Joyce Marie Griggs

“I’m in the middle. I had to fight for a place,” says Joyce Marie Griggs, musing about growing up midst a family of 10 children in a two-bedroom house in Bethel, N.C., a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it of some 1,500 people in rural North Carolina. She’s been fighting for her place, it seems, ever since.

The daughter of sharecroppers, Griggs attended North Carolina Central University, a historically Black university in Durham, where she earned a B.A. in sociology and an M.A. in counseling. She later entered the Army, becoming an intelligence analyst and one of the first women to attend Airborne School in Fort Benning, Ga. She deployed to Iraq three times and was awarded a Bronze Star for “meritorious service in a combat zone.” While in the Army Reserves, she earned a law degree from John Marshall Law School in Atlanta.

Griggs, 70, is one of four candidates seeking to represent the Democratic Party in this fall’s congressional race against the presumptive Republican candidate, incumbent Earl “Buddy” Carter. She’s far from a stranger in local politics. She’s run twice for the 1st District seat and is active in grassroots groups across the region. She refers, without a hint of cant, to her constituency as “the people”— the disenfranchised, the needy, the poor, the elderly, and the children of coastal Georgia.

As part of a series of Q&A’s with the candidates, The Current spoke with Griggs earlier this month at the Garden City Library. We talked about why, in her view, Donald Trump and Buddy Carter are two sides of the same coin. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed whether coastal Georgia was ready for a Black woman to represent it in Congress, her response to a resident of Pierce County who said he’s never vote for anybody that looked like her, and why, when she was a girl, cotton-picking season always made her cry.

For the past 30 years, Coastal Georgia’s seat in Congress has been held by Republicans. Jack Kingston filled the seat for 22 years. Buddy Carter has occupied it for eight. Can Democrats break the Republican Party’s grip on the seat?

So much has happened since the 2020 election — the pandemic, the Jan. 6 insurrection. I believe that when people start looking at Buddy Carter’s voting record, they’ll see that he isn’t voting for the benefit of all people in the district. He’s left out people who are important.

Buddy’s scope is narrow. He doesn’t account for the beautiful diversity we have in the 1st District. We have rich, we have poor, we have urban residents, we have rural residents, we have everything in-between. Buddy seems interested only in the few. He’s a politician, not a servant. Being in Congress means serving the people and not being served. He’s one of those politicians that just wants to be served. We don’t have enough people in a political office that are fighting for the people, that are out there fighting for their rights and what they need.

Buddy pays attention to people with money. To him, it’s okay that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. You’ll never see him walking in the hood of Savannah or visiting some of these federally funded housing projects. But I bet you’ll see him at these country clubs and catering to the wealthy or those who can pad his pocket. There are many more working people than super-wealthy people, but he caters to the wealthy, not the average person. So yes, it’s time a Democrat represent the 1st District in Congress.

What do you find most troubling about Carter?

He embraces most of [former President Donald] Trump’s ideas. He worships Trump, even though Trump’s so divisive. Buddy’s divisive, too. If you’re looking at Mr. Carter, you’re looking at Mr. Trump. That’s wrong for the people of the 1st District.

When it comes to Jan. 6 and his desire to overturn the election results, Buddy’s thinking is warped. People have lost their lives and died for America to have free elections. You want to overturn an election because your guy didn’t win? You’re trying to say Trump was cheated out of reelection? It’s like a Third World country. We used to send election monitors to other countries. Maybe somebody needs to come and monitor the elections in America.

Then there’s race relations. Under Trump, we went backwardsas far as race relations are concernedLook at how many people died for us to get to this point to make sure that Black people have certain rights—the right to vote, the right to earn a living. Yet Buddy wants to limit voting rights for Black people and other people of color, as well as the elderly and the homebound. It’s absolutely crazy. Is this 2022? It doesn’t make any sense. Why is it we’re going backwards?

Buddy Carter needs to be thoroughly educated. He needs to understand that Black people are human, that Black people have put so much in this country, that we’re important, that we have so much to offer this country.

This is your third run for Congress. You lost to Kingston by 38.2% of the vote in 2000. You lost to Carter by 16.6% of the vote in 2020. Why are you the best Democrat to face Carter in November?

Some candidates in the primary have money, but I have name recognition. People I’ve interacted with know I’m for them. I’m about them. I’m about the issues. I got 135,000 votes in the last election. They know the name “Joyce Griggs.” That’s a big advantage I have over some of the others.

Politics is a calling for me. I can help. I believe I can change the life of people, particularly the disenfranchised, the needy, the poor, the elderly, the children, because I still feel I have a lot to offer. As a soldier, I’ve never stopped serving. A soldier always serves. I have that in me. It’s part of my being. It’s the essence of who I am.

I can talk with John Doe down here, I can talk to the president of the United States, and I can talk to the people in-between. I can identify with people of all races, all sexes, ages, economic status. I can communicate. I believe that’s a gift from God. I can touch people with my life. I believe I can make a difference for all people.

I’m better than Buddy. I’ve served my country. I know what it’s like growing up in poverty. I know what it’s like being middle class because I’ve worked to get there. I have nothing against wealthy people. They went through a lot to get where they are. They had to work. Most of them weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

I’m also better than Buddy because I listen to what people are saying and what they want. You don’t just pass a law without getting the input from your constituents. Buddy introduced legislation in December, for example, that would punish those teaching or endorsing CRT [critical race theory]. Most schools don’t actually even teach it. That’s kind of crazy to push something that doesn’t even exist.

We got people that are hungry, we got people that are starving, we got people that are sick, especially with Covid. We got people who have no health insurance. Let’s work on those things. Let’s work on something that would be beneficial to the people. There are more important issues than pushing CRT legislation.

What issues are more important?

Health care, of course. Remember how Republicans wanted to cut the Affordable Care Act? I’d push to cut the age for Medicare. Some people stay on in jobs because they don’t have medical coverage. But if we lowered the age for Medicare eligibility to 60, they could feel more secure and retire, knowing that they have medical coverage.

Georgia has the highest maternal mortality rate, more than any other state in the country. Some have equated it to the rate in Third World countries. This is America! I’ve even been on mission trips to Uganda, Mexico, to a couple of islands. Some of their health care is better than ours. The women aren’t dying, like our women are dying in childbirth. The mortality rate among black mothers is sad. It’s grievous. It shouldn’t be this way! This is America.

We shouldn’t have as much homelessness as we have. We still have a large population of homeless veterans. Some say, “Some people are homeless because they want to be.” Maybe so. But what can we do about it? Right here in our own backyard?

We also need to protect our military bases and our veterans. The VA [Veterans Administration] needs to process health care and mental health care claims more quickly and cut the red tape that forces veterans to go outside the VA system for care. It takes 2-3 years and sometimes longer for the VA to process a claim.

Then there’s the environment. Let’s face it: We’re on the coast. Look at global warming and rising sea levels. We have areas in the district that soon could be considered flood zones. The environment is critical. We’ve got to make sure we have clean water, clean air and good food, proper food.

Georgia’s 1st District has never elected a woman to Congress. It has never elected a Black person to Congress, either. Is Coastal Georgia ready for Black woman to represent it in Washington?

Yes, it is. The 1st District is very diverse, but Black and other people of color have been underrepresented. The Ahmaud Arbery case and the election of our first Black U.S. senator have woken us up. People who live here—young people, old people—have done some soul-searching and believe it’s time for change. They want to stop this hatred and fighting.

There’s always going to be some resistance. Some of resentment over my victory in the Democratic primary runoff in 2020 after coming in second in the first round had a racial undertone. During the campaign that year, I was up in Pierce County meeting people, and one man just out of the clear blue said he’d never vote for anybody that looked like me.

“Okay, fine. Thank you, sir,” I replied. I don’t get upset. I shake the dust off my feet. I move on. I’m here to represent everybody, just like I served my country to represent everybody.

In the course of your life, you’ve shaken a lot of dust off your feet.

I grew up in a house with two bedrooms. There were 11 children in the house—me, my nine brothers and sisters, and a cousin. We had bunk beds, sometimes we slept two or three to the bed—boys on one side of the room, girls on the other. The house was drafty, so it got cold during the winter. It even snowed sometimes. When it rained, we’d put buckets out to catch the water. If you didn’t catch it, you could end up going ice skating on the floor.

My Dad was an alcoholic and the town drunk and used to beat her and the rest of us — he once stabbed me in my arm. I wear the scar, but I don’t wear the pain. So, Mama was the backbone of our family. My brothers and sisters and I worked in the fields with her. From the age of five, I picked cotton and tobacco, and harvested cucumbers.

When the cotton was wet, it was heavy. The tobacco leaves stunk and were sticky like tar. I hated picking cucumbers because there were snakes in the fields. What I hated most about working in the fields, though, was that cotton-picking season was in September and October. I loved school and didn’t want to miss it. I’d cry and cry. But to survive and buy school clothes, that’s what we had to do.

It was abject poverty. I didn’t really know that, though, because everybody around me were pretty much in the same boat. If we had a little bit more, we’d share with other families. If they had a little bit more, they’d share with us. My auntie did domestic work for a white family. Invariably, there’d be a knock on the door, and it’d be my auntie bringing food left over from where she worked.

I learned lessons, though. At the end of the day, the boss would come and count the number of bushels of cucumbers we’d picked. One day, we must have picked 50 bushels. The boss counted and cheated us out of 10 or 15 bushels. I got angry—I already had a mouth. I said, “Mama, that’s not right. He’s cheating us.” She said, “Don’t say anything. You can’t say anything.” I didn’t understand. But as I got older, I saw that she’d been wise. She gave up the right for the wrong, in the sense that we wouldn’t have been able to work anymore if I’d called him out.

You went on to earn a B.A. in sociology, an M.A. in counseling, and a law degree. You served with distinction in the Army for 33 years, most of it on active duty, before retiring in 2013 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. So, you made it out of Bethel — and then some. What drove you?

I figured it out when I was in the cotton field one day. It was like an epiphany. “This isn’t for me.” My Mom was happy if we’d finish high school. But early on, I saw how she struggled. I didn’t want that life. I knew I could do more. I told her, “I’m not going to break my back in these cotton fields. I’m going to college.”

I was always a reader. Mom didn’t have a high school diploma, but she’d read the Bible and books by Black authors. I remember she read this poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, “A Negro Love Song.” “Jump back, honey, jump back,” the refrain went. She reminded me of a city elder. People who couldn’t read came to her with their mail, and she read it for them.

I had a thirst for knowledge. We couldn’t afford magazines, but when I got old enough, I’d babysit the family that my Mama did housecleaning and cooking for sometimes. They had Reader’s Digest. I’d read Word Power in Reader’s Digest because I knew I wanted to go to college. A high school counselor told me to just go to a technical school. I said, “No, I know what I want. I want to go to college.”

Once I was at university, I worked two jobs. I did work-study job and another at a seafood restaurant in Durham. This was heartbreaking to me. I wanted to be a waitress, but I wasn’t allowed to because I was Black. They said I could work in the kitchen, so guess what? I worked in the kitchen. I paid my tuition and graduated from college without a whole bunch of student loans. I attended summer school because it was cheaper.

I’m inspired by the excitement people feel when they realize that here’s a woman—a Black woman—that came from meager beginnings but has had the strength and tenacity to keep going.

In the 2020 primary election runoff, questions were raised about your legal career. In 2001, you resigned from the federal bar, the same day that the Southern District of Georgia barred you, on grounds of professional misconduct, from practicing law in federal district court. Three years later, the Supreme Court of Georgia barred you, on the same grounds, from practicing law in the state. In 2009, after a favorable court ruling in another case, you applied for automatic reinstatement to the state bar but were denied.

Yet in the 2020 runoff, you were quoted as saying in campaign speeches that the state Supreme Court had overruled your disbarment. Do you still stand by that statement?

My statement was taken out of context and misconstrued. I never denied that I was barred from practicing law in federal district court and in state court. As for the state action, the Supreme Court of Georgia in 2009, in the M. Francis Stubbs case (No. S09Y0476), did overrule my disbarment from practicing in state courts.

In barring me from practicing law in Georgia, the State Bar and the Supreme Court violated my right to due process and equal protection, including the right to a jury trial. To me, it seemed like the good old boy network at work. Out of about 1.3 million attorneys in this country, the number of black females is about 2.3%. I’m running for Congress in part so that Jane Doe and John Doe, regardless of their color or race or sex, won’t have to go through some of the things I’ve been through. 

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...