippi who were trying to register to vote, to fight for justice and equality, and live a life they could be proud of and that would be better for future generations. They were fighting to “just be.” Though she may have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of oppressive actions at that time, her legacy lives on and her work still matters. Bennett and the team at MS Votes are proof of that legacy and, if their footprint across the state says anything, they are beginning a legacy of their own.