LaTosha Brown is serious about the Black struggle for freedom. She has seen from history, and knows in herself, that passing on the culture that links together generations in that struggle is essential work for the movement.
On the Heals of Foot Soldiers
By Kelundra Smith
Food trucks line the street in front of Ebenezer Baptist Church on an especially humid June afternoon in Atlanta. Vendors sit under tents handing out snacks, masks, fans, and T-shirts. The Cash’s Juke Joint cover band has the crowd rocking to old school hits such as The Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” and “Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze. It’s a party atmosphere, but there’s also a sense of urgency.
In the fallout from the 2020 elections, dozens of states have changed their voting laws, including Georgia. For Black Voters Matter Fund co-founder LaTosha Brown, Atlanta is the fourth stop in a 10-city bus tour across the Southeast. BVM invoked the spirit of the 1960s freedom rides driving its red, black, and green bus that the group calls the “Blackest bus in America.”
“If democracy will be so, it won’t be because of Congress or the Supreme Court, it will be because people made it be so,” Brown says.
Brown and her BVM co-founder, Cliff Albright, are playing the long game. When they started Black Voters Matter in 2016, they were registering people to vote and giving rides to elders in rural areas in Alabama and Georgia whose polling locations had changed. In the beginning, they had plans to return the bus because it would take $100,000 to maintain it.
“A woman in the Mississippi Delta wrote us a check and said, ‘You can’t turn that bus in, that’s the people’s bus,’” Brown tells me, holding back tears. That check was a seed, the first of many to help them buy and maintain a small and growing fleet of buses. “It was white women and Black women who did fundraisers and still send money.”
Since then, the organization has grown to include coordinators in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. The model of BVM Fund is to partner with grassroots organizations concerned with a variety of voting and human rights issues in cities across the South and give them support to further their goals.
At the event in Atlanta, groups advocated not only for access to the polls, but also reforms in immigration, policing, and climate change.
Even as a child, Brown says, she knew the importance of power. Growing up in Mobile and Selma, Alabama, she saw the remnants of the Civil Rights Movement. As a little girl, whenever she and her grandmother went into buildings, she was obsessed with knowing who was in charge.
“We’d go into Kmart and I’d ask my grandma who owns this store,” Brown laughs. “I also never liked bullies. I was a girly girl, but I would fight. I never like to see people abuse their power.”
As she got older and learned about her family’s history in the Civil Rights Movement, the call to make a positive impact in the world grew stronger. Brown was primarily raised by her mother and grandmother. Her father, a jazz musician, lived in Tuskegee most of her life.
Brown’s mother was a plaintiff in the case Birdie Mae Davis, et al v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County. The case was filed in 1963 in order to integrate schools in Mobile County, nearly a decade after Brown v. Board of Education. They were represented by the NAACP — notably with Constance Baker Motley on the legal team. An initial ruling was handed down in 1971, but the case was not fully settled until 1997.
In 1961, nearly 200 miles away in McComb, Mississippi, Brown’s father, Abram Brown, was fighting his own battle for desegregation. As a student at Burglund High School, he got involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and participated in walkouts. As a result, he was denied being able to graduate and was put on an FBI watch list. He continued his education at a junior college in Jackson and went on to attend Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), where he met Brown’s mother.
“Neither one of them stayed active in the Movement after that because it was painful for them,” Brown says. “But the Movement called me forth.”
Still, Brown never saw herself marching on Washington and appearing on cable news every day. More than anything, she simply wanted to sing.
Brown fell in love with music early and says that there was always music in her childhood home. Her mother loved the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and Al Green. Her father was a musician whose nickname was Coltrane. Her grandmother often listened to Movement songs. Their eclectic tastes formed her own.
As she travels from city to city fighting for voting rights, music keeps her moving. Nowadays, she has everything from Bonnie Raitt and Wynonna Judd to Tupac and Cardi B on her playlist.
“My mother swore that I sang before I spoke as a baby,” Brown says. “My first paid gig was on a Greyhound bus traveling from Mobile to New York for Christmas. I was singing and my grandma was trying to tell me to stop and this guy and the bus driver pumped me up. I sang ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ and ‘Jingle Bells,’ and I got paid $5. That was my first gig and you couldn’t tell me nothin’.”
She recalls being asked to sing at school events growing up. As the valedictorian of her sixth grade class, she sang “Believe in Yourself” from “The Wiz” at her elementary graduation. In high school, she was part of a jazz band called Impact. During her senior year, the Beach Boys and the Fat Boys were on tour and held a contest in Montgomery for a local band to open for them. Brown recalls proudly that her band won out of hundreds of submissions and performed in front of 30,000 people.
“My life has always been hailed by music,” Brown says. “I think in melody. The way I move through life is like a rhythm.”
However, there was a three-year period when Brown did not sing. She’d been working as a development and strategy consultant for a number of nonprofit organizations, and she’d just started her public speaking business, TruthSpeaks Consulting, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. She vowed to never sing a word, no matter how much people asked.
By 2010, she was director of the Gulf Coast Fund and was invited to speak at a benefit event following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Instead of words, a song came out. From there, she was invited to sing on a podcast produced by Porto Franco Records. She sang “I Know I Been Changed” and the video went viral — with more than 1 million views to date.
“It forced me to consider that I couldn’t separate music and Movement,” Brown says.
At any Black Voters Matter event, there’s always music. The music helps to lift people’s spirits in the face of seemingly insurmountable injustices. For Fenika Miller, senior coordinator for Black Voters Matter in Georgia, Brown’s songs are a reminder of the reason she has committed her life to civil rights work.
“There’s nothing like hearing LaTosha get onstage and start to sing … it summons the ancestors,” Miller says. “It reminds me that my grandfather was one of the first Black men in Houston County to be registered to vote in the 1960s. I keep his voter registration card on my wall.”
For Brown, it’s about getting to people’s souls and sometimes lifting her own. Fighting for freedom comes with a price for Brown, who has two adult children and two grandchildren. At the BVM tour stop in Atlanta, Brown hustled from bus to bus surrounded by a security team. Brown and Albright have both experienced death threats against them and their families. On the day of the Capitol insurrection, they both had to leave their homes for two weeks.
“I’ve received packages to my home where the FBI had to come and investigate,” Brown says. “We have been at an Airbnb where the trash can at the house was set on fire. We’ve had the window of the bus burst out on the interstate in Alabama. In Kentucky, a hate group threatened to put nails on the highway to blow out the tires on the bus. … We try to stay in the possibility of the work that we’re doing.”
Right now, Brown is creating new possibilities for herself. She has been traveling to Nashville for the past couple of years and recording an album of Movement songs called “Songs of the Souls of Black Folk.” It contains freedom songs from the ’60s and ’70s as well as original music.
“Music has a way of stripping everything down and forces you to go in your heart and be in your feelings,” Brown says. “For a split second, I can remind people of their humanity.”
A love of humanity is at the core of Brown’s work. At Black Voters Matter events, it’s clear that the cause is beyond Black and white. It’s a national, interracial coalition of Movement groups across the country. In Atlanta, there were more than a dozen groups, representing Latinx, Native American, LGBTQ+, and other interests united behind giving poor and marginalized people a voice.
The Rev. James Woodall, state president for the NAACP in Georgia, was an early BVM supporter and spoke at the Atlanta event. For him, as voting rights hang in the balance, it’s important that groups come together and support each other.
“We operate in the tradition of our ancestors, a collective humanity that lifts up all people,” Woodall says. “When we work together, when we fight together, when we pray together, when we mobilize together, we win every single time. We’re going to continue to do that because that is what justice looks like.”
At this point in her career, Brown wants to inspire the next generation with what she’s learned from Movement-building. As an American Democracy Fellow at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, she teaches about the intersection of Movement-building and scholarship for the purpose of building democracy. She pushes students to ask the questions: How can we create a democracy that is more inclusive and reflective of the citizens of this nation? How do we think about democracy in a way that is centered around the value of humanity?
The bus’s final destination was Washington, D.C., where members marched on June 27 in support of D.C. statehood and to urge Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. In June, the Senate blocked the For the People Act, and the Lewis Act will need 60 votes to pass, but they’ll keep riding.
Looking forward, Brown says that she has three goals. “I want people to tap into their humanity, I want to generate as much art as possible, and I want to generate love and joy. I am a love ambassador.
“I want people to radically reimagine the South,” she adds. “The South is rich, glorious, and beautiful. If we can uproot the tree of hate, what would the landscape really look like?”
This essay was originally published on The Bitter Southerner.