Any celebration or recognition of the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment must include the role of Black women in the battle for universal suffrage as well as the ongoing work of Black women in contemporary political spaces. Often touted as giving women the right to vote, the 19th Amendment’s passage did not overcome the various barriers put in place to deny and limit electoral participation of Black people. Many states in the South and West prohibited Black people from voting through various means such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

It would not be until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, commemorated earlier this month, that Black women would be able to fully enjoy access to the franchise. Still this has not been without its limitations, as Black voters and other voters of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by policies that impinge upon the right to vote.

The unfulfilled promise of suffrage in Tennessee

For Black women, suffrage was a vehicle for addressing the issues and concerns affecting their families and communities. Voting alone was never the end goal. This work continues on through elected officials like Tennessee State Rep. London Lamar, who joins a host of other Black young women state representatives like Summer Lee in Pennsylvania, Sammi Brown in West Virginia, and Park Cannon in Georgia. Collectively, these young women are challenging the status quo as to how the business of politics is done in their respective state legislatures and making it possible to bring the community along with them into the process.

Speaking with Prism, Lamar reflected on the legacy of women’s suffrage along with the work of Black women in her home state of Tennessee. “Tennessee was the last state to ratify [the 19th Amendment], which made it legal nationwide,” said Lamar. Lamar shared that the vote to ratify the 19th Amendment, came down to a tie-breaking vote cast by State Rep. Harry Burn, reportedly at the request of his mother.  

“When I look at Tennessee, we are still lacking in female representation, especially on a state level where I serve,” said Lamar. “However, what you see in my city of Memphis,Tennessee, is a plethora of Black women serving in elected offices on all levels.”

Lamar has organized a group of Black women elected officials in an intergenerational Photo Voice campaign on Black women’s political power. Lamar hopes to bring attention to the work of Black women in elected office who are continuing the work started by Black women fighting for suffrage 100 years ago.

“These are all women in a position who are able to articulate and highlight these issues and bring our lived experiences to the work,” Lamar said. “Who else better to advocate for women and families than women?”

Lamar also pointed to the ongoing work around voting rights in a state that does not permit no-excuse absentee voting, even with an ongoing pandemic. She explained that this is particularly difficult for new voters and students who may want to vote by absentee ballot (provided they fall within one of the valid exceptions) but have not previously voted in person where they are registered. Alternatively, a person voting for the first time could have their ID certified by the appropriate election official to qualify to vote by absentee but most first time voters aren’t aware of these limitations.

“I think it’s also a conversation about what our priorities are as a country and a state when it comes to allowing everybody to exercise their right to vote,” Lamar said.

Always a catalyst for change

Like their 19th and 20th century counterparts, Black women organizing today see voting and electoral politics as a way of advancing the Black community. Strategic involvement in electoral spaces recognizes the role voting and electoral decision-making process play in day to day life for Black people. For many, engaging in electoral politics is not done in lieu of other strategies including protests and similar forms of advocacy.

Co-led by Rukia Lumumba, Jessica Byrd, and Kayla Reed, the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Voter Fund attempts to build on the groundwork laid by Black women electoral organizers of prior movements. Defined as encompassing accountability, interventions, dismantling, and building anew, electoral justice provides a framework for collective organizing efforts across issues. Recognizing the need to continuously build and shape collaborative efforts toward justice and equity, the Electoral Justice Roundtable is gearing up to bring together Black people from across the country for its Black National Convention on Aug. 28.

Earlier this summer, as a part of the growing demands around defunding the police, the Movement for Black Lives released a prescriptive legislative framework entitled The BREATHE Act.  

“We hope this becomes the framework that local elected leaders really engage with,” said Byrd during a press conference announcing the launch of the BREATHE Act. “But more importantly that organizers will utilize it in a way that fits through the prism, have their own cities, states, and the changes that they want to make legislatively, and that this offers a really robust amount of solutions to what a divest, and an invest strategy could look like.”

According to a press release late Monday night, the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project is demanding the Democratic National Committee incorporate BREATHE Act amendments to its platform.

Electoral participation is part of the movement for equity and justice

 Black women organizing through a lens of equity and justice see electoral participation as an extension of and in alignment with movement values. St. Louis-based organizer Brittany Ferrell wrote in a recent op-ed that today’s electoral organizers are in the streets, elected offices, and political institutions. An organizer with Action St. Louis and a national organizer with Black Futures Lab, Ferrell points to the “refinement of our vision for justice and clarity in the strategies needed to achieve it” along with “creativity and critique” in order to shift the political landscape.

St. Louis recently saw a trifecta of Black woman excellence clenching primary wins. Cori Bush overcame brutal attacks and an entrenched political machine to unseat an incumbent to represent Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. Bush is the first person since 1968 not carrying the last name Clay to be elected to the seat. Both the first Black women to hold their positions, St. Louis City Treasurer Tishaura Jones and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner won with support from local movement-based organizations like Action St. Louis despite party opposition.

Bush, Gardner, and Jones embody the spirit of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president on a major party ticket, in their fearless campaigns and commitment to governance from a justice centered framework. This Chisholm quote sums up the work of today’s Black women as they continue the work started over 100 years ago:

“I am and always will be a catalyst for change.”  

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.

Caitlin Gaffin is the Chief Operating Officer at Prism. She is also a founding co-director of Holler Health Justice, a racial, economic, and reproductive justice nonprofit in West Virginia.