Extolling and Expanding Our Icons: A Primer on Black Women’s Political Leadership

For centuries, Black women have needed for our “backs to be gotten” in order to survive—and for centuries, Black women have stood in the breech for themselves and for their families. We continue to do that. We have often been vilified for that breech standing.

But these days, Black women increasingly get elected to public office—because constituents see how well we serve in leadership roles locally and nationally.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, via her Facebook page.

Today, 46 African American women and men are serving in Congress. Kamala Harris of California is the one and only Black women in the Senate; 20 serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson—whose name-recognition was pejoratively heightened by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who called her an “empty barrel” and then fabricated a statement which she had never uttered. Kelly’s lie was caught on tape, but he has yet to apologize to Wilson for his errors, insults and just plain trifling behavior.

Anyone who knows even the barest minimum about African American culture knows about Black women as breech-standing advocates in times of crisis—lynchings, murders, deaths in war and other abuses and pain. If Kelly didn’t know who Frederica Wilson was, he should have known that he needed to find someone to ask! Given his apparent lack of operational familiarity with African American leadership, a Google tutorial would have been less offensive and incorrigible then the path he followed: flying by the seat of his presumptuous pants, and manufacturing inaccuracies about Wilson’s words.

Given that the White House reportedly now has no senior Black advisor, perhaps Kelly didn’t know who to ask. I’m thus providing him with this tutorial—one Kelly should have been provided before he insulted the duly elected Wilson. Access to such information might have helped him avoid tripping his light-fantastic about Wilson’s professionalism—and educated him about which one of them, in fact, was the “empty barrel.” (Bet that you can guess!)

African American women leaders have historically been buffers of protection, arbiters of public decorum, models of aspiration and inspiration against despair. Many of us have risen from menial labor to serve as Lamp Lighters for our passage—out of danger and into world accomplishments and leadership.

We extol our icons—all Black women warriors who taught us, by example as well as by exhortations, how to lead and to negotiate for power, how to use influence and plan long-term strategies and how to keep our dignity while simultaneously protecting ourselves; all of this, usually with no funds, and with begged, loaned or borrowed working resources.

Fannie Lou Hamer, voting rights firebrand, was severely beaten and disfigured in her quest for Black voters’ rights in her deep south region—as well as even within the deliberative halls of the Democratic National Committee! Her mantra was: I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” That remains true for many of us today.

The Honorable Shirley Chisholm was a pioneering schoolteacher, the first Black woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Black woman—and the first African American of any gender—to run for the office of U.S. President.

Dr. Dorothy Irene Height was a civil rights and women’s rights leader, and for 55 years head of the National Council of Negro Women. The headquarters—in the magnificent edifice bearing her name, the purchase of which she herself orchestrated to its completion, and to its mortgage-burning, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W, exactly between the White House and the Capitol building.

Dr. C. DeLoris Tucker was a feminist leader and political power-broker for Black elected officials—especially Black women with political aspirations. She founded the National Congress of Black Women and was co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, in collaboration with Chisholm and feminists Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

The late Evelyn Gibson Lowery and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, led theSouthern Christian Leadership Conference. He still does today. Coretta Scott King, widow of martyred Nobel Peace Prize Laurette and leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, also continued their advocacy until her death.

Geneva Ellen Byrd Scruggs was an educator, politician, agent of change and a “race woman” if ever there was one. She founded a network of parent-teacher organizations largely to encourage African American parents to assert their agency in the education of their own children, and she strongly advocated for the then new process of public school integration, welcoming Black teachers into newly integrated schools. (Even in “up-south” cities, like my own of Buffalo, New York, the only Black teacher I ever had throughout my primary and secondary school years was my mother—at home.) Scruggs was the first Black woman ever to run for regional public office in up-state New York, seeking election to the nine-person Erie County Common Council; she did not win, as public office was seen as a “man’s job” in 1955. There also were no white women on the County Council either in that era.

Things have changed—some. Talk to Hillary Clinton about that. But also—praises for the two successful terms of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, profound breakers of glass and racial ceilings.

Marian Wright Edelman, Esq., the founder and CEO of the Children’s Defense and Educational Fund, reminds us that “service is the rent which we pay for living on this earth,” deeded to us by these and other iconic ancestors. She has used her visionary leadership and her legal skills to bring about significant changes in the life-chances and legal protections and regulations guarding the lives of American children.

Black women icons, many of them now in a shared state of permanent repose, still serve as models for those of us who remain on earth. But as new and less familiar national threats and obstacles challenge our families, communities and individual lives as Black women, we must ensure that we update our leadership examples. We must publicly and repeatedly acknowledge additions to this expanding reservoir of talented, dynamic, dedicated Black women who now are leaders—in their own right—and have added strength to our country and our communities.

Frederica Wilson is one such contemporary breech-stander for Blacks in crisis. She was the Black woman leader at the side of Sargent La David Johnson’s wife and family after the heroic soldier was killed in action in Africa. Missing for days and finally found, his remains were return to his native land, and his grief-stricken family was nurtured through the horrible crisis by Wilson.

The template for identifying leaders and examples of success, power and influence among African American women has gradually shifted—and the venues in which Black women make their greatest impacts have changed and evolved, too. In the era in which many of the Black icons matured, gained prominence and rose to leadership, there often were social service institutions and non-profits behind us; they were organized, community-based facilities like Settlement Houses and church centers, or social service programs.

Community organizations and local service-providing institutions, as incubators for African American women leaders’ grooming, are less frequently in place locally now. Easy access to preparation by expert leaders who can become role models is logistically or economically challenging, and is made more remote by social communications technology and other obstacles to most effective hands-on mentoring. And gender discrimination barriers remain—more impenetrable for Black women than for most non-Black women. This suggests that those positions, institutions and environments in which Black women leaders have found opportunities and advancement in the past offer examples that should at least be considered and evaluated for their potential by younger emerging leaders.

An entire chapter of my last book, Sound Bites of Protest, is devoted to the African American women who serve in Congress. The chapter—titled “Black Women Are Credible Presidential Candidates”—presents the very rich pool of Black women politicians elected to national office. Highlighted in this essay are 15 remarkable women who were members of the Congressional Black Caucus when the book was published in 2008. (You might be interested in visiting the CBC website and learning the names and stories of CBC members who, like Frederica Wilson, Maxine Waters and all of our national breech standers, are already advocates, leaders and performers of good works.)

The core concern that has driven my thoughts and writing, in this essay as well as over the many years in which the advancement of African American women has preoccupied my research, commentary and advocacy, has been that women—including Black women—can become anything they choose to become, given that they have opportunity and access—free from artificial barriers and deliberate obstacles—and that all humans, including Black women, are able to imagine their possibility.

Some people, reading this today, might stage-whisper: “That’s your list, Scruggs-Leftwich! I have my own names to add.” (Do that! Celebrate their leadership, and the daily contributions they make to keep America great.) Remember to send strength to Frederica Wilson, Maxine Waters and Kamala Harris—who, since the November election ending President Barack Obama’s final second term as President, have been told to “sit down” (and shut up) by white men in Congressional positions of power.

We need to be able to have some idea, no matter how faint, of what it will be like to become what we envision—someway, somehow, even if only a dream. The list of icons on whose shoulders we stand must now be expanded to include additional, more contemporary versions of successes, power and influence, with dignity. We must mention them, by name and often, when they are present and when they are not. And we must require that our detractors and adversaries do not falsely assume that since some Black women heroes have passed on, the causes for which they advocated, championed and “stood in the breech” for are now left unattended, without the protectors, champions and guides through the sandstorms of time.

Nothing could be further from the truth.


Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich is a political scientist, public policy specialist and award-winning journalist. She served as the Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia, Commissioner of Housing for New York, Executive Director and COO of the National Black Leadership Forum, a tenured Professor at several distinguished universities and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she oversaw the creation of America’s first National Urban Policy. She earned her Ph.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania.