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Monday, March 18, 2024

Is Voting Still Worth It? Just Ask Ms. Gadson-Birch.

Is Voting Still Worth It? Just Ask Ms. Gadson-Birch.

A portrait of Beverly Gadson-Birch outside her home in Charleston, S.C.
Gavin McIntyre for The New York Times

By Mara Gay

“Ms. Gay is a member of the editorial board. She reported from Charleston, S.C., for this essay.

Beverly Gadson-Birch is, supposedly, retired.

But spend any time with Ms. Gadson-Birch, a community activist, business owner and grandmother in Charleston, S.C., and you may struggle, as I did, to keep up with her. She holds political meetings at local hotels. She wants to restart a local newspaper. She buttonholes friends, family members and strangers, reminding them to vote. She does all this while tapping at her Apple Watch or racing through town in a sleek S.U.V. “My husband said to me one day: ‘Girl! Where’d you learn to drive that way?’”

Many Americans have grown weary with politics and disengaged. Ms. Gadson-Birch, 77, is not one of them. Instead, she seems to have boundless energy while fighting political battles where winning appears impossible. At city council hearings and school board meetings, in diners and at church, Ms. Gadson-Birch is assiduously working to share a core belief: Voting is still worth it, even when making progress is slow and punishing work. She is not oblivious to the grim mood among Democratic voters, or the alienation of those who aren’t sure whether the Democratic Party — or democracy itself — holds meaning for them at all. Over a lifetime, Ms. Gadson-Birch has come to believe that American democracy can become whatever Americans make it.

One of 12 children, Ms. Gadson-Birch spent the first years of her childhood in Charleston’s public housing. On weekends, Ms. Gadson-Birch said, her father, who worked at a steel mill, would take the children to the city’s airport to watch the planes take off. “He would say, ‘I never got to fly, but you will,’” Ms. Gadson-Birch recalled. Downtown, there were certain restaurants in which they couldn’t eat, because the family was Black. In many stores, they couldn’t try on clothing or hats before purchasing them, because they were Black. “That really got to my mom,” she said.

In her elementary school, Wallace Consolidated, which was Black-only by law,students were required to buy the used textbooks the city’s white school no longer had any use for. “I can still see the worn covers, the name of the white school stamped on the spine,” Ms. Gadson-Birch told me. One year, Ms. Gadson-Birch said, her father couldn’t afford textbooks for all the children, so she had to go without.

Mostly though, Ms. Gadson-Birch is looking ahead. She has hopes of resurrecting a Black newspaper, The Charleston Chronicle, which closed in 2021 when its founder and publisher died. Charleston not only lost the newspaper but also its offices, where residents could meet with candidates.

Beverly Gadson-Birch walking in front of her home.
Gavin McIntyre for The New York Times

Over tea in a motel dining room, Ms. Gadson-Birch was listening patiently as John Singletary, who ran for mayor of North Charleston last year, and James Johnson, a longtime activist, talked at length about the need to unite Black voters in Charleston through a newspaper. Ms. Gadson-Birch nodded and then raised a more practical concern: “It’s going to be expensive. Who can we call to raise some money?”

Building Black political power is an uphill battle in South Carolina. The Republican Party dominates state politics and largely doesn’t court Black voters; the Democratic Party, the major vehicle for Black political aspirations, is shut out of power. “Every single statewide elected official is a Republican,” Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, told me. “You’re supposed to have opportunities for competition here.”

Black South Carolinians like Ms. Gadson-Birch have continued to organize anyway. In 2020, they played a key role in delivering the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden. Then and now, these Americans have told me, their support for Mr. Biden has been born of a strategic view that he is the best candidate to beat Donald Trump. Some may fear that Mr. Biden, at 81, is too old for the grueling task of campaigning, or governing the country. Some are angry over Mr. Biden’s support of Israel in the war in Gaza and say they will not vote at all. Others are simply frustrated with the rising cost of living.

“I know it’s depressing for a lot of people. Some of them are working two jobs trying to make ends meet, working minimum wage. They say: ‘My vote is not going to matter. The politicians still do what they want to do,’” Ms. Gadson-Birch said. “But I tell them, ‘They’re going to continue to do it if you don’t make a change.’”

Ms. Gadson-Birch’s activism began in 1969, when she was living in New York City and saw the news on television about a hospital strike back home in Charleston. Black workers had walked off the job to protest unequal treatment; her mother was among them. Ms. Gadson-Birch returned to Charleston to walk the picket line with them. After living for years in the relative freedom of the Northeast, returning to South Carolina was jarring. One day, she sat toward the front of a Charleston bus, and both Black and white riders were staring at her, hard, she still remembers. “Because I’m coming back from the North, I’m not having it,” she recalled thinking. Ms. Gadson-Birch relished the fight, and decided to stay.

Eventually, she went on to college. She spent decades working in the public school system and started a successful heating and cooling business with her husband, a Navy veteran. The industry was dominated by men. “They were not used to dealing with females,” she told me. “It was terrible.” Together, she and her husband raised two children.

After decades of activism, traces of her work in Charleston are everywhere. Ms. Gadson-Birch is rarely the loudest voice in the room, but she has been involved in everything from mayoral races to the Emancipation Proclamation Association, which organizes an annual march on Jan. 1, commemorating the document that declared enslaved Americans living in states in rebellion against the United States to be free.

So it is not surprising these days to find Ms. Gadson-Birch regularly attending Charleston County school board meetings, where candidates backed by the right-wing group Moms for Liberty won control in 2022 and last year pushed a Black superintendent out of the role. Ms. Gadson-Birch and others went to work. In churches and phone calls, and on social media, they urged more Black residents to attend the meetings. In December, the board confirmed the appointment of a Black chief academic officer.

State Representative Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat who represents Charleston, says he believes the activism of Ms. Gadson-Birch and others has been a major check on the power of the right-wing movement in education and the campaigns to ban books that have unfolded in neighboring school districts.

I asked Ms. Gadson-Birch why she was not bereft witnessing efforts that threaten to undermine decades of struggle for basic civil rights. “My great-grandmother, they told her to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap to vote,” she said. “When we think we’re making progress, we start going back, because they keep putting hurdles in the way. You expect that. But one inch at a time, we’ll get there.” The way to win, according to Ms. Gadson-Birch? Ignore the long odds, and keep organizing, protesting and voting anyway.“

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