By Abby Ramirez
Before Stacey Abrams’ parents moved their family to Atlanta to become United Methodist ministers, and even before Carolyn Abrams worked as a college librarian and Robert Abrams worked as shipyard worker, they were civil rights advocates. In the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, Carolyn was kicked off of buses when choosing a seat in the front. Robert was beaten and jailed for his actions. However, despite the life threatening consequences they faced in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, they continued to persist, knowing that the equality, justice, and fairness they were fighting for were too valuable to abandon.
When they started a family, they instilled this same strength and fierceness into their six children, one of whom took it upon herself to make it her life’s mission to fight for the same ideals her parents did all those years before.
Growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi, Stacey Yvonne Abrams had been exposed to racial inequality and division early in her life. Wanting their kids to receive a good education, her parents chose a house that would allow them to live in one of the better school districts. Abrams explained to the Washington Post that “It was less a black community than we lived on a ‘black street.’ There were these two streets that were adjacent to the middle-class, predominantly white part of town to get zoned into the middle-class school. … We lived on the two streets that were all black. … All the streets got nicer names as you went further in, so those were predominantly white.”
Education was a major part of Abrams’ upbringing, and one in which she excelled. Learning from her father that “there is no division of capacity that comes along with gender,” she became very invested in her studies, especially after her family relocated from Gulfport to Atlanta, Georgia.
During her junior year at Avondale High School, she was chosen out of her class to attend the Telluride Association Summer Program: a six-week experience for motivated and curious students from diverse backgrounds to engage in seminars given by college professors, as well as other social and educational activities. Abrams was later able to get her first taste of politics after being hired as speechwriter and typist for a congressional campaign at the young age of 17. She would later graduate as the first African American valedictorian from her high school.
Abrams continued her education at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, unknowingly setting herself on her path into racial justice and political organizing. At the end of her freshman year in 1992, she led a protest against the Rodney King verdict where protesters symbolically burned the state flag for being a symbol of the confederacy.
“And when I burned the Confederate flag, I had a permit for it, but when we burned that flag, it was because I grew up in Mississippi in the shadows of Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis, where I watched people celebrate a man who tried to keep my people enslaved. And that’s just wrong,” Abrams told Harper’s Bazaar.
Soon after, she organized a televised town hall meeting with Mayor Maynard Jackson, the first African American mayor in Atlanta, where she asserted that he was not doing enough for the community after attending many zoning and council meetings around the area.
“I berated him for not doing enough for young people. I was very young and irate and then … I gave them my number, and I gave my parents’ number. ‘[Here’s] where I’m going to be, if you have any questions,’” Abrams recalled in an interview with the Washington Post.
Although these actions were bold for a college student and frustrating for the Mayor, Jackson eventually created an Office of Youth Services the following year, and hired Abrams as a research assistant in the department. It was this experience that led her to realize that she wanted to become a public servant.
After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (political science, economics, and sociology), Abrams went on to earn her Master’s of Public Affairs degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin in 1998, as well as her Juris Doctorate Degree from Yale Law School in 1999.
Returning to Atlanta, she became a tax attorney at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan law firm before being appointed Atlanta’s deputy city attorney by Mayor Shirley Franklin in 2002.
After four years as deputy city attorney, Abrams ran and was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2006, eventually working her way up to becoming the first woman ever to lead the Georgia General Assembly and the first African American to lead in the Georgia House of Representatives in 2010.
As the first Black woman to become Democratic minority leader, Abrams worked to defend the rights and needs of the middle and lower classes. In her time in office, she fought to lower sales taxes, to protect women’s reproductive rights, public education, and Medicaid from budget cuts, as well as train younger members of the Democratic party in politics. However, although she was a champion of those on the left, she understood that progress could not be made without compromise. To the chagrin of some of those in her party, Abrams worked with Republicans from across the aisle to broker deals that bettered education, public transportation, and infrastructure all across Georgia.
During her time in the Georgia House of Representatives, Abrams was also a leader in founding and directing many businesses and corporations such as:
- NOW Corp: a financial services firm that helped small business and at which she was senior vice president
- Nourish: a beverage company for infants and toddlers that she co-founded
- Sage Works: a legal consulting firm at which she was CEO.
She also wrote eight romantic suspense novels under the pseudonym, “Selena Montgomery,” for which she became a New York Times best selling author.
Most notably, Abrams took her first large step towards mass voter registration in Georgia by launching the New Georgia Project (NGP): a nonpartisan organization aiming to educate and inform communities about how to register to vote and the ways in which they can make a difference by casting their vote. Through advocacy and direct interactions with their community at places like college campuses and churches, the NGP worked to “register all eligible, unregistered citizens of color in Georgia by the end of the decade,” according to its website. Since its launch in 2013, NGP has registered more than 69,000 new voters in Georgia.
After 11 years in the Georgia House of Representatives and seven years as the Minority Leader, Abrams stepped down to focus on her campaign for the Georgia Gubernatorial Election, and later became the first African American woman to earn a major party’s gubernatorial nomination in the United States. In her campaign against Republican Brian Kemp, she pushed for mass voter registration, job creation, better transportation, infrastructure, gun control and rural healthcare.
“We can save rural hospitals, cover more than a half a million Georgians, and invest in all of those communities to the tune of $3 billion, including the creation of 56,000 jobs, 60 percent of which are outside the metro area,” she said in a televised debate.
Even after visiting all 159 counties in Georgia, Abrams lost by a mere 54,723 votes, less than two percentage points. However, although she did acknowledge Kemp’s victory, she made a point of saying that she would not concede, as she truly lost due to the massive voter suppression across the state.
“I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election. But to watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in this state baldly pin his hopes for election on suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling … But stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people. And I will not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right,” Abrams said in her post-election speech.
According to Fair Fight, Abrams’ program aimed at promoting fair elections, 1.6 million voter rolls were thrown out between 2010 and 2018; nearly 30,000 voters were forced to vote on a provisional ballot that did not end up counting when processed; thousands of absentee ballots, mainly belonging to people of color, were lost or disregarded; over 53,000 voter registrations were kept in “pending” status, 80 percent of them belonging to people of color; tens of thousands had to miss work or previous obligations to stand in hours-long lines to register, forcing many to get out of line without registering because they could not miss their previous engagements; and because of faulty voter machines, over 100,000 voters–mainly people of color–had their votes for the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s race go unrecorded.
After the election, Abrams filed a lawsuit (Fair Fight v. Raffensperger) to combat the unconstitutionality of the 2018 elections and election procedures in Georgia and hold the state government accountable for years of voter suppression of people of color.
In 2020, Abrams launched Fair Fight: “an initiative to fund and train voter protection teams in 20 battleground states.” Similar to the New Georgia Project, Fair Fight seeks to educate voters about their voting rights and bring awareness to voter reform. During the presidential election last fall, she played a key role in expanding the Democratic voter base in Georgia by reaching out to people of color. In the end, her passionate attempts to enfranchise those who had been silenced during her 2018 campaign worked, as her extensive mobilization of Georgian voters played a key role in flipping Georgia blue and helping President Joe Biden win the election.
At only 44 years old, Abrams was able to overcome the 245 year old problem in America that is voter suppression of women and people of color. While she is not holding any office in Georgia at the moment and does not plan to run for a seat in Washington, there is no doubt that we can expect to hear and see a lot more positive change occur around us because of her efforts to make America truly equal.
“This is a nation built on voter suppression. When we started, white men who owned land could vote. If you were Black, you were a slave. If you were a woman, you were supposed to be silent. If you were Native American, you were invisible. Then in 1790 we decided to shut the gates and say no one else can come in. So we’ve spent 230 years trying to reclaim the promise that was in our Declaration of Independence, this promise of equality. But we can only reclaim it if we have the power of the vote. I know it can sound like a slogan or a really pale solution to all of these challenges, but in a democracy, you can’t give up the power you have trying to get the power you want,” Abrams told Janelle Monaé in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar.