A new series on ABC—Women of the Movement—is generating new attention to the story of Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, and the role women played in the civil rights movement.
Women were often not the focus of headlines at the time, but they were invaluable to the movement and a force for justice. Without women like Coretta Scott King, Mamie Till-Mobley and Fannie Lou Hamer and women whose names we may never know, passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and much of the progress toward justice during the civil rights movement would not have been possible.
Just as the women of the civil rights movement demanded access to the ballot box and worked tirelessly to get it, we’re demanding that Congress do everything in their power to protect free and fair elections. Last month, Congress failed us, but we will press on.
In 2020, Americans registered and, particularly in Black and Brown communities, turned out to vote in record numbers. Before we could pause to celebrate, far-right conservatives tried to claim election fraud and introduced nearly twenty new state laws that perpetuate voter suppression. It’s the modern-day ‘how many bubbles in a bar of soap’. The 2020 election results were a testament to the hard work of the continuously marginalized communities—and many saw our voice as a threat. The false cries of fraud and nearly immediate new voting restrictions in 19 states across the country, including Georgia, Arizona, Florida and Texas, were the direct backlash of efforts to increase voting participation.
Women—especially Black women and Latinas—are on the frontlines of the fight to protect voting rights, challenging discriminatory laws and regulations that put up barriers to the ballot box. And women will continue to lead in this fight until every American citizen is protected under the promise of democracy. The right to vote is a basic freedom—not a partisan issue or a pawn in arguments concerning the filibuster. Congress has an urgent responsibility to persist despite the setbacks in the Senate last month and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and Freedom to Vote Act, and send it to President Biden’s desk for his signature.
Historically, the right to vote has long been considered one of the essential freedoms key to American democracy. But never in our history has everyone had equal access to voting rights. Our founders’ view of voting rights was limited to those who looked like them, white and male, and who owned land like them. Since then, the push to enfranchise all citizens has been met with harsh criticism, debate, barriers such as poll taxes, literacy tests and even violence.
Within each social movement, women of color have been further marginalized. White women and Black men publicly led the suffrage and civil rights movements, but securing the vote would not have been possible without the work of Black suffragists—like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells—and Latina suffragists—like Lucretia del Valle, Adelina Otero-Warren and Luisa Capetillo. We hold space for and honor them in our work every single day.
The legacy of those who came before us lives on in Black and Brown women like my own powerhouse colleagues: the Rev. Dr. Casandra Gould, whose team helped secure legislation to expand Medicaid in Missouri; Alicia Contreras, whose team in Arizona held more than 50 voter engagement events in the months leading up to the 2020 election; and Ashley Shelton in Louisiana, who helped ensure voters could cast a ballot after Hurricane Ida devastated her community.
Working alongside faith-driven, change-making women at Faith In Action, where I serve as chief strategy officer and lead our Rise + Vote civic engagement program, is an honor and a privilege. We carry the torch rallying for fair and equal access to this fundamental American right with unrelenting, fiery pride.
We’re now at a crossroads for voting rights and are asking our elected officials which side of history they’ll be on: the one that upholds justice at the ballot box, or the side that upholds voter oppression.
We moved mountains in 2020 and are prepared to do it again this year with women across the country in the driver’s seat. We don’t want to hear empty platitudes from lawmakers—we want action. We want justice. We want our right to vote.