When Black Women Organize

When Black Women Organize

Liberals owe Doug Jones’s win to a rich history of black women’s organizing in the South. When will they really start listening?

Adulated on election day, but ignored the rest of the year—when will Democrats start taking black women's political demands seriously? (Jamelle Bouie / Flickr)

In the fall of 1947, the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs gathered at the Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery to plan the future of the black South. Like other coalitions of black women across the country, these activists maintained an expansive vision of civil rights, while exercising a highly pragmatic politics to ensure that the most basic needs of black communities could be met. The delegates hailed from the nation’s Jim Crow strongholds—Florida, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Virginia. Simply gathering on behalf of black lives was a risky and subversive move at the time. Yet, despite threats and uncertainties, the Federation resolved to continue their fight to vote in state primaries and to abolish poll taxes, two obstacles that, along with violence, strangled black voting power. Their difficult work of securing equal access to the ballot was paired with the comparably challenging need to initiate and support crucial, local services—public schools, children’s hospitals, and homes for the elderly, the very resources that the state would underfund or deny black taxpayers and citizens for more than a century.

Over the next seventy years, the Alabama State Teachers College, now known as Alabama State University, continued to be the site of black women’s strategizing and organizing. The campus served as an early hub for the Women’s Political Council, the grassroots group behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And, most recently, Alabama State was the host to a Doug Jones-for-Senate campaign event, where black voters heard from Representative Terri Sewell, the first black woman elected to Congress from the state, and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Black women voters have been at the center of conversations over the past week since Jones, a Democrat, eked out a win against Judge Roy Moore, the most scandal-ridden, racist, and misogynist Republican politician after the current president. Within moments of the election being called for Jones—who has yet to be formally sworn in and whose opponent has yet to concede the election—social media was abuzz with comments that amplified the exit data on Alabama voters, and specifically black women voters.

Black women overwhelmingly voted for Jones, at 98 percent, while 63 percent of their white female peers voted for Moore, seemingly unconcerned by either the allegations that he was a child molester or his lack of support for women’s political participation. Black women indeed played a major role in Jones’s win, not only as voters but also as leaders in their communities who figured out how to circumvent barriers to voting, including by raising Jones’s profile as Moore’s reputation began to sink and organizing rides to polls.

The election spawned think pieces declaring that “Black women saved Alabama,” and tweets of thanks to black women for swinging a seemingly rigid, red state. Critics of the thank-you message have challenged mostly white observers to do more than offer praise, including by supporting black women seeking public office, demanding that the Democratic Party take seriously black women’s political demands, and focusing energies on educating the overwhelming numbers of white people—especially white women—on what happens when their racist anxieties dictate their vote. Similarly, the assumption that black women care for little more than their own interests reveals the way they are rendered visible only when they are correcting white misbehavior and irresponsibility.

All of these reactions illustrate the uneasy position black women occupy inside and outside the confines of American politics. The Jones win is a victory for the black women organizers in Alabama and the volunteers who flooded the state. Yet their role in helping secure Jones’s senate seat (or Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s earlier in the fall) has not drastically changed the political attitudes of the Democratic Party or other left-leaning groups toward black women.

Those who are concerned about black women’s votes may want to study the incredible history of black women’s political organizing in the South, as well as the current odds that are stacked against them across the country. The post-2016 election narrative about red and blue America fixated on the gulf between conservative and liberal whites. This narrative also mourned the loss of a robust, left-leaning white electorate that has shifted rightward because of the incompetence and indifference of the Democratic Party. This analysis, which often elides the importance of racism and xenophobia in predicting white voting patterns regionally, also ignores the complexity of black voters and their motivations. In this moment, perhaps observers should take a few moments to consider how black women in Alabama and Virginia are not that different from black women in California and New York—all are contending with the forces of racism, sexism, and class immobility. Yet local challenges and regional differences dictate both the strategies and the resources black women have to fight these forces. Therefore, appreciating, or simply noting, black women’s voting patterns cannot provide reliable information on ideological divides across region or class, nor can expressions of gratitude make up for the need to organize whites to do anti-racist work. So, if Alabama has sparked your interest in black women’s votes, here are some things to keep in mind:

First, black women’s political work in Alabama, and across the nation, did not begin in the middle of the twentieth century nor did it conclude with the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Although media outlets repeatedly framed the Alabama Senate race as an extension of the Selma to Montgomery March or as the realization of Rosa Parks’s resistance to bus segregation, black women’s civic work has always been about institution-building alongside agitation for unencumbered suffrage.

Second, black voting has long been met with white backlash, and current voter suppression and obstruction measures sanctioned by the White House’s wild-goose chase to stop “voter fraud” is a reality that black voters have long understood and organized against. An ethical left cannot abandon black Southern voters while seeking to communicate solely to disaffected whites. In fact, radical organizers in the South are working tirelessly to address an array of race, gender, and class issues.

Third, the black population of Alabama is confronting serious economic and political disenfranchisement that goes beyond the modern-day poll taxes of voter identification requirements. If political parties and grassroots networks really want to show gratitude for black votes, they should help pass measures to alleviate black and brown poverty in Alabama, especially child poverty; improve access to reproductive health, and end attempts to resegregate public schools.

The Southeastern Federation may have been unable to fathom a moment in which their political work was met with praise, and few lived long enough to see the election of black women to Congress, city halls, and school boards. There are no doubt moments to celebrate. And, the fact that these women have deliberated on equal access to learning, sound health, economic stability, and personal safety for black people for more than half a century should give us all reasons to transform momentary celebrations into continued struggle.

Marcia Chatelain is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University and a contributing editor at Dissent.

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