Shimmering fields of cotton and pecan orchards punctuate the predominantly pine and oak forests around Cairo, Georgia. The region's lifeblood is the Flint River, which borders the fictional slave labor plantation in Gone With the Wind. In reality, the river flows from west central Georgia into the Gulf of Mexico, and its waters are clean enough to harbor bass, bluegill and bullheads.
Located amid rolling hills not far from the border with Florida, Cairo is a town with fewer than 10,000 residents that's known locally for its vintage car show, but it has a claim to fame when it comes to the long fight for racial equality: It was the birthplace of Jackie Robinson, who went on to break baseball's color barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Barbara McDuffie, who was born in the same town less than a decade later, has through her life experiences and careers — placing children in adopted families and more recently promoting voter education and engagement — developed distinct insights into the area's enduring challenges when it comes to race and inequality.
Some of them came early. The youngest of eight children, McDuffie was the first in her family to go to college. She enrolled in Fort Valley State University, one of 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Georgia. But before she could attend, the school required her to pass a physical in what would be her very first doctor's visit. In her world, she recalls, "People didn't go to the doctor unless they were deathly ill."
When she entered the doctor's office, she discovered separate waiting rooms — one for whites, the other for "colored people," she recalls.
"Why did it have to be separate?" she remembers thinking. She went to the white side, and was told, "You can't sit here."
That moment, in 1972, made clear that while major civil rights legislation had passed in the 1960s, the area was far from coming to grips with its racist past.
Later on, McDuffie would spend nearly two decades in child services helping to place children that courts had removed from their families due to abuse or neglect with foster and adopted families. Such work put her face to face with the human toll of long term racial and economic disparities that continued to bedevil the region.
More recently, while working as a voter education advocate, the 66-year-old mother finally sensed changes in the political terrain beneath her feet. "We've been letting the powers that be know that this is not the way we are going to continue to live."
For some Blacks of McDuffie's generation who returned to Grady County post-graduation, their college degrees opened a pathway to middle-class jobs, home ownership and lifestyles that included private music lessons and swim teams for their kids. But McDuffie and other advocates say a lack of opportunity and obstacles built up in the past continue to trap rural Black people.
"Most available jobs are in fast food or retail and pay $7.50 or less," she says. "That's not just for teenagers," she says, "but also for grownups trying to feed their families."
That helps to explain why the per capita income in Cairo in 2019 was less than $20,000; 35% of residents struggle beneath the poverty line.
The area of town called "The Hill" was once a Black middle class neighborhood, but now some of the one-story modest mid-century houses are partially boarded up, missing roof panels and broken steps that lead to sagging porches. Long gone are the swing sets, rose bushes and vegetable gardens that graced these yards when McDuffie was growing up.
McDuffie describes Cairo as an "affordable housing desert" where many of the places for Black families are in such disrepair that it causes them major problems. Some of the housing was built near a creek that routinely floods and had to be abandoned.
Fifty miles due north of Cairo, in Albany, a small city that serves as a hub for the rural counties surrounding it, one in three people lives in poverty.
Part of the problem has to do with the power company. Low-income community members living in aging and dilapidated housing stock routinely receive monthly bills between $350 and $400, and advocates say they've heard people lament bills in excess of $800 a month because landlords never weatherized homes and apartments, even though federal funds have been set aside for such efforts.
"Their dwellings are not up to code, their doors and windows are cracked, and the people who live there are basically heating and cooling the area outside of their home," explains Albany City Commissioner Demetrius Young.
People are under intense pressure, Young says. A constituent at a utility protest in October in Albany spoke of one such power bill and suggested it might be the last straw that could lead that person to commit suicide by jumping off a nearby bridge.
"For some folks it threatens their sanity," Young says.
He said that the municipal electric authority, known as MEAG, signed an extremely unfavorable contract with Georgia Power that requires the local authority to buy pre-defined amounts of power, regardless of usage — and those costs are passed on to customers.
"We are locked into these extractive contracts for decades," says Young. "It's my challenge to figure out a way to reverse that."
The cost of living is a problem on other fronts. Since 2014, the federal government has given states the option to increase the income threshold for Medicaid. The goal was to provide low-cost or free health care to more adults who live near or below the poverty line, but two Republican governors — Nathan Deal, elected to a second term in 2014, and Brian Kemp, elected in 2018 — chose not to expand its income levels.
"People, including children, continue to go without basic health services," says McDuffie. "Every time I go to the doctor or dentist, I think of all those who can't."
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McDuffie has joined a community of activists in the nonprofit Organizing for Grady County to foster civic engagement, including getting people to vote.
The group, which is open to anyone, but currently includes just one white member out of more than 200, was established after a meeting with Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown, co-founders of Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter. They found a need for such outreach after visiting communities across Georgia and talking to people about the potential impact of the Black belt voting as a bloc.
For the last three years, after receiving instruction in organizing concepts, training and analytic tools by the nonpartisan voter registration group New Georgia Project, Organizing for Grady County has been discussing issues of concern within the community.
McDuffie recalls that their first town hall in 2017 was attended by more than 100 people. They've also been registering people to vote, advocating for the hiring of Black poll watchers, and soon plan to roll out a newspaper, to be called The Voice, to more effectively represent relevant issues.
They have helped to drive a jump in electoral participation in Grady County from 8,370 votes cast in 2018, to 10,707 in the recent 2020 election. That's significant in a state where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by about 12,000 votes, and where participation in Tuesday's election could surpass turnout last November because the tight presidential race made the stakes so clear.
"People were energized by the slim margin statewide in the presidential race; it made them realize their vote matters," says McDuffie. "They're finally opening their eyes to the fact that life could be different."
Jessica King, a community coordinator for the Southwest Georgia Project, an advocacy group that's been active in the southwest part of the state for six decades, agrees. "Our people are returning to the polls to finish the job they started in November."
To make sure that happens, King says that at least 50 canvassers will work six-hour shifts until the election as they wrestle with seemingly intractable challenges, from safety concerns associated with the pandemic — Albany was one of Georgia's early COVID-19 hotspots — to coping with using high-tech tools in areas where there is no broadband Internet.
"Our folks know to pull out a clipboard and get to writing names and numbers down," King says. "Old school."
They also know, King makes clear, that in another close election, turnout in the Black belt could decide the election. "People have come to understand that it's important to pay attention to the leaders we select," she says, "because they make decisions for our health care and stimulus packages."
Before Christmas, there were sightings of Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus on the road on both sides of the Flint River. It was likely Commissioner Young and Sherrell Byrd, the co-chairperson of SOWEGA Rising, an Albany-based advocacy group.
Commissioner Young let his already gray beard grow longer, and the duo donned gold-embroidered Santa suits and dispensed candy canes. For added effect, elves distributed voter literature on issues rather than candidates.
Their stops, which were spent listening to community concerns and urging people to vote early, were mainly at housing projects in Black neighborhoods in Blakely and Cairo where they played Black Christmas standards like James Brown's "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" over a sound system.
"As we rode around we saw there are still folks living pretty much the same way they lived in the early '60s," Young says, referring to the time before the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the War on Poverty policies enacted under President Lyndon Johnson.
That was especially true in small towns like Donalsonville, in the southwesternmost corner of the state where "it looked like a movie set from then. Still stagnant, still in poverty with minimal health care, bad health care outcomes and really no upward mobility," Young explains.
"They've been in this condition so long, and nobody pays attention to them."
"We're very much still living on a modernized plantation in southwest Georgia," Byrd says. "You go to one side of town and they've got everything they need, but you go to the other side of town and there's tarps still on the roofs from a hurricane that happened two years ago."
She sees the entrenched disparities in parts of Georgia's Black belt as another long battle for equality. "Our job here is to give people that historical perspective and connect them to the ancestors who tilled this land, who we still feel present with us every day. But also to go that extra step and do our part in our generation to push us closer to that freedom."
There is no longer a single Election Day in Georgia. By the end of 2020, more than 3 million votes — representing nearly 40% of voters — had already been cast, marking a new early-voting record.
Young says the largest turnout has been in Black rural communities despite what activists allege are efforts to suppress the vote. On Dec. 28, the Albany Dougherty County Board of Registration and Elections rejected a petition by Commissioner BJ Fletcher that attempted to use the post office "change of address" list to effectively disenfranchise 3,000 people. The board concluded that the petition was filed "without probable cause."
"The current power structure doesn't want Black people to have the effect on the election that we are having," says Young.
Speaking of the people creating obstacles, he adds, "The crushing thing is some of them look like me."
Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, says history demonstrates that social justice movements that fail to include rural communities tend to fail more broadly.
"You can't change Georgia just off of metro Atlanta; you've got to have the midsized cities, the small cities, but more importantly you've got to have the rural areas that are everywhere in between."
The votes may be far-flung, but they add up. Albright says that the electoral power of the Black belt in Georgia is equal to that of a midsized city.
That's significant in an election that will decide the balance of power in the Senate, and define the scale of legislative power that President Biden will have to work with. Georgia's election is one with tremendous national stakes, especially as it will define the role of Sen. Mitch McConnell, who proved adept as Senate leader at placing obstacles in front of the Obama-Biden legislative agenda. If Sen. McConnell has a majority once again, he could do the same during a Biden presidency.
Albright interprets some of what this might mean to him: "We won't be able to correct the damage that has been done to the federal court system because nothing will move."
Paraphrasing "Brother Malcolm [X]," Albright offers a larger, more historic analysis: "It's not progress when you put a knife in my back and pull it halfway out. Progress is when you pull the knife all the way out and help the wounds heal."
Then he adds: "We can't heal the wound if we don't have control of the Senate."
All photos by Jason Kerzinski