Black Women’s Suffrage Has Always Been a Matter of Life and Death

flickr /  Adam Jones (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“With no sacredness of the ballot, there can be no sacredness of human life itself.”

That’s what journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells argued in 1910 in a pamphlet called “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings.” Wells said states that denied the right to vote were emboldened in denying Black people the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Over 110 years later, Black women are still fighting for justice and equity at the ballot box and beyond.

Today marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment. It is a historic moment that provides an opportunity to examine Black women’s contributions to universal suffrage—contributions that are too often ignored in discussions about the 19th Amendment.

Martha S. Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, has stressed that conversations about women and the vote should consider the origins of Black women’s political work. “The story of women and the vote does not begin with women demanding the ballot,” Jones said in an interview with the Hub at Johns Hopkins. “It began with a set of experiences, challenges, and questions about old limits on women, and with new urgencies that women felt.”

For Black women, that story involves a white-led suffrage movement that consistently ignored their concerns.

“Racism is a women’s issue. White suffragists argued that segregation, lynching, and men’s disfranchisement were not women’s issues,” Jones told the Hub. “Many took the view that black women may not be able to vote, but it’s not because they’re women. And that means that’s not a concern for this movement.”

This viewpoint was prevalent among some of the most famous white suffragists being celebrated today.

But for Black women, race and gender have always been intertwined. Both are a part of their shared experience in the United States. It’s no surprise, then, that as the white-led suffrage movement became increasingly racist, Black women began to organize separately.

Black women fought—and still fight—for universal suffrage as a part of efforts to dismantle systemic racism and protect Black lives. Existing outside of traditional white-led suffrage organizations, Black women organizers have generally viewed voting as part of a larger strategy.

Ida B. Wells certainly did. 

A co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women, Wells was relentless in fighting for anti-lynching laws, but she was equally unrelenting in her fight for universal suffrage. Wells organized Black women around voting as a way of increasing civic engagement and as a tactic to promote anti-lynching laws. In “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings,” she pointed to the election of Illinois state Rep. Edward H. Green, a Black man, as a tactical success. Green, who was a direct beneficiary of Black people’s electoral organizing efforts, introduced and secured the passage of anti-mob violence legislation in 1905.

Wells’ work at the intersection of electoral organizing and journalism uniquely positioned her to engage people to take civic action. Unlike many of their white counterparts, Wells and her contemporaries focused on changing the conditions that limited Black people’s full and free participation in democratic society.

This differed from the strategy of white women like Frances E. Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, who actively courted Southern white women by relying on stereotypes and falsehoods about Black people. Others like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were less overt in their appeals but sought the support of Southern whites by focusing on white women’s suffrage only.

White suffragists’ indifference was laid bare when Anthony and Stanton split from the American Equal Rights Association to form the National Woman Suffrage Association, which permitted Black women as members but focused on correcting what they perceived as a wrong in allowing Black men the right to vote ahead of white women. Even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, Black women still were unable to have free and fair access to the ballot. In many states, Black women tried to register to vote but were subjected to additional barriers not faced by their white counterparts.

“The right of citizens to vote is denied and abridged in these states, on account of race, color, and previous condition of servitude, and has been so denied ever since the withdrawal of the United States Troops from the South,” Wells wrote in 1910.

Not much changed for Black women in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was passed, and the fight for universal suffrage continues in 2020. As the second presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act approaches, formerly incarcerated women are fighting for the restoration of their rights to vote and delays in naturalization ceremonies—the final step in the citizenship process—could impact thousands of women who would otherwise be entitled to cast a ballot.

But organizers are undeterred.

Like their foremothers, the current generation of Black women organizers see voting as a tactic within a larger strategic framework. Instead of vote shaming and wagging their fingers at people, they follow in the footsteps of Ida B. Wells and her successors, like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. They use conversations about voting to expand opportunities for civic engagement and to build political power.

If it was not clear before, the current pandemic and nationwide uprisings have highlighted the importance of state and local elections, along with the need to invest in and support candidates connected to movements and communities in word, deed, and policy—not simply racial affinity. Black women are already leading some of the most dynamic organizing efforts. From the New Georgia Project, a voter registration initiative started by Stacey Abrams in 2014, to the Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, Black women are leading some of the most transformative work across the country. But the ongoing work of universal suffrage is not Black women’s burden to carry alone.

Black women who value equity and justice are positioned to lead in this moment. It’s time to follow their lead and fall in line.

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