Throughout American history, but primarily during the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, Black women have played a pivotal role in organizing, advocating and ensuring that important pieces of legislation were passed. Despite not being granted voting rights until 1965, Black women—in large part—are the reason why the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were such important decades for civil rights legislation. Prior to having the right to vote, Black women led civil rights organizations, which achieved suffrage for women as well as other important civil rights objectives during that time, such as ending segregation and redlining. Although Black women were the backbone of the 20th century Civil Rights Movement, this level of political activity stemmed from the 19th century abolition movement.
During the 20th century, this political involvement was seen in a variety of ways. Black women increasingly worked for schools, as well as for newspapers, which gave them a larger platform to advocate for equality. In these positions, they were able to leverage the power of media and education to increase awareness of important issues such as universal suffrage and anti-discrimination. Additionally, they founded important organizations and were members of various social clubs where they planned other ways to advance civil rights, end discrimination and grant universal suffrage. Two prominent organizations were the National Council of Negro Women and the Alpha Suffrage Club which both fought against racism, sexism and discrimination.
In addition to creating and joining civil society organizations, Black women also worked in tandem with Black men who were given the right to vote nearly a century before they were.
When Black men were given the right to vote in 1870, Black women continuously worked in conjunction with them to increase voting participation and to ensure that the Black vote was being used to advance important civil rights legislation.
Additionally, Black women, and women of color in general, are an increasingly politically interested–and active–demographic, along with other women of color. According to the Center of American Progress, over the years “women of color have constituted a greater and greater share of eligible voters,” and that “they now represent almost one-third of citizen voting age (CVA) women.” Furthermore, Black women have been an integral part in fighting against voter suppression tactics, particularly during the 2020 presidential election. This was especially pertinent with the work done by Stacey Abrams and her grassroots organizations, such as the New Georgia Project, who worked for years to mobilize and engage Black voters in Georgia. Not only has this served as a model for other U.S. states, but it has also been credited by many as being responsible for turning Georgia blue during the 2020 U.S. election.
Although achievements like this are now increasingly recognized and appreciated, it also brings up an important point on political participation discourse. At the same time that many white people discuss “not being into politics,” or “just not being a political person,” Black people don’t have the luxury to not care about politics due to the inherent existential connection in the current legislation being considered and passed. Moreover, while it is true that Black women have played a historically crucial role in politics and civil rights advocacy, it should not have to be that way. This is a sentiment that has been echoed time and time again by Black activists, but it is one that is especially important now, during Black History Month.
Black women deserve rest, as well as other marginalized groups, who have historically been leading the fight for civil rights and equitable legislation. While this is a month for celebrating and remembering the accomplishments of Black people throughout the world, it is important to recognize the disproportionate burden that is inherently tied to those accomplishments.
On a different note, for those who are not politically active, we must consider the systemic inequalities in our country, and the way that racism and white supremacy is not just a thing of the past, and our institutions are deeply rooted in them. As white supremacy is rooted in facets of life like policing, education and the drawing of district lines, it is natural that those who are white benefit directly from those things unless they take every effort to stop it. As this is the case, choosing not to be politically informed and to advocate for equitable policies is to knowingly benefit from white supremacy and to let the burden of fighting fall on only those who are most deeply affected by it, which are Black women.
These sentiments are not unique, and they have been preached time and time again by Black women. It’s important, particularly for white people, to be cognizant of this aspect of the month, and to be aware of the responsibility that falls upon us to care about and be actively engaged in politics–most prominently because if we don’t, we remain complacent while institutions rooted in white supremacy continue to benefit us.