Black women have fought for voting rights as a path towards justice and equity for centuries. They started advocating for voting access to ensure that everyone could participate in the democratic process as early as the 1820s.
When the women’s suffrage movement in the US distanced itself from slave abolition after the Civil War, Black women continued to push for voting rights in their communities. After the 14th and 15th amendments passed in 1866 and 1869 respectively, providing Black men the right to vote, they continued to oppose the obstacles like literacy requirements and poll taxes that persisted and limited full voting participation.
In 1920, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote, but excluded Black women living in states with racial segregation under "Jim Crow" laws.
It wasn’t until Aug. 6, 1965 — 45 years later — when the Voting Rights Act (VRA) legally secured the right for Black Americans and other marginalized groups to vote, that Black women received the same privilege.
Today, voting rights advocates want to ensure that Black women voters aren’t silenced any further.
Glynda Carr is the CEO of Higher Heights for America, an organization expanding Black women’s voting participation. The organization’s #BlackWomenVote campaign aims to ensure that Black women have the resources and information they need to vote. As the US commemorates the VRA, Carr does not want the country to forget the Black women who made it possible.
"You oftentimes may not hear of all of the women that played integral roles as architects of not only the civil rights movement, but the work needed to be done to ensure that Black women had access to the ballot box," Carr told Global Citizen.
She pointed to the contributions of Sojourner Truth, a former slave and Black suffragist. Truth knew that she might not immediately benefit from her activism at the time, but she still saw the value in fighting for equality. Then there are women like Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who was attacked by white supremacists while registering to vote, who went on to encourage thousands of African Americans to register.
"Higher Heights and the work of modern-day activists has been built on that tradition that at the end of the day, everyday Black women, when you give them the tools they need, we will not only organize our house, but will organize our block, our organizations, and our faith institutions," Carr said.
She hopes this year, as Black women are hoping to see a return on their voting investment, they remember the powerful voices that led past movements and that they can help fuel more change.
"We remember the work of those Black women, and [how] they used their work and their passion, and their energy to move forward because Black women still give more to this democracy than we get back," Carr said.
While Black women make up only about 7% of the US population, they tend to vote at higher rates than any other demographic. Black women voted at, or above, 60% in the past five presidential elections.
Their influence has also made them a target, according to Carr.
"Some of these direct attacks on voting rights are targeted towards African American women because we are the building blocks to a winning coalition," she explained. "If you try to suppress those votes, it could change the outcome of local to national elections."
The research Higher Heights has conducted across the US shows that Black women, regardless of location, age, or socioeconomic background, tend to vote for economically thriving, educated, healthy, and safe communities, according to Carr.
"[In the 21st century], we need to ensure that we are advocating and fighting to ensure that we are not rolling back 55 years of progress," she said.
Despite progress, efforts to silence Black voices in elections remain, according to Molly McGrath, voting rights campaign strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.
States continue to disenfranchise Black American voters by stripping incarcerated people of voting rights, setting photo ID laws, and limiting early voting. The COVID-19 pandemic is also threatening elections by limiting polling places, mail-in ballots, and stunting voter registration.
"The amount of courage, perseverance, sacrifice, and organizing by Black women can’t be overstated," McGrath told Global Citizen via email. "Securing the right to vote for Black women did not happen with women’s suffrage. And it has not fully happened today."
Today is the 55th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act.— ACLU (@ACLU) August 6, 2020
We honor the dedication of everyone who has fought for our rights and carry forth their legacy today. pic.twitter.com/RDsxNQpngd
In 2013, the Supreme Court removed a key part of the VRA that required jurisdictions with a history of racially discriminatory voting laws to get permission from the federal government before changing their voting laws, McGrath explained.
The protection of the VRA must be held by restoring it and passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), she added. Introduced in 2019 and passed by Congress, the VRAA would enact new regulations and oversight procedures to prevent discriminatory election practices.
"We have a long way to go toward racial and economic justice, and we need lawmakers who will prioritize and fight for this," McGrath said. "And we can only get that representation if all citizens — no matter skin color, income or zip code — have access to the ballot box."
Global Citizen and HeadCount have teamed up to launch Just Vote, a campaign mobilizing young Americans to register to vote ahead of the 2020 election and beyond. As part of the campaign, your favorite artists and entertainers are offering exclusive experiences, performances, and memorabilia — and they can only be unlocked once eligible voters check their voter registration status. Learn more about Just Vote and how you can take action here.