How Black Women Helped Shape Today’s Democratic Party
On May 25th, a collection of black women activists, community leaders, and elected officials wrote an open letter to Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez. In it, they explained the need for a serious conversation regarding the state of black women in the party.
“Dear Chairman Tom Perez:
Black women have consistently shown up for Democrats as a loyal voting bloc, demonstrating time and again that we are crucial to the protection of progressive policies such as economic security, affordable healthcare, and criminal justice reform.
We have voted and organized our communities with little support or investment from the Democratic Party for voter mobilization efforts. We have shown how Black women lead, yet the Party’s leadership from Washington to the state parties have few or no Black women in leadership. More and more, Black women are running for office and winning elections — with scant support from Democratic Party infrastructure.
Well, like civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who testified at the 1964 Democratic convention demanding Blacks have a seat and voice within the Party, we are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
The Democratic Party has a real problem.”
I don’t think anyone can deny that both parties have some serious problems that they need to face. With the call for radical change coming from sources both in and outside of their party, the Democrats are facing a careful tipping point. As they move forward, they must remember how they became the party we know today — which is at sharp odds with what they represented in the pre-Civil Rights era.
The modern Democratic Party exists the way it does because of contributions made by the black female activists of the early 1960s. They paved the way for the party that gave us Barack Obama and handily won Hillary Clinton the popular vote. These women make up the base of the Party — and as such, it is necessary that their platform reflects it.
A History of Voter Suppression
To younger generations, the Civil Rights era seems a world away. However, the fight for Civil Rights — and the corresponding realignment of the political parties — happened barely 50 years ago. The awareness of this history, the acknowledgment of how we got to where we are today, is absolutely vital if we hope to progress forward.
During the summer of 1964, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a voter registration drive that would become known as Freedom Summer. It was aimed at increasing voter registration in Mississippi, a state that was rampantly overrun by voter suppression tactics.
After the 15th Amendment gave voting rights to African American men in 1870, they voted almost exclusively for the Republican Party in loyalty to Abraham Lincoln. As a result, the Democratic Party in the South used a variety of tactics to return to power. Using violence to gain the upper hand in elections, white Democrats then put forth legislation such as poll taxes (a price few newly-freed slaves could afford) and “white primaries” which excluded black voters from participating in primary elections. Eventually, the South became a one party region that was nearly impenetrable.
The Freedom Summer registration drive focused on Mississippi as the area was infamous for enacting laws specifically designed to disenfranchise black voters — such as an amendment that required new voters to complete a 20-question application, which included an analysis of a randomly selected section of the state’s constitution. The authority to determine whether or not the applicant correctly analyzed the section of legal jargon was given to the local country registrar. Regardless of education level, nearly every African American person who applied failed this section.
These tactics were extremely successful in their attempts to decrease the size of the black electorate. Between 1954 and 1955 the number of registered black voters dropped from 22,000 to 12,000.
During the Freedom Summer, three women decided to change all that.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
“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. But I’m goin’ to stay in Mississippi and if they shoot me down, I’ll be buried here.” — Fannie Lou Hamer
In 1964, Mississippi civil rights activists launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and appealed to be recognized in place of the currently sitting all-white delegation. The MFDP claimed to be “the only democratically constituted body of Mississippi citizens’’ and fought to be seated at the DNC in Atlantic City. Activists Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray ran for Congress in three of the state’s five Congressional districts.
At the time, African Americans were barred from participating in the state’s Democratic meetings so they were unable to be a part of the delegate selection committee. In response, the MFDP selected their own 68 delegates and headed to Atlantic City. NAACP activist Aaron Henry headed the convention, while Fannie Lou Hamer was chosen as the vice chair. Hamer had a brutal history concerning the fight for civil rights, having been beaten and arrested the previous year on her way home from a citizen training school in South Carolina.
The MFDP pulled together a list of star witnesses to testify on behalf of their challenge — including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King compared the MFDP to the founding fathers, and passionately defended their right to be seated,
‘‘Any party in the world should be proud to have a delegation such as this seated in their midst. For it is in these saints in ordinary walks of life that the true spirit of democracy ﬁnds its most profound and abiding expression.”
However, it wasn’t until Hamer took the stand that President Lyndon Johnson became so worried that he called an impromptu press conference in order to get her off the airways.
Hamer testified to the horror she had been put through when she was arrested. She discussed three white cops coming to her cell and severely beating her, telling her they would make her “wish she were dead,” and causing her lasting kidney damage.
Hamer’s passionate voice and steadfast manner of speech captured the essence of Mississippi life in a way that enraptured her audience. It was at this meeting that she issued her famous words:
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Although Johnson was successful in cutting off her coverage, the evening news all lead with the fact that the testimony of this Mississippi sharecropper scared the pants of the President of the United States.
In December, the MFDP filed an official notice that they were challenging the results of the previous November’s election. On the basis that nearly half the population was denied the right to vote on account of race, they alleged that the election was fraudulent. Under congressional rules, only defeated candidates could challenge an election, so Hamer, Devine, and Gray prepared to contest their results.
Because so few African Americans could vote, they had not won their party’s primary. They attempted to run as independents, but the Board of Elections blocked them. Instead, they ran on an unofficial “Freedom Ballot,” which help lay the legal groundwork and support needed for the congressional challenge.
Members of this movement knew there was very little chance they would actually unseat their current representative. They hoped that this challenge would continue the momentum that had been started by the Freedom Summer and bring the issue back to the national stage.
In January of 1965, they began the arduous process of gathering evidence for their claim in the House of Representatives. With the help of activists across the country and a handful of volunteer lawyers, the MFDP gathered over 600 affidavits and depositions that testified to the systemic racism that permeated Mississippi’s political field.
These 3000-something pages of passionate and heartbreaking testimony proved too impactful to be ignored by Washington. Eight months later, the same evidence was used to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“When our challenge was voted on in Congress, the close outcome surprised the Mississippi congressmen. It shook them. It really shook them. They couldn’t believe that so many of their colleagues stood up and voted on our behalf as did. That vote just really turned things upside down. John Bell Williams, for example, the white congressman from Madison, the congressional district where Miss Devine was from, went back to the other white Mississippi congressmen and said, “You’re going to have to do something, because if they come back again, they’re going to win.” When he came back to Mississippi, Williams put the same word out. I believe it was this Congressional Challenge that made the white Mississippians know that business as usual was not going to continue.” — Victoria Gray
Four years after Freedom Summer, Shirley Chisholm, an educational consultant from New York, made history by becoming the first African American woman elected to the United State’s Congress — a position she would hold for seven more terms. A court-ordered redistricting of her neighborhood in Brooklyn inspired her to run for the seat. Her opponent, Republican James Farmer, called her a “little schoolteacher” and argued that the district needed “a man’s voice in Washington.”
Once elected, she was not warmly received, given her outspoken nature and her gender. Her first speech on the House floor was a fiery denunciation of the Vietnam War. She was a champion for disenfranchised and minority groups, pushing legislation that focused on worker’s rights and increased access to education. Over and over again, Chisholm proved her campaign nickname — “Fighting Shirley” — was more than accurate.
In keeping with her track record of shattering glass ceilings, Chisholm announced a run for president in 1972, seeking the Democratic nomination just three years after making history in Congress. Knowing she was unlikely to progress far in the race, she told interviewers her campaign, much like that of Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray’s races was necessary to set a new precedent.
“I ran because most people thought the country was not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday — it was time in 1972 to make that someday come.”
Chisholm endured multiple assassination attempts and had to sue in order to be included in the televised debates. She made it to the Democratic convention, laying the path for many future black female leaders such as Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Ca.), who became close to Chisholm after volunteering for her campaign.
During her seven terms in Congress, she had a hand in shaping a large amount of historic legislation, and would become one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The Third Reconstruction
If the MFDP hadn’t challenged the results of the 1964 election, if President Johnson hadn’t been scared of Hamer, if Hamer hadn’t been arrested— the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would have never been passed. The actions of three brave black women were directly responsible for creating one of the most important policy decisions in the last century. Without these policy breakthroughs, and without women like Chisholm carving a space out for female leadership, we wouldn’t have the Democratic Party we have today.
Some of today’s greatest Democratic leaders are black women — from Kamala Harris, who attracts buzz about a future presidential run wherever she goes, to Maxine Waters, who has represented Los Angeles for over a quarter of a century, these women are driving forces behind some of the most progressive policies being crafted today. Just look at Rep. Lee’s recent amendment to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. It received bipartisan support before being stripped out by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Since the Voting Rights Act passed, black women have been the staunchest supporters of the Democratic Party and we have the statistics to prove it. In the past two elections alone, black women have turned out at the highest rates of all demographics polled. In 2008 and 2012, 96% of black women voted for Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton took home 94% in 2016. There is not a single other group that is so successful in showing up at the polls.
And as every election proves, at the end of the day results are determined by those who show up.
These aren’t new statistics either. Since 1998, black women have registered and voted at higher rates than their male counterparts in every single election. A Democratic candidate cannot hope to carry a national election without the support of black women.
It’s worth noting that these insanely high statistics don’t take into consideration the huge effects voter suppression tactics such as gerrymandering and voter ID laws have had on disenfranchising certain groups of voters. Without these methods, the voter registration rates would arguably be much higher.
This goes beyond gender to some degree, as according to the Pew Research Center, the top 56 groups most loyal to the Democrats consist of some subgroup of black Americans. It should come as no surprise, however, that the top group in this research study is made of black women.
Black women are the base of the Democratic Party. Ignoring their issues and representation in order to calm the so-called economic anxiety of the white working class is a recipe for a failure. It’s also a recipe for being on the wrong side of history. In the 1960s, the Democrats sacrificed their reliance on the votes of white Southerners in order to do what they knew was right — after, of course, some brave black female activists reminded them.
None of this is to say that the white working class doesn’t have real problems that need to be discussed as well. But to galvanize their votes at the expense of the policies needed to represent black women is a fatal flaw. To chose coded rhetoric that props up systematic racism rather than being brave enough to speak about the flaws in our current institutions, all for the hope of votes, is not only cowardly — it’s statistically a bad political move.
How the current party will handle this divide remains to be seen. One can only hope they take direction from the women that helped shape the party they now serve. Being on the right side of history should be an easy choice. When being on the right side of history coincides with smart politics — it shouldn’t be a choice at all.
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