A struggle waged alone: Black women and the right to vote

August 27, 2020

Rosa Parks is best known for the bus boycott, but her very first foray into politics was with local voting rights activist, E.D. Nixon. She’s was part of some of the very risky early voting rights organizing in Alabama that predates even Selma.

Literacy tests and poll taxes are typically no longer employed to deny African Americans the right to vote. But 100 years after its ratification on August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment nominally gave all women the right to vote, the reality is that African American women are frequently still victims of various voter suppression tactics, including gerrymandering, overly zealous purges of voter registration rolls, elimination of Congressional oversight of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a relatively new tactic this year: denying the United States Postal Service the resources necessary to conduct voting by mail during a pandemic.

These voter suppression tactics have also served to obscure the pivotal contribution that African American women made toward passage of the 19th Amendment. Historian Martha S. Jones has sought to highlight the contribution African American women made toward securing the vote in a soon-to-be-published book: Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.

“The 19th Amendment did not eliminate the state laws that operated to keep Black Americans from the polls via poll taxes, literacy tests – nor did the 19th Amendment address violence or lynching,” Jones said during a recent interview with Time Magazine. “Black women are set at a distance quite intentionally, because in order to hold onto the support of many white southern women, it’s necessary to keep the organization distant from African American women. And it’s also implicitly the promise that the amendment will not interfere with the disenfranchisement of African American women – so it’s not a campaign premised in women’s universal voting rights, but it’s a campaign premised in the process of selective voting rights for white American women.”

Jones said those who attempt to look for historical African American suffragists in organizations put together by white women of that era will be disappointed because they were often not present or recognized. They did their own work, Jones said. Her book, in part, is an effort to highlight the many contributions African American women made to secure the right to vote.

“African American women are held out at moments when they are convenient or they seem to serve another argument or purpose,” Jones said. “But too often we don’t get the full sense of their lives and how they are connected to their own histories and the histories of other Black women.”