Martha S. Jones is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of the forthcoming book “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.”
In the months before Tennessee’s ratification made the 19th Amendment law, those Southern lawmakers who supported women’s votes did so with the understanding that Black women’s access to the ballot box would not be protected. The amendment’s language did not prohibit states from continuing to impose poll taxes, literacy tests and “understanding clauses,” nor did it require them to curb the intimidation and violence directed at Black women.
Knowing this, Black women organized. Citizenship workshops and suffrage schools opened in church halls and YWCA meeting rooms, and Black women guided one another through the maze of voter registration requirements. Hoping for relative safety in numbers, women in many places turned out in groups to register. Some succeeded in getting their names on the rolls in 1920, but many, especially in Southern states, did not. Exercising their political influence would, perhaps counterintuitively, require more than a constitutional amendment.
Hallie Quinn Brown, leader of the National Association of Colored Women — whose 300,000 members made it the nation’s largest political organization of Black women — understood that the 19th Amendment needed teeth. Aiming to win federal legislation that would override state-level obstacles to the polls, she sought an alliance with Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party. But Paul declined and the National Woman’s Party followed, leaving Black women to carry on the fight for ballot access by new terms — ones that linked their quest with the goals of the growing civil rights movement.
The battle for voting rights had many fronts. In federal courts, the NAACP argued that the Constitution did not countenance racism and that the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, ensured Black Americans’ access to the polls. In its 1915 decision in Guinn v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down “grandfather clause” exemptions to literacy requirements for voting rights, as they discriminated against Black people whose formerly enslaved grandfathers could not vote. It was 1944 before Smith v. Allright overturned a Texas law that excluded Black voters from primaries. Outlawing poll taxes required its own constitutional amendment, the 24th, which was not ratified until 1964. It was another year before the Voting Rights Act ended disenfranchisement.
In the interim, Black women across the country sought political power by a variety of means. In Illinois, where journalist and anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells had founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, Black women’s votes helped elect Oscar De Priest, the first Black member of Congress in the 20th century. In Florida, Mary McLeod Bethune organized Black women voters — work that prompted Ku Klux Klan members to march, more than once, onto the campus of her Daytona Beach school for girls. (Bethune faced down the KKK, but such intimidation led many women to stay home.) By the 1930s, Bethune was in Washington, pursuing power through federal appointments and patronage; she founded the National Council of Negro Women and Franklin Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet.” In Alabama, Rosa Parks turned up to an NAACP meeting in 1943 and soon was helping to lead the Montgomery Voters League.
In the 1950s and 1960s, efforts to organize were increasingly met with violence, but local work persisted — and created a collective rumble. In 1951, female students at Bennett College in North Carolina encouraged Black residents of Greensboro to register. In 1954, the educator and activist Septima Clark trained to register Black voters at Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School and ran citizenship workshops that taught basic literacy and the civics of voting rights. By 1958, the activist Ella Baker was organizing Black voters in the Crusade for Citizenship, despite encountering widespread resistance from White officials. By 1964, organizer and activist Fannie Lou Hamer told a national television audience how Black Mississippians had been excluded from selecting the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention and called for members of her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in their place. After four girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, civil rights strategist Diane Nash headed to Selma, where she helped organize those who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.
When the Voting Rights Act became law in August 1965, the signing ceremony attendees included a who’s who of the civil rights movement. For the Black women present — including Patricia Roberts Harris, Vivian Malone and Zephyr Wright — the occasion was a rebuke to the disappointments of 1920. They rightly took credit for the decades of work that followed.
The work is not over, however. Since the 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted provisions of the Voting Rights Act, state laws that do not declare an intent to discriminate are suppressing the votes of Americans of color through ID requirements, while voter rolls are purged and polling places closed. Covid-19 also poses an outsize risk to voters of color. Despite the 15th, 19th and 24th Amendments, voting rights are still not guaranteed. In 1920, too few Americans were willing to join with Black women. Perhaps this year, at least that will be different.