This month is huge for voting rights milestones: August marks both the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. They’re two of the biggest breakthroughs for democracy in U.S. history — and they were won through the courage and leadership of Black women.
Yet, from the electoral college to the classroom, institutions built on systemic racism have whitewashed America’s voting rights history. White suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony literally wrote the book on women’s suffrage –– but erased Black women from the narrative.
This type of erasure has only continued. Black women’s influence and essential roles in bringing our country closer to real democracy have been strategically and repeatedly struck from the history books and the newspaper reels.
Spotlighting Black Women’s Stories in the Fight for Enfranchisement
This is the second blog in Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s series honoring Women’s Equality Day, which we celebrate annually on Aug. 26 to mark the official certification of the 19th Amendment. The first blog in the series, “100 Years of the 19th Amendment” is by Planned Parenthood Action Fund President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson. Her blog lifts up the Black women who organized, strategized, and mobilized the suffrage movement.
Read on to learn about the time between the enshrinement of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
“While Black suffragists helped their white sisters secure the 19th amendment, when the dust settled, they found themselves right where they were when they started. Because of Jim Crow laws, their right was in name only. They had to continue to fight for real suffrage, but now, the white women they had helped weren’t as eager to return the favor.”
– Alexis McGill Johnson
President and CEO, Planned Parenthood Action Fund
[Source: “100 Years of the 19th Amendment”]
Setting the Record Straight on the 19th Amendment
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution says that U.S. governments are not allowed to deny citizens the right to vote based on sex. It came to pass in large part because of the contributions of Black women. Ida B.Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Angelina Weld Grimké, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and countless other Black women leaders were resilient in the face of racist backlash — a testament to their passion and self-determination.
Despite the fact that Black women put their lives on the line to help all women gain the right to participate in democracy, the 19th Amendment only ended discrimination against women at the voting booth in theory. In practice, America’s racist and sexist electoral system withheld Black women’s right to vote in states across the country.
Meanwhile, many white, racist suffragists refused to fight back against racial discrimination in voting and turned their back on the Black suffragists who had helped them. Black women were on their own.
Jim Crow Laws Kept the Promise of the 19th Amendment Away From Black Women
Racist policies kept Black women from the polls for decades after the 19th Amendment was passed. Voter suppression — particularly Jim Crow laws — denied Black men and women full participation in democracy until the Voting Rights Act became law 45 years later.
Between 1920 and 1965, Black Americans were shut out from voting in local, state, and federal elections. Their ability to cast their vote was stopped by literacy tests, poll taxes, voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and violence.
Black Civil Rights Heroines and the 1965 Voting Rights Act
There are many stories of Black women who fought to attain full and equal access to democracy. Here are three of them.
Fannie Lou Hamer and the Democratic National Convention
Fannie Lou Hamer worked as a sharecropper for most of her life and became one of the Civil and Voting Rights Movements’ most powerful voices in the early 1960s. She visited cities across the country while working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), speaking about voting rights and registering Black people to vote.
In Mississippi, Hamer was brutally beaten by the police, and the abuse left her permanently injured. Despite this, she went on to co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which aimed to integrate the state’s white-only delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention (DNC).
Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?– Fannie Lou Hamer, Aug. 22, 1964
Hamer’s televised address to the DNC and nationwide civil rights protests — including a march known as “Bloody Sunday” — led to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Diane Nash, Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides
Diane Nash was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement’s student wing. In 1960, she co-founded SNCC and led groundbreaking sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee. Her masterful strategies in nonviolent protest brought about the first civil rights campaign to integrate lunch counters.
Because transportation was key to making voting accessible, Nash led a major route of the Freedom Rides. Southern racists savagely attacked them. In the face of this violence, Nash and her fellow Freedom Riders ultimately succeeded in desegregating interstate travel.
Amelia Boynton Robinson and Bloody Sunday
The 1965 protest march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery was spearheaded by activist Amelia Boynton Robinson, along with Diane Nash and their fellow civil rights pioneers.
Boynton Robinson — who led voter registration drives in Selma from the 1930s through the 1950s — invited Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help lead the march as a protest against voter suppression. The SCLC set up a temporary headquarters in Boynton Robinson’s home.
While walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Boynton Robinson — along with many other protesters including Rep John Lewis — was beaten by Alabama state troopers. That’s why the nationally broadcast racist violence became known as Bloody Sunday. Five months later, on Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Weakening the Voting Rights Act
The VRA of 1965 banned racial discrimination in all levels of voting. By the next election, Black voter registration increased astronomically.
However, the VRA didn’t end the need to fight for equal access to democracy. The VRA was dismantled in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder. In the devastating ruling, the Supreme Court took out a key part of the VRA that required state and local governments with a history of discriminatory voting laws to ask the federal government first before changing their voting laws.
The fight for voting rights continues.
2020 Election: Carrying on the Legacy
Black suffrage and civil rights trailblazers helped Black women become the critical voice for democracy, civil liberties, and freedoms that they are today. In an election where Black women are running for office in record numbers, we must honor the 19th Amendment and the VRA by dismantling the systems of white supremacy that are currently restricting Black people’s access to the ballot.
The Planned Parenthood Action Fund is fighting for voting access for all voters — especially Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who have too long been disenfranchised. Carrying on this fight for voting rights is also essential in the fight for reproductive rights.
Do your part to ensure that WE decide who gets to be in charge of our country and our futures. Learn more and become an Action Fund member today.
Learn More and Become an Action Fund Member Today
Do your part to ensure that WE decide who gets to be in charge of our country and our futures.
Read More About Black Women’s Long Struggle for Voting Rights
This is the second blog in our series on reclaiming Black women's voices in the fight for suffrage. Read “100 Years of the 19th Amendment” to learn more about Black women’s outsized role in the passage of the 19th Amendment.
These articles provide more details about Black women’s contributions between 1920 and 1965:
Black Women’s Long Struggle for Voting Rights (Wall Street Journal)
The 19th Amendment: An Important Milestone in an Unfinished Journey (New York Times)
Suffrage in America: The 15th and 19th Amendments (National Park Service)
Women of the Movement: Trailblazers who paved the way to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and those leading today. (Southern Poverty Law Center)
Images Courtesy Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Frances Albrier Collection; Courtesy Library of Congress.