Today is Election Day, and we welcome a guest post from Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, author of Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920–1945, just published by UNC Press.
In her new book, Murphy tells the story of how African American women in D.C. transformed civil rights politics in their freedom struggles between 1920 and 1945. Even though no resident of the nation’s capital could vote, black women seized on their conspicuous location to testify in Congress, lobby politicians, and stage protests to secure racial justice, both in Washington and across the nation. Women crafted a broad vision of citizenship rights that put economic justice, physical safety, and legal equality at the forefront of their political campaigns. Black women’s civil rights tactics and victories in Washington, D.C., shaped the national postwar black freedom struggle in ways that still resonate today.
Jim Crow Capital is available now in both print and ebook editions.
In Politics to Stay: The View from History
The right to vote is about political power, and for much of United States history, this privilege was denied to most black women. In theory, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 promised to enfranchise all women. In practice, it was not enforced in the South, as polling places in states, such as Georgia, and North Carolina, practiced similar disfranchisement policies on black women that they had perfected on black men.[i] Despite the partial victory of the Nineteenth Amendment, black women nonetheless seized on the language of women’s right to vote as they formed partisan organizations, lobbied for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, and weighed in on Supreme Court nominations.[ii] In 1924, black clubwomen formed the National League of Republican Colored Women, an explicitly partisan organization, and rallied under the slogan, “We Are In Politics to Stay, and We Shall be a Stay in Politics.” Through this message, black women not only declared their presence in politics, but also, their determination to influence political matters.
White supremacists took note, sounding alarm about the visibility of black women serving in political positions to arouse fears about black voting, and thus, black political power. In the winter of 1928, the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing about restoring voting rights in the nation’s capital. Grover W. Ayers, a white resident of Washington, D.C., warned the committee about black women’s growing influence in politics. “There is now a negro woman who is a member of the State legislature in West Virginia,” he stated, referencing Minnie Buckingham Harper, who had recently taken over her late husband’s seat. Even more chilling, he told the committee that, “since there are a greater number of negro women in the District of Columbia than there are negro men, it would only be right that there should be a negro woman elected to the United States Senate every once in a while.” He cautioned that a black woman senator “could attend the White House receptions and things of that kind.”[iii]
Ninety-eight years later, many of Grover Ayers’s predictions about black women and politics have been realized. In 1968 Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the House of Representatives (she also ran for president) and in 1992, Carol Moseley Braun was sworn into the Senate. These pioneers joined the ranks of hundreds of black women who have served in state and local positions. And as First Lady, Michelle Obama not only attended White House receptions, but in fact, she hosted them. Now in 2018, black women’s electoral politics is entering a new era. The database www.blackwomeninpolitics.com lists 444 black women candidates who are running for office this November; fifty-seven are on the ballot for federal positions.
Not only have black women been voting for a shorter period of time, since it was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that finally ended disfranchisement, but black women politicians have battled pernicious stereotypes, threats of violence, and a profound lack of respect for their campaigns.[iv] If Stacey Abrams, the gubernatorial candidate in Georgia and vocal proponent of voting rights, wins the election, she will become the very first black woman to run a state, most fittingly, a state that denied African American women ballots in 1920. In this midterm election year, black women candidates and voters are breathing new life into the slogan chanted nearly one hundred years ago, “We Are In Politics To Stay and We Shall Be A Stay in Politics.”
[i] Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 203-224; and John Dimmter, Black Georgia in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 121.
[ii] Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “Discontented Black Feminists: Prelude and Postscript to the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment,” in We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, and Linda Reed (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1995), 487-503; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “In Politics to Stay: Black Women Leaders and Party Politics in the 1920s,” in Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History, ed. Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois (New York: Routledge, 2000), 303-304; Lisa G. Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 140-143; and Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 17-62.
[iii] National Representation for the Residents of the District of Columbia, Hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary in the House of Representatives, 70th Congress, 1st session, 143–55 (1928) (statement of Grover W. Ayers).
[iv] See, for example, Kate Zernike “Female Candidates Break Barriers, Except When it Comes to Money,” New York Times, October 30, 2018; and Alan Blinder, “Trump, Offering no Evidence, Cites Stacey Abrams’ ‘Past’ and Calls Her ‘Unqualified,’” New York Times, November 1, 2018.
Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy is assistant professor of history at Eastern Michigan University. You can read her previous UNC Press Blog post here.