Voting Rights: The Long Struggle Black Women Have Endured
In her November 7th victory speech, Kamala Harris paid homage to the many women—and particularly the Black women—who paved the way for her to become the country’s first African American and female vice president.
“Black women,” Harris said, “who are too often overlooked, but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.”
Indeed, Black women have played an incontrovertible role in shaping this country. Yet, to this day they’re still fighting efforts to suppress their votes—and their voices.
Strict voter ID laws in states like Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi target people of color and are aimed at making it difficult or even impossible to vote. In many places, Black Americans are strategically purged from voter rolls or prevented from voting early.
And it seems like every time we make progress, there’s an immediate backlash. Case in point: No sooner than Florida passed an amendment restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions (a disproportionate number of whom are Black) did it snatch back those rights using what is effectively an illegal poll tax.
The story of Black women and voting rights goes back nearly two centuries. It’s time to set the record straight on the essential role they’ve played in the voting rights movement.
The Truth About the 19th Amendment
We like to think of the 19th Amendment as a triumph for women. But while it barred states from denying the right to vote based on sex, the 19th Amendment didn’t actually guarantee all women the right to vote.
Nor did it address the racial terrorism that kept African Americans in the South from voting.
In the decades after the 19th Amendment was passed, Jim Crow laws kept Black women and men from the polls through voter suppression tactics like literacy tests, poll taxes, and voter ID laws.
Black suffragists like Mary Church Terrell and Adella Hunt Logan who fought for the right to vote were often shunned by their white counterparts, many of whom refused to fight back against racial discrimination in voting.
As a rule, African American women were excluded from white-led organizations and activities, including a women’s suffrage parade in Washington D.C. held by the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1913. Alice Paul, the organizer, argued that “the participation of negros would have a most disastrous effect” by angering white Southerners who were against both women’s suffrage and enfranchising the Black population.
In some ways, Black and white suffragists were fighting two different battles. White suffragists were simply fighting for their right to vote.
Black women took a more intersectional approach, long before the term was coined. They were not only fighting for the right to vote but also against Jim Crow laws, lynching, sexual violence, and more.
Trailblazing Black Women & the Voting Rights Act of 1965
In the decades after the 19th Amendment passed, tens of thousands of African Americans—led by Black women—continued to fight for full voting rights.
Fannie Lou Hamer was a powerful voice for voting rights in the 60s. Working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she made her way across the country, speaking out about voting issues and registering Black people to vote. She gave impassioned speeches at the DNC, sharing in vivid detail the threats and harassment she and her family endured by white supremacists.
“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Hamer asked at one DNC event, “where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Another trailblazer was student civil rights leader Diane Nash, who led sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, played a leading role in the Freedom Rides, and helped develop nonviolent protest strategies still used to this day.
Amelia Boynton Robinson led voter registration drives in Selma from the 1930s through the 1950s and helped organize the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. She was among those beaten by Alabama State Troopers that day—now infamously known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The efforts of these remarkable Black women paid off. Just five months after the march in Selma, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
The new law banned racial discrimination in voting by outlawing literacy tests and prohibiting states with a history of voting discrimination from changing voting practices or procedures without federal approval. This shifted the power from racist state and local officials to the federal government.
It had a huge impact. The first election after the Voting Rights Act (VRA) passed saw huge increases in Black voter registration.
Weakening the Voting Rights Act
Today we’re seeing revived attacks on voting rights. In 2013, the Voting Rights Act was gutted with the Shelby County v. Holder decision. The Supreme Court removed the most essential part of the VRA—the one requiring state and local governments with a history of discriminatory voting laws to get federal approval before changing their laws.
In essence, the Court gave the OK for states with racist policies to revert to their old tactics.
The 2020 Election and Beyond
In 2020, Black women once again saved the day in defeating Trump. Yet they face an ever-increasing wave of efforts to suppress their votes in states across the country—from strict voter ID laws to shortened vote times to restrictions on registration to voter purges.
These measures are especially hard on women of color, poor people, and young and old voters, and this is by design.
Stacey Abrams has been a champion in the fight against voter suppression. “In America, we have the theory of free and fair elections, but unfortunately we’ve seen, particularly over the last 20 years, an erosion of the ability to access that right,” she told the Guardian in 2019. “I am not convinced at all that we will have free and fair elections unless we work to make it so.”
The fight continues, and as always, Black women will be leading the way.