A grassroots group is turning Marvel’s Black Panther into a rallying cry for black voters ahead of the 2018 US midterm elections.
Activists took to Black Panther screenings across the country this weekend, when the film hit US theaters, to register people to vote, or, as they call it, #Wakandathevote. The program was organized by the Electoral Justice Project (EJP), which launched in October with over 1,000 people, as part of the Movement for Black Lives’s efforts to fight for and advance the rights of black Americans, Blavity reported.
Organizers have continued to use the long lines outside screenings of the record-setting movie to boost black voter registration.
“We meet our communities where they are, whether that’s in the streets, at the city council meeting, or in the movie theater,” EJP organizers Jessica Byrd and Kayla Reed told Blavity. “This weekend we wanted to meet our people in Wakanda. We know that for some it’s a superhero world, but we know that the world we deserve is still waiting to be built—and we want to build it!”
The grassroots movement could make a difference in an election season when House and Senate Democrats are hoping to unseat enough Republicans to win the party majority. Most black registered voters this year—88% surveyed by Pew Research Center—said they were supporting or leaning toward the Democratic candidate for Congress in their district. The approval rating for Donald Trump, who has called Haiti and African nations “shithole” countries and under whose presidency white nationalists have taken to marching in the streets, has sunk also among black Americans, recent polls show.
Black Americans made up about 12% of eligible voters in 2016, but they voted at a lower rate than whites. About 60% of eligible black voters said they voted in the race, while 65% of eligible whites voted. Black voter participation dropped from levels in 2012 and 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, Pew found. Midterm elections are a harder sell for voters overall, because they don’t get as much media attention.
Yet, black voters made the difference in two recent local elections that saw Democrats unseat Republicans. In Virginia, black voters made up 20% of the electorate (paywall) in a 2017 gubernatorial race that elected Democrat Ralph Northam over Republican Ed Gillespie. In Alabama’s special Senate election, black voters showed up to the polls in greater-than-expected numbers to help elect Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore.
It’s up to the Democratic party to take those cues and speak to the interests of black communities. The Brookings Institute identified 26 black-majority cities in states with Senate races in 2018 where Democrats could start, Quartz’s Ana Campoy previously reported.
Registering people to vote is only half the battle. People still have to go to the polls and the midterms are a long eight months away. (There are state primaries and special elections that will be held throughout the year.) The EJP can learn from the success of activists in Virginia and Alabama, who also focused on turning potential voters into advocates. In Alabama, The Atlantic reported that a grassroots group:
…centered its efforts on potential sites of latent black political power, including historically black colleges and universities and black churches. Thompson bet that her tiny group of organizers could use those institutions as force-multipliers, turning each potential new voter into an organizer…Woke Vote secured pledges from members not only to vote, but to bring people with them to the polls.
The EJP is similarly encouraging people to set up their own voter registration events at local theaters to #Wakandathevote, which appears to be going strong, based on tweets from the organizers.
The film itself, which debates how the fictional African nation of Wakanda should use its resources to help black communities around the world, has inspired other forms of activism. People around the country have raised money and bought screenings for black communities, especially black youth. The movie is a rare blockbuster that’s directed by a black man, with a black superhero in the lead, and black talent on and off the screen.