Black Women Voters Aren’t “Saving America.” We’re Saving Ourselves.

Since at least the 1830s, Black women have organized, campaigned, and voted for issues that matter to us most.

Joshunda Sanders November 8, 2018

Members of the National Association of Colored Women picket the White House on July 30, 1946, to protest the lynching of four Black people in Georgia. (Bettmann/Contributor)

Demo­c­rat Doug Jones just bare­ly defeat­ed Repub­li­can can­di­date (and doc­u­ment­ed gay-bash­ing, Biblethump­ing sex­u­al preda­tor and pedophile) Roy Moore in Alabama’s 2017 spe­cial elec­tion. Jones is the first Demo­c­rat in Alaba­ma to be elect­ed to the Sen­ate since 1992. Head­lines across Amer­i­ca over­whelm­ing­ly cred­it­ed Black women as the major dri­ving force behind this his­toric vic­to­ry, and it’s true: 98 per­cent of Black women vot­ed for Jones.

We are not long-suffering martyrs, mammies, aunties or mules—we are astute, hypervigilant, educated breadwinners.

Pre­dictably, though, the social and tra­di­tion­al media respons­es in the imme­di­ate after­math, as framed by white pro­gres­sives and jour­nal­ists, told a tire­some sto­ry, one that repeat­ed a trope that uncon­scious­ly frames Black women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion as an invest­ment in Amer­i­ca. Black Women Saved Amer­i­ca Last Night, Again,” read one head­line in Paper mag­a­zine.

Such head­lines mis­un­der­stand a cru­cial point: Black women’s vot­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion is not an invest­ment in Amer­i­ca, but an invest­ment in our­selves. Black women vote first and fore­most for our own inter­ests, which gen­er­al­ly fall out­side of either par­ty line. We vote for wage par­i­ty, for improve­ments to trans­porta­tion so we can trav­el safe­ly and afford­ably, for access to health­care, for repair­ing the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that has unapolo­get­i­cal­ly dis­rupt­ed the social fab­ric of our fam­i­lies for gen­er­a­tions. Accord­ing to 2017 polling by the Black Women’s Round­table and Essence, afford­able health­care was a top con­cern and, for the first time, hate crimes made the list, too. Forty-nine per­cent of Black mil­len­ni­al women not­ed crim­i­nal jus­tice reform among the top three issues fac­ing the Black com­mu­ni­ty,” and 21 per­cent of Black women said none of the polit­i­cal par­ties rep­re­sent­ed them well. The Move­ment for Black Lives Coali­tion, too, has stat­ed that nei­ther main­stream polit­i­cal par­ty has our inter­ests at heart.” Black women have had a long his­to­ry as tire­less polit­i­cal orga­niz­ers — putting our own inter­ests first — even before suf­frage was extend­ed to us.

That orga­niz­ing began at least as ear­ly as the 1830s with the Nation­al Negro Con­ven­tion move­ment. The orga­niz­ers of the inter­ra­cial abo­li­tion­ist meet­ings were male, but a few Black women attend­ed and sup­port­ed this crit­i­cal ear­ly move­ment build­ing. When slav­ery end­ed, Wan­da Hen­dricks writes in Black Women in Amer­i­ca, Church mem­ber­ship, vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tions, mutu­al aid soci­eties, and women’s orga­ni­za­tions afford­ed them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to build a strong race-con­scious, female-cen­tered community.”

The Con­ven­tion gath­er­ings pro­vid­ed the train­ing for Black women activists to found nation­al asso­ci­a­tions like the Nation­al League of Col­ored Women and the Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Afro-Amer­i­can Women, which con­sol­i­dat­ed in 1896 into the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Col­ored Women (NACW). Found­ing their own orga­ni­za­tions allowed Black women to begin con­ver­sa­tions that addressed issues impact­ing Black lives, such as lynch­ing. White women’s clubs, like the Gen­er­al Fed­er­a­tion of Women’s Clubs, refused mem­ber­ship to Black women.

The Alpha Suf­frage Club, found­ed in 1913 by Ida B. Wells-Bar­nett and her white col­league Belle Squire, taught Black women about the polit­i­cal process. A few months after the club’s found­ing, when Illi­nois became the first state east of Mis­sis­sip­pi to allow women to vote in munic­i­pal pol­i­tics, Wells-Bar­nett and oth­er Black women in the club can­vassed neigh­bor­hoods to get out the vote for the inde­pen­dent African-Amer­i­can can­di­date of the time.

Because the women were tied to issues rather than to par­ties, not all the can­di­dates they endorsed were mem­bers of the two rul­ing par­ties,” Hen­dricks writes. As a result, the polit­i­cal machines and their can­di­dates often found them­selves active­ly seek­ing the women’s endorse­ment.” In 1915, the clout of the Alpha Suf­frage Club in main­stream pol­i­tics,” along with grass­roots efforts by the NACW, played an impor­tant role in elect­ing Oscar DePriest as Chicago’s first Black alder­man. They can­vassed and edu­cat­ed Black women who, in turn, cast one-third of the total votes. DePriest lat­er became the first Black mem­ber of Con­gress elect­ed, in 1928, out­side of the South. He was the only African Amer­i­can serv­ing in Con­gress dur­ing his three terms.

Of course, after suf­frage, there were still sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers — par­tic­u­lar­ly in the South — in the way of Black women’s vote: lit­er­a­cy tests, poll tax­es, and, for decades, bru­tal vio­lence against Black vot­ers— all part of a matrix to sup­press polit­i­cal activity.

Despite these bar­ri­ers, Black women have con­tin­ued our lega­cy of polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing. We active­ly edu­cate our­selves on polit­i­cal can­di­dates who fight for issues we care about. Jones’ vic­to­ry is a key exam­ple of this. LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Vot­ers Mat­ter Fund, writes in the 2018 Black Women’s Round­table Report:

The mes­sag­ing of the nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty was not what won the elec­tion. It was peo­ple on the ground from the same com­mu­ni­ties we were reach­ing out to, with… the cul­tur­al com­pe­ten­cy to speak to our folks in a way that held mean­ing for them. The nation­al polit­i­cal oper­a­tives made their mes­sage about the can­di­dates. We weren’t in love with either of the can­di­dates… so we made the mes­sage about us, and orga­nized on mes­sages… like It’s About Us,” Black Vot­ers Mat­ter,” Woke Vote,” Pow­er of the Sis­ter Vote” and Vote or Die.”

Black women orga­niz­ers from the NAACP led a grass­roots strat­e­gy to get out the vote with these mes­sages at the fore­front. Black Vot­ers Mat­ter Fund, Woke Vote, VoteRid­ers, Black­PAC and many oth­ers did painstak­ing, behind-thescenes work, which includ­ed dri­ving vot­ers to the booths (access to afford­able trans­porta­tion being a major deter­rent in Alabama).

This was not, and I repeat was not, about any affec­tion for sen­a­tor-elect Doug Jones, a Demo­c­rat,” Brown stresses.

The nation­al recep­tion to Jones’ win is a telling indi­ca­tion of how often our invis­i­ble work remains so. While Black women can­di­dates like Stacey Abrams in Geor­gia, Ayan­na Press­ley in Boston and Ilhan Omar in Min­neso­ta have been run­ning cam­paigns to break down crit­i­cal remain­ing polit­i­cal bar­ri­ers of race, geog­ra­phy, gen­der and class, most nar­ra­tives in media have made them sound like a new crop of polit­i­cal orga­niz­ers. A Vox sto­ry, about how the approach­ing midterms are chang­ing how Black women inter­act with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, reads, In 2018, black women like Ayan­na Press­ley are fight­ing for polit­i­cal pow­er and win­ning.” But we have always been fight­ing for polit­i­cal power.

Black women are often erased from civ­il rights lore, such as Jo Ann Robin­son and Mary Fair Burks of the Women’s Polit­i­cal Coun­cil — mas­ter­minds behind the Mont­gomery Bus Boy­cott. But we write our­selves back into the sto­ry, per­sis­tent­ly. We are not long-suf­fer­ing mar­tyrs, mam­mies, aun­ties or mules — we are astute, hyper­vig­i­lant, edu­cat­ed bread­win­ners. Yet, we make 63 cents to every dol­lar a white man makes, are the sole pri­ma­ry bread­win­ners (or earn at least 40 per­cent of house­hold income) in 80.6 per­cent of our fam­i­lies, and are twice as like­ly to be impris­oned for the same crime and three times as like­ly to die dur­ing child­birth as our white peers. Inequities like these are how we start­ed to care more about vot­ing for can­di­dates with solu­tions and less about a par­ty line.

This long polit­i­cal tra­di­tion is in the lega­cy of the likes of Fan­nie Lou Hamer. The civ­il rights icon attempt­ed to vote in 1962 even after she and her friends were shot at. In 1964, she co-found­ed the Mis­sis­sip­pi Free­dom Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (MFDP) to chal­lenge the legit­i­ma­cy of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, which did not allow Black peo­ple to participate.

Hamer ran for Con­gress in 1964 on the MFDP’s Free­dom Bal­lot, which, unlike the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, placed her name next to white can­di­dates. She defeat­ed her oppo­nent, Con­gress­man Jamie Whit­ten, but the state refused to acknowl­edge the bal­lot as valid. So Hamer didn’t make his­to­ry as a congresswoman.

She did, how­ev­er, plant the seed. At least 39 Black women ran for seats in the House this year, to help that seed take root — and bloom.

Joshun­da Sanders is an author liv­ing in New York where she teach­es writ­ing at The New School.
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