Mamas and the Movement: How Black Women are Still Shaping the Nation

(Black women were the backbone of the U.S. democracy in its inception and continue to be the supporting factor today. [Gayatri Malhotra])
Fascist Trump voters undeniably mounted a Jan. 6 insurrection at the nation’s Capital. They came with Confederate flags and MAGA hats. When the smoke cleared, the crowd on Facebook and Twitter decried the attack and heaped praise upon the nation’s strong democratic foundations.

“Freedom stood strong,” people claimed in posts. Some of them even beat their chests and said things like, “Democracy will prevail! It’s in our nation’s blood!” and “America will endure.”

They claimed the country’s durable founding principles had weathered the attack, as if a pile of 200-year-old paperwork was the magic that buttressed the nation. Of course, it wasn’t.  The real power behind the wall keeping an army of aggrieved racists from overthrowing a legitimate election that day was the people who’d built it. The people laying the brickwork for that foundation were Black women.

Oddly, many U.S. residents don’t realize the delicate nature of U.S. democracy. In fact, for most of the nation’s history, “democracy” here wasn’t democracy at all. Just ask WWII veteran Maceo Snipes what it was like to vote in 1946 Georgia while Black. Oh, wait, don’t bother; they lynched him. Likewise, don’t bother talking to Black veteran Isaiah Nixon, because he was snatched from his wife and six children and murdered hours after he voted in a primary election in Montgomery County, Ga. The two white men arrested and charged for Nixon’s murder were acquitted by all-white juries.

The fact of the matter is that it took decades of brutal labor by Black people—particularly Black women—to make U.S. democracy a reality. For most of that time Black women had to fight that battle alone. In 1917, while famous women’s suffragists like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns organized massive marches for the right to vote, Black women had to fight racism within that very suffrage movement to earn that same right. In many cases the white women shouting bitterly for a fair America ignored the pleas of the Black women looking to work with them. If Black women were allowed to participate at all, it was usually at the back of the women’s marching line.

“Black women and women of color have often been overlooked by movements that should embrace us,” said Karundi Williams, executive director of Re:power, a campaign management company that specializes in minority campaigns. “Our fight for racial equality has often been framed by men and our fights for gender justice are often framed by white women. And we’ve been pushed to the side and lost a lot because of this.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the 19th Amendment Congress passed to expand the voting rights of women barely affected Black women. Stopped at the ballot box in the fascist South just the same, Black women would continue to be stopped for almost 50 grinding, miserable years until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Politicos say this colossal national indifference gives Black people—and Black women in particular—a heightened sensitivity to brooding fascist elements such as Jan. 6.

“Black women are really clear about our community’s role in this country and its history of oppression and racism, and the reality that if given an opportunity to exclude us there are those in this country who will exclude us at the drop of a dime,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, an organization that raises money to support the campaigns of Black and minority women running for national and local office. “There’s a historical connectivity with us, and I think Black people can just see when the U.S. is headed down a path that they are really familiar with. There is a path that this country cannot go down if it actually wants to realize its own ideals. And when it starts to veer in that direction Black communities in general—and Black women, specifically—work as hard as possible to pull it back on the path toward our ideals.”

Shropshire said Black women’s multi-generational experiences and their long collective memories explains how they worked (and still work) as a massive, unified voting bloc against bad political elements. It was that same unity and high participation that made the Voting Rights Act possible. It may come as a surprise to some grandchildren exactly how many Black women worked to pass the VRA. Throw a rock in Jackson, Miss. and you could hit the driveway of a grandmother or great aunt who participated in the civil rights struggle but got tired of bragging about it 50 years later.

Jackson resident Brenda Cheeks, for example, was known as Rosa B. Clay at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Cheeks can speak of Civil Rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer as if they were old neighbors.

“I remember doing Hamer’s hair while attending a weekend training session in Ohio run by COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in … I think it was 1963. She had a lot of dandruff, so it took a lot of brushing, and she’d sit on the floor, and I’d sit right down behind her, and I’d brush her hair and we’d talk about plans.”

One year later those plans would involve Hamer co-founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and challenging the racist Democratic Party’s efforts to block Black voter participation at the party’s National Convention. Hamer and other MFDP members marched onto the convention, demanding integrated state delegations, and her impassioned speech that day impressed and humbled the world. Four years later the Democratic Party could no longer deny Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.

Cheeks, like many Black women, is soft-spoken about her historic work, but her brand of enthusiasm hasn’t diminished in more than half a century. Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are highly aware of her fervor because it affects them both in a very big way. Black people gravitated toward the Democratic Party when the GOP began courting racists and “states’ rights” advocates 50 years ago.

Over the last four decades Black women’s participation has swayed the national contests in Democrats’ favor between 2008 and 2020. In 2016, for example, 94 percent of Black women recognized then-candidate Trump as a bourgeoning despot and cast a vote for Hillary Clinton. Undeterred by that loss, nearly 100 percent  of Black women in Alabama came out and voted for U.S. senatorial candidate Doug Jones, in an effort to toss an ignorant racist who wanted to curtail 14th Amendment protections, and who is also an accused child predator. In 2020, Black women again delivered huge turnout with 90 percent support for President Joe Biden, which helped roll Trump out of D.C. Finally, Black women almost single-handedly handed control of the Senate to Democrats with their sound rejection of GOP candidates in the Georgia elections.

The GOP is reacting badly to this. With the racist Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party now fully assimilated, the Republican Party of today is a near-homogenous race cult with very little Black participation. Primarily white GOP legislators in Georgia are fearful that their delicate majority is slipping away with the emergence of younger, less white voters and burgeoning Black influence. To prevent this, they’re trying to push Black voters off the rolls. They’re passing bills to end at-will absentee voting and imposing new, onerous voting restrictions that target Black voters. Georgian legislators even changed state laws so that a more partisan legislature can impose its will on the election certification process and toss millions of minority votes.

Over in Florida, mostly white legislators are trying to curb drop boxes and tamp down absentee voting, after Democrats outvoted Republicans by mail by 680,000 more ballots. Florida’s GOP governor even responded to the rightful rise of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation by signing into law new legal protections for individuals who mow down protestors with their cars and trucks.

Many activists say they predicted these cynical political moves as the nation inched toward self-awareness and progressivism.

“Black voting rights activists have never let their guard down—we can’t,” said Williams. “Whenever we dare to show up and utilize our power at the ballot box, white supremacists react. We knew these voter suppression and anti-protest laws were coming.”

Black women are responding accordingly. Women who have for decades worked in the background, pushing sentiment, pressing action, and beating drums in countless Black households are now stepping out and taking the reins of politics and political organizations for themselves. Shropshire pointed out that some of the top voting rights organizations in the nation are now led by Black women. Sherrilyn Ifill heads the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Judith Browne Dianis serves as Executive Director of the Advancement Project; and Kristen Clarke serves as head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (although she is currently on leave as President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division).

Those kinds of numbers didn’t exist five years ago,” Shropshire said. “We have seen Black women take on the mantle, and some of it is obviously because there’s a threat not just to the nation but a real threat to Black communities under the last administration. For Black women it was sort of all-hands-on deck.”

Even as the media reports an increased presence of Black women in leadership positions, Williams warned that the public should not get the impression that Black women are just now stepping up and putting themselves in those roles. There have always been thousands upon thousands of Brenda Cheeks hiding out in the wings, living their lives and teaching their descendants about this very frail democracy that only recently became a real thing. And right now, they are extremely triggered.

“It’s very important to note that Black women have always had political power and we’ve always known how to wield it. Leadership is our legacy. Because of our experiences in this country, we’ve always had to step up,” said Williams. “…This narrative that Black women are leaders, all of a sudden, is misguided and dangerous. We’ve always known our power—the rest of the world is just waking up to it.”

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