Since the very beginning of the civil rights movement, Black women have been at the forefront of the fight for equal rights– from leading the crowds marching through our neighborhood streets to campaigning for elected office– in order to break the confines of the status quo.
As we reflect back on the six decades since the first March on Washington, we owe the progress we’ve made to the tireless activism of Black women like Dr. Dorothy Height, whose unmatched organizing skill and power drew young people to the movement, and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who ran for Congress and New York City Council President in a bold stand against gender discrimination and poverty. Along with so many others, their relentless pursuit of equal rights advanced the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
Today, though we owe the foundation of our fundamental civil rights to these powerful Black women leaders, their contributions are too often overlooked. They, and others who have been the driving forces for racial justice and societal change – from civil rights and voting rights to abortion rights and so much more – are frequently not recognized by name. As lawmakers work to roll back these long-established rights, the failure to recognize, center, and uplift Black women, their voices and their leadership, is a mistake we cannot afford to make today.
Women like Dr. Dorothy Height and Anna Arnold Hedgeman provide us with powerful lessons about what’s possible when we prioritize and follow Black women. While we bear the brunt of inequities in our society, we continue to lead the fight to restore and expand freedom and dignity for our communities and all Americans.
Despite purposeful barriers to our full participation in American society in our paths, Black women fight to make our voices heard because we know that we’re often the ones with the most at stake. Just take a look at the numbers. In recent elections, Black women’s turnout has consistently reached around two-thirds, surpassing any other demographic group. While still deeply underrepresented, Black women continue to make inroads into the halls of power, from state and local legislative and executive positions to state and federal courts. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s powerful dissent to the Court’s recent affirmative action ruling demonstrates the importance of being engaged on all fronts to have a seat at the table.
Nearly 60 years after the landmark protections within the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed, the forces of racism and anti-Black discrimination are still prevalent across our country. Each day, we’re faced with new, growing attacks that directly threaten these key cornerstones of U.S. society and democracy. A targeted unraveling of the Voting Rights Act has set the stage for record numbers of state voter suppression laws, while certain lawmakers push to censor discussions of Black history in schools, in attempts to further constrain our freedom to make personal decisions about our democracy, our bodies, and our futures.
Extremist attempts to unravel well-established protections and take away our voices necessitate a clear reminder: centering Black women’s voices and needs in the fight for equal voting rights access helps protect everyone’s rights. When laws defend us from discrimination based on our intersecting identities of both race and gender, their protections trickle up to all Americans regardless of their background.
We’ll continue to fight to protect our right to equal representation and participation in our democracy. But we know that recent attacks on our rights and dignity don’t just stop at our communities. The work of Black women – past, present and future – to improve our democracy and society can serve as a blueprint for all Americans concerned about attempts to claw back the gains of the civil rights movement and make our society more unequal. One way to support today’s movement to fulfill the vision of the civil rights movement is to avoid taking the right to vote for granted. We all have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to make our voices heard and hold leaders accountable up and down the ballot, in every election.
While the challenges we face seem daunting, the fact is that our country has seen worse over its history. As we seek to stand on the shoulders of the civil rights champions before us, the achievements of the civil rights movement provide powerful lessons about what’s possible when we organize together and stand firm against oppression.
Melanie Campbell is the president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation
Rebekah Caruthers is Vice President at Fair Elections Center