TOUGALOO — Sun streamed through the clouds and Spanish moss swayed in trees on the campus of Tougaloo College, where 55 years ago this summer, busloads of young people gathered for Freedom Summer.
It might have been a picture-perfect setting for the long-awaited announcement of a different kind of movement.
But Stacey Abrams, a rising political star whose unsuccessful bid for the Georgia governor’s office propelled her into the national spotlight and onto numerous shortlists for higher office, stopped short of making such an announcement in her commencement speech for the historically black college’s 150th anniversary.
She also left the possibility of a national campaign wide open as she addressed more than 100 graduating seniors at her parents’ alma mater, near Jackson.
“I did not fail,” Abrams told the audience of her loss in the governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp last November. “I fell. There is a difference. Failure is a moment. Falling is an activity. But rising up and moving forward — that is your obligation, that is your ambition and that is your opportunity. That is what we are here to do.”
Abrams warned graduates against editing their desires and urged them to fight against other people’s expectations, citing times her own supporters did not expect a black woman to win her race.
Abrams, who spent much of her childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, served seven years as the House minority leader in the Georgia General Assembly. Her profile has risen in national politics since she became the first African American woman to secure a major party’s nomination for governor last year.
The race between Abrams and Kemp was marked by accusations of voter suppression and conflicts of interest. Kemp, then Georgia’s secretary of state, oversaw elections – including his own contest against Abrams. Kemp also faced several lawsuits from civil rights groups over what they said were discriminatory practices by his office.
Official results by the secretary of state’s office showed Kemp won the election by about 55,000 votes. Abrams acknowledged defeat after results were certified but refused to concede, citing what she and her supporters characterized as improper purging of voter rolls and other forms of voter suppression.
An Associated Press investigation later found that Kemp’s office had not processed more than 53,000 voter applications, 70 percent of whom were African American.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House Oversight Committee opened an investigation into the allegations in Georgia last month.
After the election, Abrams promised to continue fighting against voter suppression in the South, a message that has broad appeal among Democrats, making her an attractive candidate to progressives.
Last week, she ruled out a run for the seat currently held by Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Previously, after news reports surfaced that former Vice President Joe Biden asked Abrams about joining his presidential ticket, she said she did not believe in running for second place.
So speculation remains as to whether she will announce a bid for president or run again for governor in 2022 — options Abrams herself floated in Mississippi.
“In the end, I did not become the governor of Georgia — yet,” Abrams said in her Tougaloo address, hinting at a possible second shot at a gubernatorial bid.
“Now that’s not an announcement, because apparently there’s a presidential contest and I’m looking at that too,” she added. “And there are jobs in between.”
Abrams traced her Mississippi roots through Tougaloo, citing numerous family members who graduated from or spent time there, including her own parents, United Methodist ministers Carolyn and Robert Abrams.
The couple would tell their children about the safe haven they found in Tougaloo during their work in the civil rights movement, from the campus trees to its history and the lessons learned. There, they found love, a family and a future, Abrams told the crowd.
Now living in Hattiesburg, Abrams’s parents traveled to Tougaloo to watch their daughter speak this weekend.
Her mother beamed with pride after Abrams’s speech. “Whatever she does going forward, it will be something that she’ll feel comfortable doing, that she’ll be suited for and that will benefit others,” Carolyn Abrams said.
Abrams attended preschool through 10th grade in Gulfport, where her family was involved in a number of ministries serving the poor, the homeless and the detained, an upbringing which shaped Abrams’s worldview and political philosophy, her mother has said.
Later, Abrams obtained degrees from Spelman College, the University of Texas and Yale Law School. On Sunday, Tougaloo conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
“Having the right focus, you made strategic marks on your life map, arriving where you are today, a respected stateswoman, prolific writer, a reasoned voice for the future,” said outgoing Tougaloo president Beverly Hogan to Abrams. “And your life map is not fully drawn.”
Editor’s note: Dr. Beverly Wade Hogan, the outgoing president of Tougaloo College, serves on Mississippi Today’s advisory board.