Kevin Alexander Gray, a contributor to and longtime friend of The Progressive, was Jesse Jackson’s South Carolina campaign manager in 1988 and Tom Harkin’s Southern campaign coordinator in 1992. He is the former president of the ACLU of South Carolina, where he still lives.
Gray is the co-editor of Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence and the author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics and The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama. We spoke in a live interview on WORT-FM, a community radio station in Madison, Wisconsin, on the day after the November 3 election. Here’s an edited transcript.
Q: What did election day look like for you in South Carolina?
Kevin Alexander Gray: Well, I had gone out and did a little project in some select counties with an Indian American friend of mine that focused on neighborhoods serviced by Indian American or Arab American businesses. You have a lot of poor communities and you have all these little stores in those neighborhoods, so we just put out signs that said “Vote, our lives depend on it.” And then we had window stickers that said “Vote, we’re in this together,” for when people walk into those stores. And of course, here in South Carolina with Jaime Harrison, I had written an article in The Nation and said that Jaime had to get Obama numbers, which he did, but the downward trend of Lindsey Graham’s voters would have had to keep going down, too.
His last election, he won with 665,000 votes, this time he got 1.3 million votes. Even if Jaime Harrison had gotten all the nonwhite registered voters, which is right at 1.1 million, you would still have to have a significant white vote for Harrison.
Now, there are a couple of things that happened in this election. One is the coronavirus, the other is organizing. The Democrats did the responsible thing. They weren’t doing door-to-door canvassing, and they didn’t have a lot of big rallies. Trump came into the state and [Graham’s supporters] weren’t afraid to meet with their people despite the virus.
Q: What could have been done differently?
Gray: While there was massive October early voting, the ground game for the Democrats wasn’t as strong as it could have been. And when you look at the local elections, the house races and the senate races here in South Carolina, the Democrats lost at least three state senate seats and two house seats.
So now we are going to have to deal with the issue of gerrymandering with an empowered state senate. The organizing that needed to be done wasn’t. Campaigning just against Trump, instead of campaigning on issues, has backfired on people a little bit.
It’s a sign of how divided this country is, and really how racist, that half the people would vote for someone who hopes to be an autocrat. And there’s a huge body of people in this country who have had the skin privilege most of their lives, thinking that these darker-skinned people, these non-white people, are taking something from them, who buy into the Trump message.
Q: What did you learn from this election?
Gray: I’ve always said to Democrats in the state—most of the cities are Democratic cities across the country, and you have a huge Black vote in those cities. If you’ve got elected officials in those cities and counties in which they’re not engaged with the citizens, and when you see the resources distributed in those communities not coming to your community—the bad roads, no trash being picked up, infrastructure being neglected, no support for minority-owned businesses on an ongoing basis. If you’re not taking care of people every day, then it’s hard to come to them [on Election Day], especially people who don’t traditionally vote, who think it’s not worth it.
Q: What’s the organizing message across the board?
Gray: The message is to go into these communities, and rebuild communities, and let people see who’s rebuilding them. You have to get people where they are and bring them to where you need them to be. That’s how you organize. You don’t expect everybody to agree with you.
You have to find some common ground and have conversations with people instead of just vilifying people. Now, that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a very racist country and the world is seeing what a lot of us have been saying probably all our lives, but how do you organize around that? How do you find common ground and change the perspectives of people?
You have to engage them and that you have to do even when Donald Trump isn’t in office. Campaigns just can’t be about being against something or against somebody, they’ve got to stand for something.
Q: With the election over, where should these efforts be focused?
Gray: Because so much of the country is red, we need to look at these down-ballot races, to look at the state legislatures. Because the next battle is going to be about redistricting and whether or not the people that are in these state legislatures—for the most part Republicans—are going to keep redrawing people out of power. That’s the next big fight. We must try to deal with reapportionment and redistricting. Republicans draw everyone out of power that believes in equal rights, that believes in holding police accountable, that believes in the fair distribution of resources in the community.
Q: I guess the demographic that I am interested in is the young people. I have hope in the young people.
Gray: Young people came out seriously, in huge numbers. You’ve got to give it to them that the movements and all the protests have energized them. And they came out and voted, more than they voted in past races. So what do you do with that? Someone might have to go home and organize their parents and figure out why their parents believe what they believe, and maybe that would be a wake-up call to some of the young folk.
But as they say, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and in this fight it’s been ongoing. The main thing I keep falling back on is that you have to keep organizing. I don’t want to go back and talk about the past and talk about how Democrats have done in the past, but I do look at the eight years of Obama when Democrats felt pretty comfortable and didn’t do any organizing in the community.
Organizing never stops. You meet people at their needs, not at their fears. There’s fear of Trump. No question I voted against Trump, but I still believe that when you’re talking about getting people out to vote, you have to have a ground game beyond fear. You have to organize between elections. You have to engage people who don’t agree with you and try to win them over to your side. You don’t take anybody for granted.
The Democrats have a habit of not wanting to have a fifty-state campaign; they want to focus on the big states. In order to build, you have to build your entire infrastructure across the country, and every state is important and every vote is important. I’m hoping that that’s a lesson for the Democratic Party or whoever has the right message. I think ‘pro-people and pro-rights,’ that’s the message that they’ll have to carry forward.