In a highly-unprecedented move, a coalition of civil rights and grassroots groups ramped up pressure on Georgia’s top corporations to get them to oppose voter suppression bills in the Georgia legislature.
The group led by Black Voters Matter called on the leaders of AFLAC, Coca-Cola Co., Delta Air Lines, The Home Depot, Southern Co., and UPS ”to stand up and support Georgia voters as we support them.” The group targeted the half-dozen firms in a full-page ad in Friday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The ad listed the names, addresses, phone numbers, and emails of seven executives at the firms.
“The business community has both a responsibility and opportunity to protect democracy and help stop SB241 and HB531 from becoming law along with other racist anti-democratic bills that will roll back and restrict voting access for Georgia voters,” the ad said.
The $14,000 ad paid for by Black Voters Matter Fund ran the week of the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a Selma, Ala., march led by the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis. The March 7, 1965 protest turned violent when police attacked marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That incident led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Friday’s full-page ad is the second calling out corporate Georgia. The group spent about $28,000 on the two ads opposing the voting bills which call for ending automatic voter registration and limiting vote-by-mail and other voting options.
On Monday, the group — which also includes Georgia NAACP, The New Georgia Project Action Fund and Georgia Stand Up — followed up the ad with a “die-in” protest at The World of Coke in downtown Atlanta and an appearance on national television.
“Georgia-based businesses have, at best, been silent and, at worst, they’ve been complicit because they’re supporting some of the same lawmakers who are sponsoring these bills,” Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Albright said the group has not ruled out boycotts.
“Everything’s on the table,” he said.
Atlanta Civic Circle reached out to the six companies named in the ads. Four of the companies — AFLAC, Coca-Cola, Delta, and The Home Depot — responded. See their comments below.
“We are very engaged in it. We support equal access and opportunity for people to vote,” Delta Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastion, the current chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “It’s one of the most important liberties that we have as Americans. And we’re working on it.”
The increased pressure — specifically the full-page ads — represents a more “aggressive” tone from the protest marches, town hall meetings, and social media blitzkrieg that have until now marked the opposition to Republican-led efforts to overhaul Georgia’s electoral system, one veteran political observer said.
“This is a unique situation,” Keith Mason, a political strategist who worked on Zell Miller’s 1980 gubernatorial campaign and Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, told Atlanta Civic Circle. Mason served as Miller’s chief of staff and he served in the Clinton administration.
“They’re being asked to take a position versus them asking public officials to take a position,” Mason added. “It’ll be interesting. We’ll see what effect it has among some of the business leaders in Georgia.”
Corporate America spent much of the last year “internalizing” the protests over systemic racism and social injustice and implementation of new election rules during the pandemic drew corporations into the fray, Mason said.
“You saw businesses step up and re-evaluate where they were on social justice issues,” he added. “But they also stepped up to provide resources to state and local officials and other groups in helping us run secure, fair, open, and accurate elections.”
Then, allegations of election fraud in the presidential election and senate runoff races along with the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol led to more corporate “soul-searching” Mason noted. Those incidents prompted many companies to rethink, pause or end their political donations.
In Georgia, the six targeted companies plus Georgia Power donated a total of just over $1 million to state legislative candidates from both political parties during the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, with Republicans receiving nearly four times the amount of those donations than Democrats.
Those donations represent a small portion of the overall direct campaign donations to the authors of SB 241 and HB 531. Donations from other companies, lobbies, organizations nonprofits far overshadowed donations from the six targeted firms and Georgia Power.
“There’s a lot going on inside the C-suites and governmental affairs offices in Georgia and around the country,” said Mason who has worked with many of the executives targeted in the most recent ad.
“Georgia has been a leader in terms of business climate\ as well as its overall elected public leadership over the last 50 to 60 years in trying to be a place that’s socially progressive in order to promote its economic progress.”
Over the years, Georgia businesses “have been on the front lines” dealing with the controversy over the changing of the state flag, gay rights, and hate crimes, Mason noted.
Last summer corporations pledged nearly $2 billion to address racism and injustice after the death of George Floyd, a Black killed after a police officer put a knee on his neck for more than eight minutes. Coca-Cola pledged $2.5 million in grants to the NAACP, Equal Justice Initiative, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Similarly, Home Depot said it would contribute $1 million to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Now, the Peach State finds itself at the epicenter of the political and social unrest taking place nationwide “because of its demographics and politics.”
Georgia is among 43 states that have introduced some 253 voter suppression bills this year according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Yet all eyes are on Georgia which helped clinch the White House and Congress for Democrats. The irony that the nation’s most controversial anti-voting stance is occurring in Atlanta — the birthplace of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. — speaks volumes Bruce said.
The controversy of the voting bills, Mason says, is “different.”
“Businesses typically follow those in power and Republicans are in power and they’re behind this piece of legislation so that makes it more challenging for them in terms of their pragmatic politics,” Mason said. “They also care about their image and reputation. The reputation of these six companies is heavily dependent on how consumers view them.
“So it’s tough,” Mason added. “They haven’t been targeted like this in the past. Now we’re at a point where we’ve got to walk the walk and see where it goes. It’s not simple.”
Simple or not, activists are broaching the issue boldly.
“We’re asking them to put the same energy into voting rights as they would into defending their own business,” Albright said. “They’ve got consumers and employees and neighbors they need to be responsive to. What’s the point of having an office of corporate responsibility if they’re not going to be responsive on this issue?”
On Monday night, BVM co-founder LaTosha Brown took Georgia’s fight to national television. Brown told MSNBC’s Joy Reid the six companies are Fortune 500 firms with international reach and power that could help stop the bills from becoming law.
“We need action. They have political influence,” Brown said. “We see draconian deals that will not just impact black voters but impact democracy. So we expect these corporate citizens to stand with us.”
Brown said the coalition wants the corporations to “stop the voter suppression deals that are in the Georgia legislature, divest from those (politicians) behind the bills and push for the federal voting rights bill HR 1 and the complete restoration for the John Lewis (Voting Rights) Advancement Act (HR 4).”
These same companies spoke out and gave money to Black Lives Matter when racial unrest erupted nationwide last year, Albright noted. They also were instrumental in Gov. Brian Kemp vetoing the controversial “religious freedom” bill in 2016 after it was deemed to be discriminatory against gay people and could conceivably drive business out of Georgia, proponents said.
“These CEOs should step forward and lead and say what the legislature is doing is anti-American,” activist Derrick Boazman, a former Atlanta City Councilman and radio personality, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “This legislation is wrong. It’s anti-voter. It should be a clarion call to these businesses. They’re saying nothing because they benefit from it if they remain silent.”
Even with just two weeks left in this legislative session, voting rights activists say there is plenty businesses can do.
Christopher Bruce, political director of the ACLU of Georgia, offered the following strategy for businesses to become more involved:
“They should have been doing this all along — even before the (legislative) session started,” Bruce said.
Adds Boazman: “What’s undergirding the voting issue in Georgia and across the country is race and we need to stop ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room. What we’ve really got to do now is evaluate where we spend our money. I’m not going to be in the business of financing my own oppression.”
Want to get involved? Call 1-833-993-FAIR (3247) and tell your legislators your positions on voting rights.
Maria Saporta and Maggie Lee contributed to this article.
(Header: A voting sticker. Image via Unsplash.)
Editor’s note – this story was corrected to clarify donations were to state legislative candidates, not political parties.