© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For Many Black Voters, Trump's 'What Do You Have To Lose?' Plea Isn't Enough

"It's been in my lifetime that I could not register and vote freely," said Flonzie Brown-Wright.
Sarah McCammon
"It's been in my lifetime that I could not register and vote freely," said Flonzie Brown-Wright.

Updated at 7:10 p.m. ET

Like a lot of people's grandmothers, Flonzie Brown-Wright keeps a candy jar in the living room of her single-story home, which is also adorned with potted plants and family photos.

For Brown-Wright, 74, this jar is a reminder of the absurd questions — questions with no real answers — that she and other African-Americans had to answer before registering to vote in Mississippi in the 1960s.

"'How many jelly beans in a pound of candy? ... 'How many feathers are on a chicken?' And I got a bar of soap somewhere – but anyway, how many bubbles in a bar of soap?'" she recalled.

Brown-Wright says you could pass or fail those tests on the whim of an election commissioner. She failed the first time, but eventually became election commissioner herself in nearby Madison County, Miss. — a groundbreaking achievement for a black woman in the Deep South in the late 1960s.

Now Brown-Wright is not pleased with the current political climate she says Donald Trump is fostering — and she's not alone. Trump has been promising to help bring jobs and security to black neighborhoods. But his poll numbers with African-Americans are in the low single digits, and many say his message is insulting.

Brown-Wright now gives workshops on voting rights at local colleges, where she takes her jelly bean jar and soap bar."I try and make it real for people so people understand clearly that this is not something that we're just making up. That was on the test," she said.

"It's been in my lifetime that I could not register and vote freely. So when I contrast the then and the now, in many respects, this is not what we really fought for — in terms of the animus, in terms of the hate-filled slogans and rallies and all of that," she says.

Brown-Wright says the Republican nominee is painting African-American communities with a broad brush, and insulting black voters with his rhetoric, which she calls "a joke."

Lowering her voice to mimic Trump, she says, "'Uh, your schools are no good!' Is that a way to get a vote? 'You have no jobs!' It's just so condescending."

Brown-Wright says despite Trump's claim that he's reaching out to African American voters – and his visit this week to Jackson, a majority-black city – his message does not seem "genuine."

A much younger generation of black activists in Jackson seem to feel the same about the Republican nominee the question he posted to African Americans recently: "What do you have to lose?"

"We have a lot to lose," Avery Brown, a Jackson State University senior, said with a nervous laugh. "I mean, I guess there's this notion that we're already so far on the bottom that we can't go any further down?"

Brown is an intern working on a voter registration drive at the Mississippi NAACP office in Jackson. She hopes to attend law school after graduation. Brown says at this point, given Trump's past statements about other minority groups like Latinos and Muslims, there's nothing Trump could say to win her vote.

"And for him to say that he just wants to make black communities better, but while at the same time putting us down, it doesn't add up. You can't make someone better while telling them that they aren't worth anything, or they don't have anything to lose," she said.

For their part, the Trump campaign offered a response from their director of African-American outreach, Omarosa Manigault. "The Democrats continue to take the African-American community for granted. It is disconcerting that they would rather pander than formulate substantive policy plans that would actually improve conditions as opposed to continue down the current path of the last eight years," Manigault said in a statement.

Percy Glasper says he doesn't think there's much any president will do to improve his life.
Sarah McCammon / NPR
Percy Glasper says he doesn't think there's much any president will do to improve his life.

The campaign also provided a response from African-American pastor Mark Burns, who campaigns frequently with Trump. In a statement, Burns said, "Mr. Trump's critics are just that, critical. African-Americans aren't stupid, we are worse off than where we were eight years ago. We are, as a people, tired of being used by the Democratic Party. Black Lives don't matter to Hillary Clinton, Black Voting Power Matters to Hillary Clinton."

At the NAACP office in Jackson on Wednesday morning, several pastors and local leaders held a press conference to denounce Trump ahead of his campaign rally. President Derrick Johnson and others accused Trump of spreading intolerance, and being slow to disavow white supremacist support.

Johnson pointed to the state's history of racial segregation and violence, saying that Trump "clings to the hateful and intolerant rhetoric of this country's shameful history – a history that we know all too well."

On the other side of the city, Percy Glasper works in the kitchen at Fred's Soul Food restaurant.

Glasper, who is African-American, says he's not offended by Trump. He thinks Trump is just making outlandish statements to drum up media attention.

"It only makes his ratings go up. When you're in front of the camera, you do anything to get your shine on," Glasper says.

Glasper is 40, and a father of four who says he doubts he will vote in November.

"I voted for Obama in the last election and me personally, I didn't see no result. I voted for Bush ... I still didn't see no result," he says. "So I gotta get it myself, you know what I'm saying?"

Glasper says he just wants to make enough money to get out of Mississippi, take his kids on trips, and see the world — or at least, Seattle or St. Louis. He added that he doesn't think there's much any president will do to improve his life.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.