LaTosha Brown opened with a song.
Speaking about voting rights one recent spring day in Selma, Alabama, the Black activist delivered the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” in a voice showcasing her background as a jazz singer. She told her audience, through music, that the fight for equal access to the ballot box was as urgent as ever.
The song drew cheers from a few dozen listeners, young and old, who had gathered before the brown-bricked African Methodist Episcopal church in a city known for its poverty as much as for its troubled racial past.
For Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, the song served to introduce a question.
“Close your eyes,” she said. “What would America look like without racism?"
“How will we ever create what we’re not even envisioning? There was nothing that was brought into the real world that was not first envisioned.”
A year after the police killing of George Floyd galvanized public attention to racial injustices, amid a barrage of restrictive voting laws being passed by state legislatures, Brown’s group is redoubling its march toward its North Star: increasing the political power of Black communities.
Like many groups that serve predominantly Black communities, the organization was flooded with donations after Floyd’s death. A year later, the impact is visible: The group says it gave $10 million to 600 community-based groups in 15 states, mostly in the South, who, among other things, registered voters, distributed flyers about the importance of voting, held phone banks, sent millions of text messages, canvassed communities reminding people to vote and rented buses to drive people to the polls.
Those efforts are widely credited with helping fuel Black voter turnout in Georgia, which, in part, led to Democrats scoring victories in the presidential and U.S. Senate races that gave them control of both houses of Congress and helped President Joe Biden enact his legislative agenda. Now, in the face of new restrictions on voting in areas heavily populated by people of color, new challenges are emerging.
Brown estimates that Black Voters Matter, which received more than $30 million in donations last year, has about 90,000 unique donors. Most of its donations were small gifts from ordinary Americans.
The group’s operations are run through two channels. One is the Black Voters Matters Fund, a social welfare organization that can engage in political activity, like lobbying. The other is the Black Voters Matters Capacity Building Institute, a nonprofit that funds voter education, registrations and other programs to expand access to voting. (Contributions to the Capacity Building Institute are tax-deductible; donations to the Fund are not).
After the racial justice protests, most of the donations flowed into the Capacity Building Institute, which from June 2020 to the end of last year received $18 million — a jump of more than 400% from the amount it collected in 2019, according to Alexis Buchanan Thomas, Black Voters Matter's development director, though the increase was driven in part by the 2020 elections.
Brown says $3 million earmarked for advocacy work was distributed to several dozen community-based groups. An additional $7 million was given to help local organizations, like the Alabama Association for the Arts, run their own operations and conduct voter engagement work, including voter registrations.
Using a $17,000 grant from Black Voters Matter, the Alabama-based group funded a project called Lift Our Vote. It rented buses to help Alabamans get to polling locations, said Lauren Barker, the project’s co-founder. On Election Day, they drove 10 routes across north Alabama.
An additional $6 million was used to support Black Voters Matter’s own get-out-the-vote activities and its 21 state staffers who coordinate with local groups. The funding also went toward providing local organizations vans for transportation, graphics support and radio advertising expenses, among other needs. The main goal for Black Voters Matter, Brown says, has been to strengthen these organizations for the long run.