Leaders and organizers met in Atlanta at the convening of the Thomas W. Dortch Jr. Institute for Leadership, Civic Engagement, Economic Empowerment and Social Justice. Photos: Anisah Muhammad

ATLANTA—The late Atlanta leader, mentor and businessman Thomas W. Dortch’s legacy is being carried on by the people he affected while he was alive. He passed away on February 15 at the age of 72. Across the span of his life, he served as chairman of 100 Black Men of Atlanta, chairman of the organization’s national board of directors, chairman of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and benefactor of Georgia’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

His name lives on through the Thomas W. Dortch  Jr. Institute for Leadership, Civic Engagement, Economic Empowerment and Social Justice. The institute’s co-founders, Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and Dr. George T. French Jr., president of Clark Atlanta University, held a news conference on May 31 announcing the institute’s launch.

“This momentous occasion is a tribute to the late Thomas W. Dortch Jr., a remarkable individual whose love for our community, our nation and really the world, was passionate about equity and social justice, and had an unwavering dedication to fighting for the least among us to continue to inspire us today,” Ms. Campbell said.

Organizers described the institute as a think tank focused on the South.


“The South has a rich tradition of civil rights activism, we understand that. And it’s crucial that we continue to build upon that legacy by nurturing and developing the next generation of leaders. We must prepare them to be not just leaders, but organizers,” Dr. French Jr. said. 

The newly launched institute has “four pillars” it will focus on: leadership, civic engagement, economic empowerment and social justice.

“Our role in this specific pillar is to really look at the financial wealth and well-being and progress for Black people. That’s it. That’s the charge,” Dee C. Marshall, senior advisor for the institute’s economic empowerment and entrepreneurship program, said. “We are going to look at the economic space in terms of where we are, how we are fairing and how it is that we help our people and help our people in the southern region, specifically, in and around a neighboring HBCU.”

Institute co-founder Melanie Campbell looks on as journalist Roland Martin speaks at a May 31 news conference. Ms. Campbell also serves as president-CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Photos: Anisah Muhammad

One of the upcoming projects for the economic portion is geared toward helping high school students in the Atlanta area through a youth entrepreneurship program.

The institute is planning to launch the Hope and Justice Fellowship and Internship Program in the fall for undergraduate and graduate students at Clark Atlanta University, other HBCUs in the South and community leaders.

The institute will also serve as an anchor for the Black Women’s Roundtable Racial and Gender Digital Equity Connectivity and Women’s Economic Empowerment Project. The project’s goal is to ensure that some of the $65 billion the federal government is using to improve broadband internet access will go toward unserved and underserved communities.

Journalist Roland Martin addressed the news conference and live-streamed parts of the two-day leadership convening, which consisted of more than 100 Black national and state-based leaders and organizations.

Part of the purpose of the official launch of the institute and the inaugural Southern Organizing Leadership Convening was to strategize with various movements, from traditional civil rights organizations to newer groups like Until Freedom, Ms. Campbell told The Final Call.

“The idea for the convening is to focus around building and sustaining power in our community, fighting back against the onset, how we can be much stronger together than we are apart,” she said.

Topics and sessions during the leadership convening included a political, economic, educational and social analysis of Black America nationally and in the South; a rights, freedoms and justice organizing and strategy session; the power of justice and the beloved community; the role of HBCUs in achieving educational advancement and economic, political and social justice for Black America, and an economic empowerment, justice and closing the wealth gap, organizing and strategy session.

On left, Carol Dortch, wife of Thomas Dortch, is applauded by conveners and participants of the Thomas W. Dortch Jr. Institute for Leadership, Civic Engagement, Economic Empowerment and Social Justice.

Unity and coalition building was a prevalent theme throughout the leadership convening. Panelists also addressed issues in various sectors of Black life.

“The end game is to erase us. These are erasure games. It’s almost as if somebody’s sitting back and doing this for sport,” Damon T. Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said. He talked about the “erasure games” being played in various areas, including in education against Black students, in agriculture against Black farmers and in redistricting plans targeting voting rights.

“They try to take away every avenue we have. So, the threat that we’re facing is not just the same battles of the past; there’s a lot that’s the same, but what’s new to me is they’re saying anytime you bring up race, whether it be in books that they’re trying to ban or AP college curriculum or high school curriculum, they’re trying to ban—they’re saying we shouldn’t matter. We should be erased altogether. I think that’s the end game,” Mr. Hewitt said.

“What do we do in the face of that?” he questioned. “In the face of that, we have to be bold, blunt, loud, clear with each other, with ourselves, and certainly with the opposition. We can’t play the same games. We can’t settle for the same solutions.”

The institutes co-founders, Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and Dr. George T. French Jr., president of Clark Atlanta University, address May 31 news conference.

On a question regarding the greatest social justice challenges facing Black communities in the South, Tamika Mallory, co-founder of Until Freedom, mentioned that the only difference between the challenges in the North and those in the South is geographical.

“We are starting to see blurred lines, where all over the country, all of the issues that each and every one of us is passionate about, it’s happening everywhere. And so, it’s very difficult to say that in the South we’re dealing more with one thing, because gerrymandering and things like that are happening all over the country, including in New York state, which is supposed to be a liberal state that I live in,” she said.

She argued that New York is a conservative state ruled by money and capitalism and that poverty and economic injustice are everyday fights.

“And I think that is a concern of people all across this country, that every other issue we suffer from and everything that we deal with, if you look at the root causes of gun violence, of police brutality, if you look at food deserts, all of those issues, poverty is at the center of how we got there,” she said.

Ms. Mallory, who has been in social justice work for over 30 years, spoke on how to build coalition when dealing with tools of White supremacy. She noted six things that hinder Black people from building coalition: 1. The fear of being canceled, worrying about what will happen when White people “don’t like us” and “running away from our own people”;

2. 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) statuses and being beholden to those statuses to the point of distancing other organizations; 3. Being “politically correct” vs. radical and being afraid of the term “radical”; 4. Anti-Black, anti-woman and anti-LGBTQIA media campaigns; 5. Who can go to the White House, who can’t, who’s on the list and who isn’t, and 6. Funding and getting into silos due to the lack of funding.

Mary-Pat Hector, CEO of Rise, a youth advocacy organization, shared with the audience how the Black youth vote is under attack. She and members of her organization are calling this summer, the “summer of accountability.”

“In 2020, many young organizers knocked on doors and we made phone calls and volunteered on campaigns, and we were promised criminal justice reform. We were promised free college. We were promised student debt forgiveness. And instead, all we’ve seen are attacks; attacks on the Black youth vote and our voting rights. We’ve seen attacks on just our access to education. Unfortunately, we did not get that free college we were promised. And it looks like people are throwing in the towel on student debt forgiveness,” Ms. Hector said.

“For young people, those are the issues that are mainly important to us. But what’s most important for us now is to hold those elected officials accountable that we advocated for and put our names on the line for in 2020. And with us approaching 2024, we’re going to let them know now, these decisions that you’re making in your final days leading up to that election, you’re showing us who you’re for and what you’re for,” she added. “And if it’s not for us, then enough is enough.”

Panelists discussed critical issues impacting Black communities in areas of civic engagement, economics and much more.

Alicia Garza, founder of the Black Futures Lab and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, launched the Black Census Project in 2018. The project tracks what Black people say they want and need in order to better inform public policy and create a Black agenda.

“We are creating another Black agenda for 2024 using this Black census, but we’re beginning with a Black economic agenda,” Ms. Garza said at the leadership convening.

She said the census is currently at about 80,000 responses with the goal to reach 200,000.

“The most important issue that people have identified thus far and did so also in the previous census, is low wages that are not enough to sustain a family. Other top of mind issues include gun violence, police officers not being held accountable when they commit crimes in our communities, White supremacist violence, which is a new question on this year’s survey, and also schools that are failing to prepare children adequately,” she said.

Rev. Shavon Arline-Bradley, president and CEO of the National Council of Negro Women, outlined priorities of Black women. The first on the list was equal pay. “It takes a woman that is Black in this country 18 months to make the same salary of a White male who only worked for 12 months,” she said.

Other issues discussed include reproductive health care, environmental and climate justice, the epidemic of missing and murdered Black women and economic anxiety.

The leadership convening ended with solutions proposed by people from the southern states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi. There was emphasis on having more young people present in planning and strategy sessions, engaging with Black media and connecting HBCUs to faith-based communities.

Panelists urged Black people to remember the power of intergenerational awareness, come together as a community, collaborate and coordinate and to be unapologetically Black.

The Thomas W. Dortch Jr. Institute for Leadership, Civic Engagement, Economic Empowerment and Social Justice will host more national and regional summits, forums and civic engagement trainings at Clark Atlanta University in the future.