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There’s a long history behind Stacey Abrams

For two centuries, Black women have fought for voting equality in America

- November 7, 2020

Editors’ note: With Stacey Abrams’s announcement that she will enter the Georgia governor’s race in 2022, we are republishing this article, which first ran on Nov. 7, 2020.

Martha Jones’s new book, “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All,” explains the crucial role of Black women, such as Stacey Abrams, in the American fight for equality over the past two centuries. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University (and — full disclosure — a colleague of mine at Hopkins’s SNF Agora Institute). I interviewed her about her book (the interview has been edited for length)

Henry Farrell: Your book ends by talking about Stacey Abrams. How did the tradition of Black women suffragists shape Abrams and the work she has done in Georgia?

Martha Jones: Leader Abrams herself has explained the political traditions from which her work emerged. This includes the influence of her parents and a beloved grandmother whose own reluctance about casting a ballot, as a Black woman in the U.S. South, lends a distinct poignancy to Leader Abrams’s commitment to voting rights. She credits the legacies of formerly enslaved women such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, both of whom worked against slavery and for women’s suffrage.

Among heroes of the modern civil rights movement, Leader Abrams has singled out the sharecropper turned SNCC organizer and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Fannie Lou Hamer. Mrs. Hamer organized at the grass roots, understood how to use news cameras to take her demand for voting rights into American homes, and publicly challenged Democrats for seating an all-White delegation from Mississippi at their 1964 convention without the input of Black Democrats.

Abrams’s versatility in mixing office holding with organizing grows out of a tradition in which Black women have long pivoted against violence, disfranchisement and discrimination. Stacey Abrams knows how, in politics, to make a way out of no way.

HF: You explain how Black women saw women’s suffrage, equal religious participation and Black civil rights as intimately bound together. How did their various lived experiences provide them with this broader crosscutting perspective?

“Vanguard” by Martha S. Jones.
“Vanguard” by Martha S. Jones.

MJ: Black women’s early political ideas developed from their vexed relationship to the body politic into what we might call today an intersectional approach to politics. At the start of the 19th century, they pioneered the view that neither race nor sex should affect access to political rights or the exercise of political power. These women — preachers, abolitionists and writers — were the nation’s original anti-racist feminists. They built a political culture — in antislavery societies, literary associations, women’s clubs, sororities and civil rights organizations — promoting a vision for American democracy that honors Black women’s equality and dignity.

Early 20th-century Black women knew that to protect women’s voting rights, they needed to support the 19th Amendment and also to win protection from lynching. No constitutional change would get Black women to the polls if Election Day intimidation and violence remained unchecked. Their politics demanded fighting on both fronts.

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HF: Nonetheless, these women often found themselves excluded: for example by men who didn’t believe that women should participate equally, or by White people who denied their shared struggle or even their humanity. How did they fight for power, and for a proper share in the movements that they sought to contribute to?

MJ: Early women’s historians mistakenly limited their search for Black women’s voting rights work to the study of so-called suffrage associations such as the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Party. Some Black women joined these organizations and contended with their typical anti-Black racism. But their numbers were always small.

Black women organized elsewhere, sometimes in spaces they shared with Black men such as churches and civil rights organizations. Other times, they built their own associations — such as the National Association of Colored Women in the 1890s and the National Council of Negro Women in the 1930s.

Their political movements bridged these varied spaces, permitting Black women to work on many issues simultaneously. Yes, they clashed with men, especially in moments when women appeared poised to exercise leadership over them. And from time to time they allied with White women despite the fraught consequences of racism.

For example, when it became clear in 1920 that Jim Crow laws would now disenfranchise Black women as they had Black men since the 1890s, they tried to ally with White suffragists to win federal legislation that would give teeth to the 19th Amendment and override state laws like poll taxes and literacy tests that kept Black women from the polls. That effort failed as White suffragists moved on, leaving Black women to build a new voting rights movement alongside Black men over 45 years, culminating in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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HF: Abrams, like her predecessors, sees the fight against the suppression of Black votes and the fight for voting rights for everyone — as being bound together. What role do Black women play in that fight?

MJ: Today, Black women are a force in American politics, working to ensure the future of our democracy and access to it for all Americans. Alongside Leader Abrams and her team of voting rights organizers are the Black women originators of the movement for Black lives that has brought Americans out onto city streets to press their interests. At the same time, Black women operatives are working behind the scenes for the Biden-Harris team to drive the agenda and the logistics of that campaign. It’s important to remember that Sen. Kamala Harris was one of six Black women who vied for a seat on the Democratic Party’s ticket — a reflection of how well prepared Black women are for holding high office.

Also on the ballot this fall were 130 Black women running for seats in Congress. Exit polls document the 90-plus percent of Black women voters who cast their ballots for the Biden-Harris team, voting as a bloc that distinguished themselves from any other political constituency in the nation. Together, these efforts had undeniable consequences for a national contest where Black women’s votes were the difference.

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