Black women are one of the most powerful voting blocs in the nation. Although they occupy a marginalized position in American society—shouldering multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, and classism—Black women have always used whatever was at their disposal to shape American politics. As the essential, if unsung, backbone of the Democratic Party, Black women have effectively harnessed the power of the vote to advance their political interest—while actively working to strengthen the party’s platform. Now, with voter suppression tactics on the rise, Black women are leading the charge to preserve the integrity of the electoral process.
The Democratic Party’s nomination of Kamala Harris for vice president has fueled many Black women’s passion for voting this year. Far beyond symbolism, Harris’s platform aligns with the concerns of many Black women. As a recent Essence poll of Black women voters reveals, most are concerned with addressing several interrelated societal issues: systemic racism, voter suppression, police violence, and poor access to health care. Black women’s overwhelming support for the Biden-Harris ticket—an estimated 90 percent—is therefore deeply connected to these critical issues. No doubt these women will make their way to the ballot box this year, many inspired by Harris’s nomination, to ensure that their voices are heard.
While Harris’s nomination is historic and meaningful, Black women’s overwhelming interest and commitment to casting a ballot is not a new feature in American politics. In 2008 and ’12, Black women voted at the highest rate of any race and gender subgroup. Their votes—96 percent of them—played no small part in the reelection of President Barack Obama in 2012. Black women voters backed the then-incumbent in some key battleground states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida—that together gave him 67 electoral college votes. While Black voters, in general, have had high turnouts in recent elections, Black women often lead at higher rates than Black men and other racial and ethnic groups in the country. This was especially evident in 2016, when the Black voter turnout rate declined for the first time in 20 years. While fewer Black voters as a whole made it to the polls that year, Black women still made their mark, with an estimated 63.7 percent voting that year. In comparison to other racial groups, Black women had one of that year’s largest voter turnout rates.
Long denied access to the vote, Black women in the United States need no convincing of the significance of electoral politics. The general consensus today among Black women that voting is necessary—not optional—stems from a long history of exclusion. Although some Black women were able to successfully cast a ballot during the early 20th century—in states such as California New York, and Illinois—most were shut out of the formal political process until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The passage in 1920 of the 19th Amendment, which granted voting rights to all women in theory but only white women in practice, had little effect on Black women’s lives. Through an array of legal and extralegal strategies, white Americans worked to keep Black people from practicing the constitutional right to vote.
Black women passionately resisted these efforts. During the 1960s, for example, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer led a nationwide movement to expand the voting rights of Black Americans. It was a bold act of defiance—and a matter of life and death. As Hamer explained in a 1964 interview with The Nation, “We’re tired of all this beatin,’ we’re tired of takin’ this. It’s been a hundred years and we’re still being beaten and shot at, crosses are still being burned, because we want to vote.” Fully aware of the consequences of her actions, Hamer refused to capitulate. “I’m goin’ to stay in Mississippi,” she added, “and if they shoot me down, I’ll be buried here.”
She knew through firsthand experience the danger of voting in the Jim Crow South. When she dared to try to register to vote for the first time in Indianola, Miss., in 1962, she encountered intimidation from local police. After Hamer returned home that evening, the owner of the plantation on which she worked gave her an ultimatum: He demanded that she withdraw her registration or leave. Hamer chose the latter. Emboldened by her commitment to exercise her rights as a citizen of the United States, she continued her attempts to register to vote and worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to encourage others to vote. In 1964, she helped establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the segregated, all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention. As a member of SNCC, Hamer traveled across the South to lead voter registration workshops and raise greater awareness to the power of the vote.
It was her life’s mission—guided by the belief that voting provided an important vehicle to freedom for Black people. Through voting, Hamer emphasized, Black people would be able to overturn decades of racist and exclusionary laws and practices. And through voting, African Americans would have the power to appoint leaders who would act in their behalf. “The only way that we can change the system in the State of Mississippi,” Hamer explained, “is by going to the courthouse, registering to vote, but you got to stand up.”
“Freedom is not something that’s put in your lap,” she continued. “You will have to go to the courthouse and say ‘I want to register. This is a protest to show them that I am not satisfied.’”
Black women in the United States today have not lost sight of this reality. Like Hamer and many others who came before them, African American women are at the forefront of the movement to expand voting rights—and bring an end to voter suppression. In 2018, Stacey Abrams became the first African American woman to receive a major party nomination for governor in any state. Following her unsuccessful bid for governor of Georgia—under a shroud of questionable practices on the part of her opponent, Republican Brian Kemp—Abrams has worked to raise national awareness on current methods of voter suppression. Her organization, Fair Fight, now plays a central role in educating voters and urging them to participate in local, state, and national elections.
Similarly, activist LaTosha Brown has led a nationwide movement to bolster Black voting rights and challenge voter suppression tactics. In 2016, Brown cofounded the Black Voters Matter Fund, a civil engagement organization that played a significant role in the 2017 Alabama US Senate race.
Brown and her colleagues have worked to increase Black voter turnout in elections across the state—and across the nation, including deep-red states. Working at the grassroots level, with a focus on community empowerment, Brown and others in the movement have already changed the landscape of American politics. These efforts have been further amplified through the work of other like-minded Black women activists and leaders, including Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a national network that aims to elevate the political voice and power of women of color.
From Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Aimee Allison to countless others who are diligently working in their communities and on a national level, Black women refuse to sit on the sidelines as we approach one of the most important elections in our nation’s recent history. As they have always done, Black women will boldly meet the challenge this November. They will show up, in record numbers, to cast a ballot in the hope of ushering in a new era, without Trump at the helm.