Historian Martha S. Jones on the Power of Black Women That Led to Kamala Harris' Nod for VP

PEOPLE's Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice

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Professor Martha S. Jones. Photo: Basic Books

Americans are taught that the fight for women's suffrage ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. In actuality, another battle against voter suppression was just beginning for Black American women. In her new book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, Martha S. Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, explains how Black women campaigned for voting equality for all people, from the beginning of U.S. history, through the passing of the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.

Here, Jones, a prize-winning historian, tells PEOPLE what she's learned from the long line of brave Black suffragists in her own family — and how the history of such activists can guide modern-day Americans as they confront voter suppression in the Nov. 3 presidential election. She also explains how Black women have become one of the most powerful forces in U.S. elections. ("Black American women vote as a bloc," says Jones, "and that's part of what makes their vote so dangerous.")

I write in an office where portraits of the women in my family hang on the wall. They are there because they inspire me, but they're also there because I am accountable to them. When I write a history about women and the vote, I know that they want me to write a history that is true to the archives. But they also want me to write a history that has meaning in our own time, because I think they would recognize the urgency around voting rights that we are confronting in the 21st century and how it is not so different from the challenges that they faced a hundred years ago.

I didn't know enough of their stories two years ago, when I started to write a book about the subject. What I discovered by going back to the newspapers where they lived is that they were controversial figures, whether it was my great-grandmother who lived in St. Louis, Missouri in 1920, or my great-great-grandmother who was living in Danville, Kentucky in the same moment. That's because there was a tremendous fear of the power of African American women's votes to change Southern politics.

My great-grandmother, Fannie Williams, was part of a community of women in St. Louis who opened a suffrage school, in the YWCA there, to teach and train one another how to overcome hurdles like poll taxes and literacy tests. In St. Louis, even some African American men showed up there because they were also being disfranchised by local laws. They thought that the women at the Y might be able to help them figure out how to overcome those barriers. We oftentimes think that 1920 marks the beginning of women's votes. But what that version of the story doesn't account for are the ways in which individual states still had a great deal of latitude to block access to the polls.

Basic Books

Today, as long as states don't write laws that say, "Women can't vote," as long as they don't write laws that say, "Black people can't vote," they can continue to enact laws that disproportionately affect Black Americans in ways that are also constitutional. We think that, for example, citizenship and voting rights go hand in hand in the United States, but they do not — even today. No one is guaranteed the vote, which is why voter ID laws, or the shuttering of polling places, or exact match requirements, are going to keep many Americans from getting to the polls this November.

In the long history of the women's rights movement, many white suffragists left anti-Black thinking unchallenged. Some even promoted it, and left barriers to Black women’s votes in place. Racism prevented Black and white women from building meaningful and effective coalitions. As early as the 1860s, women's rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony colluded openly with white supremacist leaders, thinking that that might be a strategy for winning votes, at least for white women.

By the start of the 20th century, Black women were being sacrificed, marginalized and excluded in suffrage politics in an effort to win white Southern support. This made meaningful and sustained alliances between Black and white women nearly impossible. African American women, many of whom were deeply interested in winning political power, set out then to build their own movement.

There are many Black women who stand out, but I'll mention one who's in Vanguard, and who was legend when I was a girl. Mary McLeod Bethune began her life as an educator, founding an industrial school for African American girls, in Daytona, Florida, in the earliest years of the 20th century.

She was a club movement activist and a suffragist. By 1920, she was traveling around Florida, educating Black women, getting them registered and encouraging them to use their vote to shift the balance of power in the state. Mrs. Bethune met with formidable resistance in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, and the violence that she and Black Floridians experienced in 1920 is nearly unspeakable. Her girls' school was visited in a night march by the Ku Klux Klan, on the eve of Election Day in 1920.

By 1922, Mrs. Bethune and Black Floridians had been unable to make headway when it came to voting rights. The violence was relentless. So, she went to Washington, and what I love about her story is her nimbleness. She was an educator, she was a suffragist, but Mrs. Bethune also became a lobbyist and a political operative in Washington when conditions demanded that. She helped to found President Franklin Roosevelt’s Black cabinet, and by 1945, Mrs. Bethune was at the founding of the United Nations. There, she discovered how African American women's struggle against Jim Crow was a companion to the battle that women of color across the globe were waging against apartheid, colonialism and more.

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The women of Vanguard came to understand the necessary power of social movements. Litigation, yes. Lobbying, yes. The ground game around elections, yes. But all of that was powerfully framed by social movements. By the time Black women’s struggles for voting rights got to the '40s, the '50s and the '60s, they emerged as architects of the Civil Rights Movement, which included challenges to segregation, but also challenges to disfranchisement, like the 1964 Selma campaign. For African American women like my grandmother, it was only through the modern Civil Rights Movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that, finally, they had laws which enforced the spirit of the 15th Amendment, which had prohibited the states from using race when determining voting rights.

Black American voting rights were only won through that early movement for Black lives. The politics of the polling place and the street were companions. Black women saw the connection between, for example, winning federal anti-lynching legislation and winning federal voting rights protections. The two were inextricably linked. In 1920 it was true — and it is true today — that if Black Americans cannot be assured about their safety, whether it is violence or it is the ravages of a pandemic, they cannot exercise voting rights.

And here we are in 2020, watching how the movement for Black lives — with three Black women originators and leaders [Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors] — frames, lends urgency to, and brings many, many thousands of Americans to the table around questions of politics and power.

When commentators noted Sen. Kamala Harris’s nomination [for the Democratic party’s vice presidential candidate] as "the first," they sold the moment short. [Sen. Harris is the first Black woman selected for that role.] Technically, in some ways, she is a first, but that's not the real story.

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Sen. Kamala Harris with her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters. Brian Cahn/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

The real story is about how Sen. Harris is part of a force of African American women in politics today. She was one of six Black women who were vetted by [Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President] Joe Biden. African American women had prepared themselves for the moment. When the party and the political scene were ready, they stepped into the highest echelon of American politics. Black women were ready for that.

That's why there were six women on that shortlist, and not one. Sen. Harris’s nomination was not a token gesture, nor was it simply the shattering of a glass ceiling. It reflected how a generation of Black women was ready for national leadership. Kamala Harris can't be Kamala Harris without that force.

— As told to Sam Gillette

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