Black Women Leading the Fight For Voting Rights
WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 15: Melanie Campbell, CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, speaks during a news conference outside the AFL-CIO headquarters on July 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. The organized labor advocates called for the Senate to repeal the filibuster to allow passage of several bills they support, including the For The People Act and The John Lewis Voting Rights Act. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Alarmed by a wave of bills sweeping state legislatures around the country and a recent Supreme Court decision that critics contend will dismantle voting rights, Black women and their allies are taking courageous, coordinated steps to fight back.  

“While Black women were among the last to get the right to vote, we have always been on the front lines fighting for voting rights for women and Black people,” said Melanie Campbell, president/CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable. “The tsunami of attacks on our voting rights and the inaction by too many leaders in Congress who appear to be holding our voting rights hostage for partisan gain, has compelled Black women leaders and voting rights advocates to join forces with our allies to demand that federal voting rights legislation be passed now.”

Americans – and Black and brown voters  – turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard in 2020.  Democrats and voting rights advocates say it resulted in measures designed to create barriers, and they are being put into place at a rapid pace. Since the November elections, lawmakers in 49 states have proposed over 400 measures to restrict voting access. They range from eliminating early voting to curbing voting by mail, and even language around handing out water to people standing in line

This summer has brought activity on multiple fronts. Last week, the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) joined forces to help organize a call to action week with more than 40 Black women leaders and advocates nationwide. Their four days of collective action included a town hall, rally, and a peaceful protest on Capitol Hill with activists such as Tamika Mallory, Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown, and Cora Masters Barry. It culminated in the arrest of nine people. Those detained included Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), Melanie Campbell, Clayola Brown, Barbara Arnwine, Linda Sarsour, and several others who engaged in civil disobedience.  

Beatty, who recently lost her husband but has returned to the halls of Congress, told ESSENCE she’s received an overwhelmingly positive response from constituents and people nationwide who applauded the action.  “I stand in solidarity with Black women and allies across the country in defense of our constitutional right to vote,” said the Congresswoman, noting that she prayed her late spouse, Otto Beatty, would be proud of her. “We have come too far and fought too hard to see everything systematically dismantled and restricted by those who wish to silence us. Be assured that this is just the beginning.” 

One day after their release from jail, several of the women and prominent sister-leaders met with Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House for voting rights dialogue. It followed a sit-down two weeks ago, when civil rights leaders met with President Joe Biden and the VP to discuss issues impacting Black communities, including voting rights and police reform.

“The attempt to thwart our voting rights is a true travesty,” said Glynda Carr, President/CEO of Higher Heights for America after attending the meeting. “At a time when America should be leading the world in demonstrating how a nation that holds up the ideals of equality and freedom has been able to thrive and flourish, we are instead having internal turmoil over the basic fundamental rights that make up the very fabric of our democracy.” “We must all work together to fight the attack on our vote and pass national standards to make the promise of our democracy real for us all. The Vice President is the right woman to [help us] lead this charge.”  

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This Wednesday, members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a press conference with Black women leaders to express solidarity. The caucus is pushing colleagues to pass the For the People Act (passed by the House, but stalled in the Senate) and The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which has languished in Congress. The bill is being re-tooled for re-introduction, sources told ESSENCE, likely by the fall. 

Later that evening, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), a member of the Judiciary Committee, convened a “call and response to action” strategy session with fellow members of Congress. They heard from Black women who have been protesting as well as Democratic lawmakers from Texas who recently left the state attempting to block legislation they believe would make it harder to vote. 

During the discussion, members of Congress including Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), and Rep. Nikema Williams (D-GA) heard from advocates such as Barbara Williams Skinner who stressed the “moral” and “spiritual” imperative to protect voting. Jackson Lee emphasized that the Senate filibuster was not part of the Constitution but instead was created specifically around the issues of equal rights and voting rights efforts that began in the 1800s.

“The filibuster continues to be a hindrance to civil rights and voting rights, and as such, the procedural hurdle should be removed, if necessary, for the passage of federal voting rights legislation,” she told ESSENCE.  

While Black women are leading, they’re not alone. On Thursday, the Coalition of Black Men organized a “Brothers Day of Action on Capitol Hill” with stakeholders from the faith, civil rights, cultural, political and legal sectors. Several of the men, among them Rep. Hank Johnson, Rashad Robinson, attorney Mawuli Davis, and Cliff Albright were arrested.  Stakeholders told ESSENCE that marches, legislative lobbying, and demonstrations will be ongoing until there is palpable progress.

“The power of Black voters is what delivered the White House, Senate and House of Representatives for Democrats,” said Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, President of the National Council of Negro Women in a statement. “Black voters are demanding that their leaders deliver on the promises that inspired them to vote in record numbers during the last election cycle. Our democracy is faced with a barrage of attacks on our voting rights, and the effects are being felt in every corner of the country. It is important that we stay the course and continue keeping pressure on lawmakers at every level to pass the critical voting rights legislation needed to protect our democracy.”