Making History in Tennessee: DSA & Marquita Bradshaw’s people power campaign

Sometimes you don’t have to win everything to make history. Take Marquita Bradshaw and DSA’s five chapters in Tennessee. Bradshaw was the first Black woman ever to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for U.S. Senate. In her primary, she overcame the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate, whose campaign spent $1.3 million to her campaign’s $22,000.

On November 3, Bradshaw lost to her Republican opponent—but in the metro areas where DSA organized for her, she got over half of her million-plus votes. These areas saw intensive organizing by DSAers eager to reverse decades of white supremacist exclusion of Black candidates and voters. Alongside Bradshaw, Black candidates for Senate in the South included Mike Espy in Mississippi, Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, and Adrian Perkins in Louisiana–all of whom lost narrowly—and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. Warnock came in first with a plurality, and now faces a January runoff, one of two that may decide which party controls the Senate.

Black candidates in the South face a long-term fight against revanchist Jim Crow power structures. DSA is committed to helping end these white supremacist institutions with a united working-class force for change. It’s a tall order. The Senate was forged as a Constitutional guarantee against “too much democracy” by southern slavocrats and northern capitalists. Mitch McConnell loves this, and has used it to deny relief to millions of people hurt by the pandemic, and to stack the Supreme Court with rich rightists. 

“Right now, the U.S. Senate, they represent the ultra-rich,” Bradshaw said. “And so the policies actually are directed for the ultra-rich. They were able to save Wall Street three times in 48 hours, and we’ll never know the price tag. But when it came to working people, you can barely get a stimulus together because they don’t know how people experience the pandemic, or working-people issues.”


Bradshaw’s basic program of healthy and safe communities, an end to environmental pollution, and high-quality education with Medicare and universal pre-K for all resonated across the state. She calls for a Green New Deal, powered by a jobs program based on conversion to clean power, increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and requiring universal background checks for gun purchases.


Marquita Bradshaw at Power Together Women’s March in Nashville, October 17. AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY

Tennessee currently depends on the prison industrial complex, Bradshaw commented. “They need recidivism,” she said. “But if we can move to restorative justice, we’ll need to provide addiction services and other social services, and provide technical college training for people who worked in the prison industry.” Health care expansion will be critical, she said. “Current politicians don’t care. There are 20 counties with no hospitals, and 17 with no emergency departments.”

Bradshaw’s campaign organization was anchored by friends and family who have worked with her in the NAACP and in struggles against environmental racism for years, and also by DSA, whose five chapters across the state, plus another in formation, mobilized a people power campaign featuring phone-banking, door knocking, and intensive social media promotion.

Memphis DSA co-chairs Jan Lentz and Michaelantonio Jones credit Bradshaw for a surge in DSA that started with Bernie Sanders in 2016, and intensified in Bradshaw’s campaign. Their Memphis campaign headquarters, in a former hair salon, was buzzing with DSAers and other community volunteers in late October. 

The official Democratic Senate Campaign Committee didn’t give a penny to Bradshaw’s campaign, but gave $1.3 million to her primary opponent, who came in third behind Bradshaw. (The Tennessee Dems came through in late October with a small get-out-the-vote mailing.) She started with no money and spent $22,000 in her primary effort. In the general election she received more than a million dollars, with support from Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and all the other Democratic primary’s presidential candidates, plus Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and DSA’s Los Angeles and New York City chapters.

Bradshaw’s mother and grandfather have provided significant aid, based on generations of community organizing and civil rights activism. Their record of organizing victories, which include integrating her mom’s high school in rural Alamo, west of Nashville, and getting a sheriff indicted for brutality in the mid-1960s, provides a deep reservoir of community support across the state. Despite her mother’s serious kidney trouble and a stroke earlier this year, Bradshaw says she “keeps walking and talking and fighting to get back,” but has not been able to travel statewide with her daughter as she wanted to.

Despite not winning a seat in the Senate, Bradshaw said, “I’ve already won. We’ve changed how the nation talks about the environment. We are the change people are looking for. The minority have hijacked the political system. But we’re taking it back.”