Commentary Race

Still We Lead: Clarifying the Resolve of Black Women

Jasmine Burnett

Only when our society acknowledges what Black women are doing and have been doing to advance equality for all will people truly understand why Black lives matter.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

While it has always been the case that Black women work tirelessly to create the change we seek, on the rare occasion our leadership makes headlines, it is often displayed as if it’s some new phenomenon that needs to prove it is relevant, as was the case recently in Ferguson. Further, there’s the idea that this lack of recognition of Black women’s leadership is part and parcel of our experience, as if Black women are not and have not made great strides in justice movements.

This glaring omission of our deep commitment to equality movements is holding all activists back from achieving justice. The narrative that has been pervasive since the late 19th and 20th centuries, which pushes the notion that Black women-centered activities should be dismissed without notice, has only served to pit the power of Black women’s leadership against our Black male counterparts and women of color allies, while isolating and making invisible issues of race within the mainstream women’s and LGBTQ liberation movements. This narrative also neglects the true extent of Black women’s work, and the fact that we are the only ones who can actually be counted on to defend the dignity of Black women and the rights of all Black people.

Only when our society acknowledges what Black women are doing and have been doing to advance equality for all—in spite of the disenfranchisement we’ve experienced that comes with lack of visibility, respect, and resources of any kind—will people truly understand why Black lives matter.

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Black women’s leadership was established out of an urgency to address problems of racism and sexism in this country. Our work has always been the struggle for the human right to create our own terms under which we can define ourselves and our relationship to society, and to have those terms recognized. Our leadership is more than a professional career where the ability to lead is based on one’s level of education, and its reach is broader than an act of charity driven by moral principles. The resolve of Black women, who continue to endure incalculable injustices, drives our sense of urgency to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities, and it is a daily imperative to create safe conditions where our race, gender, class, ability, age, or sexuality does not make us unfit for protection in the face of harm and wrongdoing.

Our political agenda is based on the following concepts: questioning long-established values and institutions of society; developing new systems to solve economic, political, and social problems; and broadening the base of municipal, state, and national governments where Black women are leading in agenda-setting and decision-making.

With the recent rise in peaceful protests and social justice organizing in response to white police officers and vigilantes being acquitted on the use of excessive force and violence on Black people, Black women leaders have received greater attention for their efforts to dismantle white supremacy. Some projects are indeed new—campaigns that are run by youth organizers who have entered the field with fresh takes on how to accomplish their social justice work—but much of the organizing happening in the wake of incidents of injustice recently is an offshoot of preexisting movements.

These movements existed long before many of today’s leaders were even born. For example, in her late 19th century pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, Ida B. Wells responded to the rise in lynchings of Black men for allegedly raping white women while white suspects who were accused of raping Black women went unpunished. This provocative information led to an international speaking tour across the United States and the UK to raise awareness of the horrors of racially motivated sexual violence and lynchings in the Black community.

The disenfranchisement of Black women throughout history is connected, as is the impact of our work. Responding to the resurgence of state-sanctioned killings of Black people and sexual violence of Black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometti created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to build solidarity and create a way for Twitter users to hold all communities accountable online and off for destroying anti-Black structures. The hashtag has had international implications as well, including acts of solidarity in Europe, Australia, Africa, and the Middle East, where activists have held public demonstrations of support for Black lives. These are just a few examples of the ways in which Black women have influenced conversations around racial justice and human rights through the written word as well as direct action and confrontation tactics.

Black women are fighting unfair treatment in their communities all the time; it’s only occasionally that the world is watching.

For years Black women have organized to protect and defend our reproductive rights, though you might not know that from much of the coverage of anti-choice bills, which often will include only quotes from mainstream, white-led organizations. Among the alliances created to fight for the human rights of Black women and girls, the Trust Black Women Partnership was founded in 2010 based on the premise that Black women must come together and do things for ourselves in order to achieve self-identity and self-determination and to get our basic needs met. (I am one of the Trust Black Women founding partners.) In order to do that, Trust Black Women has focused on attaining representation where agendas are set on issues that affect our lives and families, creating power-sharing schemas to improve how our needs are addressed when working with Black men and our allies, and building bases that Black people can tap into for support in challenging local and national systems of oppression.

Sadly, Black women’s leadership is often challenged through co-optation both by our allies and our opposition. In one example, liberal, progressive “allies” took the meaning and relevance of #BlackLivesMatter and decided to replace it with #AllLivesMatter. This attempt at generalizing the impact of police brutality of all people dilutes the specific impact of racial, gendered, and sexualized violence imposed on Black people. Anti-choicers then tried to stigmatize abortion care by inserting it into the #BlackLivesMatter conversation and suggesting that the two correlate. They have also gone so far as to use civil rights language in their rhetoric, omitting the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy and his commitment to family planning. The ways antis continue to co-opt the legacy, experiences, knowledge, and public sentiment of historically oppressed communities is deeply problematic and disrespectful.

Black women’s leadership in the women’s rights movements has also been omitted and silenced many times to advance mainstream organizational agendas. In one example, as Loretta Ross explained in her article “Defeating Personhood: A Critical But Incomplete Victory for Reproductive Justice,” reproductive rights activists in Mississippi used single-issue organizing strategies to the detriment of Black women’s issues. In the activists’ anti-“personhood” campaign, there was a dearth of resources and attention paid to voter disenfranchisement of Black, brown, and low-income people in the South under another amendment, which unlike Mississippi “personhood” did pass. What Black women leaders and communities need from allies is a level of support that enables victories for their issues as well, including bans on voter suppression laws and police and vigilante violence.

Organizations seeking to improve their relationships with Black women leaders as they work to advance justice movements in the United States must aim to become better allies, and that includes acknowledging the true value of our work while also taking steps to avoid overshadowing Black women-led organizations and organizers working on a grassroots level, both on- and offline.

An expression used to rouse accountability from allies is “white folks, get your people,” to highlight that the change that shifts the “isms” and stereotypes that are perpetuated through white supremacy can be shifted by allies. As supporters, we expect our allies to give Black people the space we want to define ourselves and to lead and set policy that will meet our needs.

In 1896, Mary Church Terrell helped to organize the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women’s clubs following a letter written by James Jacks, a white president of the Missouri Press Association who had attempted to silence the anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells through labeling all Black women as “prostitutes and thieves.” She concluded her speech with a question: “Who of you knows how to carry your burden in the heat of the day?” As a Black woman and leader, I am often asking that question of myself, and not because I have a choice. I simply wonder how strong I will have to be at any given moment because I know that often the only people who will stand with Black women without argument or question are other Black women.

The fact that no one will speak for us but ourselves is evident not just across the justice movements, but also within the systems in which we live, including the legal system. Marissa Alexander and countless other victims of state or vigilante violence seemingly have only received support from other Black women, despite the precedents their cases are setting within the “justice” system.

Black women are leading in those discussions as international delegates speaking at the United Nations on racial and gender discrimination and violence, even when our support comes to the detriment of our own visibility and bank accounts.

If you’re still wondering about what you can do, I’ll leave you with this: Black women’s leadership will be made stronger through our allies doing the work to educate their communities and support the organizational infrastructure and capacity of Black women-led organizations and efforts as Black women define it. I stand by the same commitment that several hundred Black women made to each other in 1991 while protesting the racist and sexist treatment of Anita Hill during her sexual harassment hearing against now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I pledge myself “to continue to speak out in defense of Black women, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice, no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.”

Whether that commitment can be made to Black women with any level of integrity from our allies remains to be seen. However, what Black women can promise is that we will continue to lead, defend our dignity, and protect our lives, families, and communities.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”