This Black History Month, we’re sharing the words of a few of the Black leaders who have pushed the United States closer to meeting one of its unfulfilled promises: equal access to the ballot box.
The work and sacrifices of these seven people — and many others — made possible successes like the 15th Amendment, the 19th Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And their fight isn’t over. While some state legislatures are working to expand early voting and absentee options, others are passing discriminatory voter ID laws, closing polling places, and purging voters by the hundreds of thousands.
That’s why we need to pass strong legislation at the federal level — because your right to vote shouldn’t depend on where you live. (See below for how you can help pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.)
Here are seven stories showing where we’ve come from and what work is still ahead.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a poet, journalist, and activist for abolition and voting rights.
Suffragist groups generally included only white women in their calls for voting rights — for example, opposing the 15th Amendment, which (in theory) granted Black men the right to vote before women. But Harper fought for an intersectional activism, as in her 1866 address, “We Are All Bound Together“:
“I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by preju[d]ice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.
You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars-I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia-and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride.”
Ida B. Wells was many things: an educator, an anti-lynching activist, and an investigative journalist. Decades after Harper, she also fought for women’s suffrage even when suffragists wouldn’t fight for hers.
In her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, Wells writes about founding her own suffrage organization in Chicago in 1914:
“When I saw that we were likely to have a restricted suffrage, and the white women of the organization were working like beavers to bring it about, I made another effort to get our women interested.
With the assistance of one or two of my suffrage friends, I organized what afterward became known as the Alpha Suffrage Club. The women who joined were extremely interested when I showed them that we could use our vote for the advantage of ourselves and our race. …
The work of these women was so effective that when registration day came, the Second Ward was the sixth highest of the thirty-five wards of the city.”
Ella Baker was an organizer, activist, and intellectual with a hugely impactful, 50-year career.
In 1958, Baker spearheaded the Crusade for Citizenship to register Black voters, one of the first large-scale campaigns by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). The campaign’s goal: Double the number of Black voters registered in the South — and “put black voter rights on the national political agenda,” writes Barbara Ransby in Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement.
Baker was also instrumental in the formation of SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and is credited with helping unify students who were split between two strategies: nonviolent direct action and voter registration.
“[T]hose who were very dedicated to the concept of non-violence did not see that voter registration would precipitate a conflict, a confrontation with violence — had to, because of the kinds of areas to which they were going. The young people decided—after months and months, weeks and weeks, all night and so forth—recognized that going to southwest Georgia, going down into deep Alabama and Mississippi meant you were going to be faced with violence. So if they compromised, it was largely in terms of the fact that the strength of the movement lay in being together, not in division.
That was the basis. Mine was not a choice of non-violence versus the other. Mine was in terms of the knowledge of history that I at least had and the recognition that where their strength would ultimately lie would be in involving people in mass, but together, not one fighting for non-violence.” — Ella Baker, 1974 interview
26-year-old Bob Moses was director of SNCC’s 1961 voter registration effort in Mississippi. Activist Herbert Lee, Moses’s driver, was murdered in September — in broad daylight, by a state legislator — for his part in the campaign.
In December, Moses and others in SNCC leadership were convicted of disturbing the peace and jailed in Magnolia, Mississippi, where Moses wrote this letter:
“In the words of Judge Brumfield, who sentenced us, we are “cold calculators” who design to disrupt the racial harmony (harmonious since 1619) of McComb into racial strife and rioting; we, he said, are the leaders who are causing young children to be led like sheep to the pen to be slaughtered (in a legal manner). “Robert,” he was addressing me, “haven’t some of the people from your school been able to go down and register without violence here in Pike County?” I thought to myself that Southerners are most exposed when they boast.”
Fannie Lou Hamer registered as a Mississippi voter in 1962, and as a result, was evicted from her home. Like others, she turned her efforts to helping register other Black voters. Like others, she did so under the threat of violence.
In 1964, Hamer ran for Congress under the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a party she and others (including Bob Moses) had started to challenge the segregationist Democrats in power. At that year’s DNC, she argued in front of the Credentials Committee to seat delegates from the MFDP:
“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the [Mississippi] Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. 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 to the DNC, 1964
President Johnson called an impromptu press conference so that news networks couldn’t air Hamer’s address.
The DNC offered Hamer a compromise of just two seats, which she rejected. She later returned as a fully credentialed delegate in 1968 and 1972.
Across the border in Alabama, it took Marie Foster eight tries to successfully register to vote in Dallas County — home of Selma. Afterward, she held classes to teach others how to pass the tests used to stop Black people from registering.
Marie Foster was in the front line of the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, including on Bloody Sunday. She continued her activism until her death in 2003, and is recognized as one of the “mothers of the voting rights movement.”
Foster wrote of her voter-registration classes:
“We needed to give the people the motivation to go to the courthouse and get registered. They had been deprived of their right for so long, it was not an easy transition to make. It was at these classes that we taught people how to get registered to vote and how to make their vote count.” (source)
Also at Selma: John Lewis, then the 25-year-old chairman of SNCC, and later a Representative from Georgia from 1987 until his passing last year.
In 2013, days after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Lewis testified to the Senate Judiciary committee. Because too many people have forgotten, or wanted to forget — including Chief Justice John Roberts — Rep. Lewis explained once again what things were like for Black voters before the Voting Rights Act, and why it was so badly needed. He also describes the kind of Jim Crow-era tests Marie Foster and her students had to overcome to register.
“Before the Voting Rights Act, people stood in immovable lines. On occasion, a person of color would be asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jelly beans in a jar. In 1964, the state of Mississippi had a Black voting age population of more than 450,000, but only about 16,000 were registered to vote. One county in my native state of Alabama, Lowndes County, was 80% African American, but not a single one was able to register to vote. Not one. …
It is my belief that the Voting Rights Act is needed now more than ever before. A bipartisan Congress and Republican presidents worked to reauthorize this law four times. The burden cannot be on those citizens whose rights were, or will be, violated; it is the duty and responsibility of Congress to restore the life and soul of the Voting Rights Act. And we must do it, and we must do it now. We must act, and we must act now.”
In this Congress, we have the opportunity to finally pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and restore the protections taken away in 2013. This bill would restore preclearance, the heart of the Voting Rights Act — as Rep. Lewis references, it places the burden on states to prove new voting laws aren’t discriminatory. (More about preclearance and the Voting Rights Advancement Act)
We must also pass the For The People Act, H.R. 1, a huge bill with measures to strengthen voting rights, expand access to the ballot, and rein in political spending. Among its provisions: automatic voter registration, minimum 15 days of early voting, and ending voter purges. (Read how the For The People Act can fight voter suppression and build Black political power)
Both these bills were passed in the House during the last Congress, and now, with Democrats running the Senate and White House, it’s critical they become law as soon as possible.
How to help
You can do your part: Call your representatives in Congress now and urge them to get these bills to President Biden’s desk.
Call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 to be connected to your elected officials. Here’s one example script for you to follow:
“I’m calling to ask for [Name]’s support for the For the People Act (S. 1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
“The November election showed just how hard some states can make it to vote — restricting mail ballots, closing polling places, and worse. But our voting rights shouldn’t depend on where we live. That’s why I support the expanded access to the ballot box in the For the People Act, and the restoration of preclearance protections in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
“Together, these two bills will expand ballot access with measures like extended early voting, automatic voter registration, and restored voting rights for formerly incarcerated people. They’ll also stop the worst voter suppression tactics we’ve seen since 2013, like discriminatory voter ID laws and voter purges.
“Please tell [Name] I’m counting on them to do everything they can to get these two bills passed and signed into law.”