20 Jul 2018

If Fannie Lou Hamer were alive to celebrate her 100th birthday this past Friday, October 6th, she would certainly take pride in the way Black women continue to push this country toward honoring its promise of freedom and equality for all. From founding movements such as Black Lives Matter to our status as the country’s fastest-growing segment of small business owners, Black women have historically been at the forefront of this country’s political, economic and human-rights advancement.

It’s been 53 years since Hamer, a former share cropper who was instrumental in organizing Black voter registration in the south, led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s (MFDP) delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ. There, she stood toe-to-toe with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was seeking reelection. She demanded that he and other party leaders let the delegates, who’d been elected by more than 80,000 Black and poor White Mississippians, be seated and allowed to exercise their right to vote during the party’s nominating process.

Like so many Black women before and after her, Hamer was initially dismissed as inconsequential by Johnson and other party powerbrokers. But she refused to back down. When the MFDP was denied participation in the party process, Hamer stood in front of the TV cameras and told the world the truth about how Blacks were treated in the south. She spared no detail about how they were being killed, beaten and denied work just for attempting to exercise their right to vote. Her testimony grabbed the nation’s attention and nearly upended Johnson’s nomination.

That same year, Fannie Lou took her activism to the next level and ran for Congress in the Mississippi Democratic primary against the incumbent, a white man. When asked why she ran for office she said, “I’m showing the people that a Negro can run for office.” Her activism has inspired a generation of Black women and her legacy provides a roadmap that shows how every day Black women lead from the voting booth to elected office.

Half a century later, Black women have made significant political gains. Twenty of us—the most ever—are now serving in the House of Representative; the second Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate is currently in office; and the number of Black women seated in state legislatures ticked upwards during the last election.

Still, we are living in an unsettling time when so much of what Hamer fought for—voting rights, reproductive rights, an end to racial violence and poverty, access to early education—is still unrealized. That’s one reason its crucial we put our voting power, dollars and time behind the growing number of progressive Black women who are running for office. History shows that when Black women gain political power we champion policies that benefit multiple communities.

This year, we have an opportunity to break new political ground by electing more Black women into office across the country. This November voters in five of our nation’s largest cities have the opportunity to elect a Black woman mayor. Vi Lyles of Charlotte, NC, Yvette Simpson of Cincinnati, OH, LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet of New Orleans, LA, Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, GA and Rev. Dr. Nekima Levy-Pounds of Minneapolis, MN present an opportunity to more than double the number of Black women serving as mayor of the 100 largest cities—from 4 to 9!

Next year Stacey Abrams is running to become the country’s first Black woman governor. These Black women and countless others embody Hamer’s spirit of turning being “sick and tired of being sick and tired” into action.

Now more than ever, it’s important that Black women continue to boldly lead and share our stories—because as Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others before and since have shown, we have the tools to be effective leaders and our stories have the power to change the world.

20 Jul 2018

As we reflect on the legacy of a political icon, we are at a crucial time of for Black women’s growing political power

Shirley Chisholm, who was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress and the first Black candidate to seek a major party nomination for president, once advised “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

Chisholm’s guidance feels particularly salient today, partly because this would be the former congresswoman’s 93rd birthday, but mostly because we have arrived at a strangely ironic moment when Black women are gaining political ground just as women and people of color are experiencing an all-out assault on their civil rights, freedoms and upward mobility.

This past year brought the total number of Black women serving in the House of Representatives to 20—the most ever—and we also saw the long-overdue election of the second Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. The recent victory of LaToya Cantrell in the New Orleans mayoral race and Vi Lyles in the Charlotte mayoral race means that Black women will soon be leading five of the nation’s largest 100 cities, and 2018 could well be the year voters elect the first Black woman governor.

But despite the significant and hard-won political gains realized by Black women, progress is floundering on other fronts. This year has brought staunch refusals to step down from elected officials facing credible accusations of sexual misconduct and assault against girls and women. On the policy side, we are fighting far-right legislators’ attempts to pass laws that would strip middle- and low-income Americans of health coverage, increase working people’s taxes, raise the cost of college, and force certain immigrants out of the country. And while the number of Black women serving in elected offices has increased up and down the ballot, women in general are losing ground in some crucial locations. In New York, for example, the number of women city council members recently dropped from 13 to 11, and not a single woman is among the crowd of council members vying for speaker.

These worrisome facts make clear the urgent need to double down on actions that have produced successful progressive candidates over the past two years. Black women’s growing political power is emerging at a crucial moment of vast leadership failure in our country. From city halls to state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, the faces of Black women are increasingly appearing on the front, middle and back lines of the army marching to save this country from its current oppressive policies and destructive regime. This makes complete sense given that Black women’s families and communities are often the first harmed by such policies.

Chisholm’s words are a timely and emboldened reminder that we can’t wait for an invitation to claim a seat at the table. It is our responsibility to bring our own chairs, bodies and insistent voices into the room and demand space, because government at its most effective is not a place of privilege, but a place where all citizens claim their space at the table.

Glynda C. Carr is the co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization building the collective political power and leadership of Black women from the voting booth to elected office. For additional information visit: http://www.higherheightsforamerica.org.

20 Jul 2018

Derisive judgments were on full display in a recent New York magazine article that ostensibly explored the campaigns of the two women—Stacey Abrams, who is Black, and Stacey Evans, who is white—running to become Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

In a recently published Rolling Stone article, recording artist Janelle Monáe exposes a disconcerting, yet largely universal, awareness shared by Black women seeking to exercise power: When we reveal ourselves to be human and inevitably imperfect, we are too often labeled unworthy and incapable of leading. It’s why, Monáe says, she spent the better part of a decade masking herself behind the persona of an android named Cindi Mayweather.

Monáe’s unusual response to coping with this awareness may be unique to entertainment, but her acknowledgment speaks broadly to the harsh, extraneous judgments that women—particularly Black women—face when they attempt to lead. These judgments were on full display in a recent New York magazine article that ostensibly explored the campaigns of the two women—Stacey Abrams, who is Black, and Stacey Evans, who is white—running to become Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate. What the article offers, however, is a litany of demeaning characterizations of Abrams, including suggestions that she is “uppity,” financially ill-equipped, unmarriageable, and someone who plays the so-called race card. In short, the article is a regurgitation of some of the most demeaning and hostile labels that Black women come up against whenever they attempt to claim seats of power.

Politics is inherently a word war between competitors, but the tenor of the criticisms hurled at Abrams reads especially personal and especially coded. Left unchecked, there is a real risk that these immaterial characterizations will overshadow the strength of her qualifications. Abrams, who served the state legislature starting in 2007 before stepping down to run for governor, is by far the most accomplished of the candidates vying for the top of Georgia’s Democratic ticket. As house minority leader, the Ivy League-educated attorney blocked efforts to raise taxes on the poor and working families; protected access to reproductive health care; and passed legislation in support of grandparents and other kin raising children. Abrams also started the New Georgia Project, which she says registered more than 200,000 voters over two years. Her vision for Georgia includes universal pre-K, living-wage jobs and criminal-justice reforms that level the field for all the state’s residents.

While many of these accomplishments were mentioned in the New York story, they weren’t afforded nearly as much ink, so to speak, as the derisive details. This doesn’t bode well for U.S. democracy, because Abrams has the kind of leadership experience, legislative track record, relatable story and vision for the state that voters across the board should be eager to support. But with the May 22 primary just weeks away, she has had to spend a good deal of time talking about her debt—a situation wrought largely by her desire to support family members in need—instead of her vision for a new Georgia. The distraction is vexing for many reasons, including that debt is not a disqualifier for holding office. If it were, many of our elected officials—especially our current president—would never have been elected.

The irrelevant scrutiny experienced by Abrams is hardly isolated. Black women candidates and elected officials face a litany of race- and gender-coded criticism about perceived shortcomings that are rarely mentioned in examining the qualifications of other candidates.

Too often, Black women seeking leadership are labeled with false narratives that paint them as angry instead of impassioned, financially irresponsible instead of willing to stretch their resources to help others, or young and inexperienced instead of ambitious and trailblazing. Recent examples of this are plentiful. When Tishaura Jones, city treasurer of St. Louis, Missouri, lost her 2017 bid for mayor by just 888 votes against an establishment candidate with much deeper pockets, the city paper’s editorial board wrote that “a dose of humility” might have made voters more supportive of Jones’ candidacy. And when Lauren Underwood announced her candidacy for the Illinois 14th Congressional District seat, many in the Democratic power structure initially wrote her off as non-viable, even though she grew up in the district and previously served as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama. In March, Underwood took 57 percent of the Democratic primary vote to beat out her six opponents—all men.

In November, Underwood, Abrams and hundreds of other Black women running for office across the country will face off against their opponents for local, state, and national offices. Many of these women exemplify the kind of promising, proven leadership that progressives say they want. But if we refuse to challenge and correct damaging, false narratives about Black women’s leadership abilities—and records—we will ultimately deprive our towns, cities, states and country of the elected officials who are most connected, committed, and able to address the inequities and divisions chipping away at our democracy.

There’s a lot on the line in 2018. If creating a fair, equitable, and tolerant country is truly our goal, then we must put our resources behind candidates who embody these principals. Progressives need to pay attention, and to check and challenge false narratives about the character and viability of Black women candidates seeking to serve at all levels of government in all types of communities.