The Power of the Sister Vote: Black Women Leading the Fight for Voting Rights and Protecting Democracy

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Tameika Atkins 

Executive Director, ProGeorgia

Convener, Women of Color Initiative 

For as long as there have been efforts to organize, mobilize and execute for the right to vote in this country, Black women have been leading the charge. 

Black women have been on the front lines of developing, expanding and protecting voting rights since before the 19th amendment gave them the legal right to do so. And history has proven that Black women have had to fight the dual struggle against racism and sexism, even against those who claimed to be fighting for the same causes. 

In her now famous speech in 1866, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black woman poet, activist and leader in the suffragist movement, pushed back on fellow Suffragist Elizabeth Candy Stanton and others’ disregard and rejection of giving Black Americans the right to vote before women, saying, “I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life.”

According to the Atlanta History Center, Harper’s fellow Black woman suffragist, Mary Church Terrell also fought against racism in the movement but stayed optimistic “not only in the prospective enfranchisement of my sex but in the emancipation of my race.”

Throughout history, from the 1800’s through the 1960’s civil rights movement, there have been scores of Black women like Nannie Helen Boroughs, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Mary McLeod Bethune and countless others who worked tirelessly to make the promises of our democracy a reality. 

But, of course, the work didn’t stop there. In recent years, the fight has evolved and Black women have done everything they could to stop the rollback of voting rights. After the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which drastically weakened the Voting Rights Act, the work has shifted even further to expand the electorate and defend their access to the ballot box. 

Beginning in 2020, Black women were forced to navigate a global pandemic that took too many from our communities and left many of us shuttered inside for months as our government struggled to find a solution. Then came the sharp economic downturn, a rise in inflation, and the threat of a recession. All the while, the ever-present monster of white supremacy and police brutality reared its ugly head time and time again. 

In spite of it all, the unrelenting labor of love that Black women pour into civic engagement  is moving the needle of progress in measurable ways despite unprecedented challenges. The Brennen Center for Justice reported that “more Black Americans voted in 2020 than any presidential election since 2012, and Latino Americans and Asian Americans also surpassed their previous turnout records.” 

In Georgia, specifically, there are scores of Black women in leadership who have made significant contributions to expanding the electorate, fighting injustice, and driving civic engagement in their own right. To name a few: Helen Butler is Executive Director of The Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a non-profit organization aimed at improving the quality of governance in Georgia, helping create a more informed and active electorate, and having responsive and accountable elected officials. Deborah Scott is the CEO of Georgia Stand Up, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as a “think and act tank for working families.” LaTosha Brown is co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a nonprofit that empowers Black voters through registration initiatives, policy advocacy, and organizational training; she also just launched the TruthSpeaks Innovation Foundation in partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School to provide executive leadership training and development for 25 Southern Black women leaders. These nonprofits continue to facilitate essential work in Georgia elections and laid the groundwork for even more growth in the coming years. 

These dynamic Black women and so many others are fighting for progress, not just for marginalized and underserved communities but for everyone. That is why on a national, state, and local level, there must be a continued flow of tools and resources to keep Black woman leaders supported and well-equipped to keep delivering results. We must also take more innovative measures to ensure we’re supporting their organizations with ideas like creative childcare programs, state-of-the-art GOTV and capacity building mechanisms, as well as, fiscal and organizational management, antiracism, communications and more. Then, importantly, we must continue seeking out elevating Black women’s voices and perspectives – ensuring they get the training they need to amplify their voices in support of a shared community.

For Black women to continue leading and shining a light on the promise of our democracy, they need all of us to show up in sustained and measurable ways – with our words and our actions.