Tenacity, optimism, and the fight for equal rights

30 January 2023

Review: Martha Jones, Vanguard:  How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (Basic Books)


In their relentless quest for full equality in the United States, Black women have confronted the daunting challenges of racism and sexism over and over, generation after generation. Their history is powerful, fascinating, and inspiring, and it can be approached from many angles. In Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, Martha Jones, Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, focuses on Black women’s pursuit of the vote, the principal pathway to political power in a democracy and arguably the most critical sub-set of the general quest for full equality.


Voting, as Jones eloquently puts it, “resides at the core of a democracy.  Legitimate governance rests upon a mythical people who nominate, deliberate, and finally elect those who carry a sacred trust and bear a collective responsibility for the well-being of all.” The word “Vanguard” in her title, Jones therefore explains, is intended to show how Black women repeatedly pointed the nation “toward its best ideals,” to be achieved by securing universal suffrage as both a “redemptive, transformative” act, and a “means toward realizing the equality and dignity of all persons.”


But whilst Black women pursued the vote to “further what they termed the interests of humanity, meaning the rights of women and men alike,” their concerns were not confined to the single issue of voting. When fighting for the right to vote and other political rights, they were also advocating for “temperance, education, prison reform, and the labor rights of working people. They especially attended to the troubles that arose at the crossroads of race and gender.”


Vanguard revolves around portraits of Black women who found themselves at this crossroads throughout American history, roughly forty of whom receive short biographical descriptions. Some will be familiar to most general readers, from Harriet Tubman in the 19th century to Rosa Parks in the 20th and Stacey Abrams in the 21st.  But most are likely to be unfamiliar. Each of these women combined in their person extraordinary tenacity and a rarely faltering optimism that the future could be better than the past and the present.


Yet Jones’ work also captivates with its descriptions of the first-time women voters who are, in some ways, the stars of her narrative.  Gaining the right to vote after it has been denied constitutes an “affirmation and recommitment to the ideals of representative government,” Jones writes. Each time a first vote is cast, it is a “new expression of faith in the nation. Blacks have enacted this act of political faith – they have cast first votes – for generations.”  One heartwarming example is seventy year old Joe Ella Moore, who was captured in an iconic 1965 photo raising her hand to take an oath, making her an official registered voter in Prentiss, Mississippi after trying unsuccessfully seven times to get her name onto the state’s voter rolls. Black Mississippians like Moore breathed life into America’s commitment to equality.  “Each one understood the import of her raised hand,” Jones writes.


But the story of this heroic fight for the vote cannot be reduced to the story of any one individual or any heroic group. Again and again, Jones illustrates how “the torch was passed from mother to daughter… The first generation linked arms with the next to build a momentum that carried Black women forward.”  Jones’ account of this intergenerational continuity begins in the early decades of the 19th century, the early years of the American Republic and the period of slavery, a time too early to speak directly of women’s rights or “anything as distant as the vote.”


Vanguard then moves to trace the struggle for equal rights into the years of Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the modern Civil Rights movement, and up through the 21st century’s first two decades. The story focuses on three key moments of rupture: the ratification of the 15th amendment in 1870, which sought to assure that the right to vote would not be denied or abridged on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude;” the enactment of the 19thamendment in 1920, removing barriers to voting rights based on sex; and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, designed to eliminate discriminatory barriers to voting.


The 15th amendment, Jones argues, was at best a “half victory only,” never intended to convey the vote upon women and, once the Reconstruction era ended, leaving Black men still effectively disenfranchised throughout much of the country.  A “half victory” is also an apt description of the 19th amendment, whose ratification found Black women “grappling with how its passage left too many disfranchised.”  Equality after ratification of the 19th amendment seemed to mean that Black women and men were “equally disadvantaged by state laws designed to keep African Americans from the polls.”


For Jones, the Voting Rights Act marks the boldest affirmation in the United States since the adoption of the 15thamendment that racism “must not compromise membership in political culture.”  But although her narrative goes well into the second decade of the 20th century, she does not mention the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a decision which, as a journalist for The Atlantic put it, “defanged” federal enforcement of the act. This decision paved the way for many of the voting restrictions enacted by states over the past ten years, such as imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls.


These measures, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, place “special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters” in exercising their right to vote. In this environment, it is not obvious that the Voting Rights Act has not itself become at best a half-victory. Vanguard’s focus on the precarious pursuit of the vote throughout American history appears discomfortingly relevant in the face of the assault on voting rights sweeping the United States today.


Pushing Back in the First Half of the 19th Century

By the 1820s, slavery had been abolished in the northern United States. But the 1820s also saw the retrenchment of the voting rights of free Black men, with some states taking away rights which they had once enjoyed at the very moment they were lifting previous obstacles to voting for white men, such as property qualifications and literary tests. The abolition of slavery in those states where it continued to exist also became a potent political force in the 1820s and 1830s, and Jones shows abolitionist advocacy  focused particularly on women. “Editors and speechmakers alike,” she writes, “thought middle-class women to be particularly susceptible to pleas grounded in slavery’s immorality – its corruption of women and scuttling of family ties. White women saw their own oppression in the plight of the enslaved.”


In most major northern cities in the 1820s, free Black communities were developing distinctive institutions that are key threads in African American history, especially Black churches, but also fraternal orders, mutual aid societies, political clubs, libraries, and guilds. Serving as channels for enhancing Black political power, these institutions played vital roles in the process that led to passage of the 15th amendment decades later, and to the 19th amendment nearly a century hence.


Freedom’s Journal, a New York-based publication run by former slaves, recognized in 1827 that Black women brought “grace, piousness, virtue, modesty, gentility, and peaceableness” to Black institutions, qualities that that the editors hoped would “counterbalance the wild excesses of men.”  But the same article went on to caution that within these institutions “women should remain subservient companions.”  Jones provides several heartwarming examples of early 19th century Black women who were unwilling to do so, pushing back “against anyone who deemed them merely men’s helpmeets.”


One of these women, Jarena Lee, born in Cape May, New Jersey, in 1783, became the first woman authorized to preach within the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, the first independent Protestant denomination founded by Black people. Charismatic in her preaching, the “tireless” and “fearless” Lee demonstrated how women could “transform the lives of individual believers.”  Her “spiritual memoir,” Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, suggested that the “rights of women preachers were women’s rights.”


Another, Maria Miller Stewart, born in Connecticut in 1803, became a fiery abolitionist after her husband, a successful Black businessman in Boston, died and his creditors stripped her of the wealth he had bequeathed to her.  Stewart’s writings awakened the “consciousness of men and women, Black and white, to the evils of racism.”  Urging women to get involved in politics while not neglecting their domestic duties, Stewart sought to utilize “moral suasion” to turn the national tide against slavery. Her words “rocked Black Boston, and she immediately became a household name.”


As the battle over slavery intensified and the nation lurched toward civil war, free Black women in the 1840s and 1850s wrestled with “where they fit in the new antislavery politics…They clashed with men, Black and white, in their efforts to champion the antislavery cause.”  For these trailblazers, it was self-evident that women’s rights and abolitionism were “two parts of a whole,” even if  not all Black men and not all white women saw the two causes as closely linked.  Facing continued opposition to their exercise of power in the 1850s, Black women “increasingly created their own associations, spaces from which they began to tell their own stories of what it meant to call for women’s rights.”


By the 1850s, Jones writes, no one was surprised that Black women had “made themselves visible at public gatherings – church conferences, political conventions, benevolent society meeting. They still served meals or attended to the comfort of a speaker or delegate. But they also insisted on claiming their own time at the podium and during deliberations.”


Opening Doors During Civil War and Reconstruction

The “fury and scope” of the American Civil War surprised even those who had anticipated the breakdown of the United States in the 1850s.  At the heart of the conflict, Jones makes clear, was the future of slavery, “no matter how politicians may have spun the Civil War to be about other matters.”  But Jones spends only a half-dozen pages on this defining event. Her focus, instead, is on the war’s aftermath, the period termed Reconstruction, the nation’s “first experiment in interracial democracy” when four million people, “once claimed as the property of others, became members of a political culture.”


Freedom from involuntary servitude was no guarantee of political rights, but if the country was to reunite after the brutal conflict, it had no choice but to address “who could vote and hold office going forward.”


While the rights of Black men “came first to mind for many,” debates about the rights of women also arose. The years of Reconstruction opened a door, Jones writes, and “many Americans who had long been excluded from polling places and legislative chambers vied for their chance at power.”  Most of the women who took up the cause of women’s suffrage in the Reconstruction era had been active in the antebellum Abolitionist movement and had aided the Union during the war.


Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet and renowned antislavery lecturer who had worked as a teacher before she entered politics, read and criticized early drafts of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. After the Civil War, Harper became what Jones describes as the “conscience for the entire country, instructing her listeners – Black and white, men and women – about what it meant to reconstruct the nation.”


Along with white leaders of the women’s suffrage movement like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Harper helped establish the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), committed to securing “equal rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex.”  At the AERA’s first national convention in 1866, Harper, the only Black person to speak, told the audience: “we are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” to which she added a stinging admonishment: “You white women speak of rights. I speak of wrongs.”


Pursuing the Ballot, Resisting Jim Crow

Those wrongs had metastasized when the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was founded in 1895, a time when the apparatus of rigid segregation and racial terror, known colloquially as Jim Crow, had replaced the optimism of the Reconstruction era. The NACW created an institutional channel for the Black women’s perspective to be heard on the question of universal suffrage, demonstrating how Black women were “firming up their place in political culture” at the very moment the Jim Crow regime was purging Black men from public life. The motto of the NACW was “Lifting as We Climb,” an acknowledgement that some women were in need of help and others “in a position to provide it.”


Mary Church Terrell, the NACW’s first president, was the late 19th and early 20th century’s “most prominent Black suffragist.”  Terrell was a “child of privilege, born in Tennessee to parents once enslaved who gave their daughter a cosmopolitan upbringing filled with travel, clothing and ideas.” Yet, as Jones delicately elucidates, it “wasn’t always clear where Terrell’s sense of confidence ended and her sense of superiority began.”  She was a woman of what W.E.B. DuBois termed the African American “talented tenth,’” who “spoke earnestly for all women and still, sometimes talked down to those who were ‘ignorant and poor.’”


Terrell used the NACW to organize a national network of Black women dedicated to combating lynching, securing civil rights, and working toward the vote. Only when a woman holds the ballot, Terrell counselled in a landmark 1901 address, “The Justice of Women Suffrage,” to be used for her “protection and self-defense can she hope to secure the rights and privileges to which she is entitled.”  Terrell won a decisive victory in 1908, when the NACW established a “woman suffrage department.”  She was one of the few Black women engaged in the founding in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which became the 20th century’s leading civil rights organization, “best known for its long legal campaign against Jim Crow.”


Although Terrell “never shied away from alliances with white women, especially when it suited her aims,” the distance within the suffrage movement between Black and white women broadened during the first decades of the 20th century. Black suffragists were “uncertain about whether their distinct interests should be served in an umbrella organization that reduced their power to a minority vote.”  Their doubts intensified after the 19th amendment went into effect in 1920, when “too little changed for Black women.”


Indeed, in much of the South, Black women faced the same obstacles to voting after the 19th amendment went into effect that had been put in the path of Black men, through state laws that “schemed to disproportionately disenfranchise Black men and women,” such as grandfather clauses, literary tests, and poll taxes.  In many Northern and Western states, by contrast, Black women “successfully cast ballots in 1920, voting for the very first time alongside their husbands, fathers, and sons.”


In the following decades, Black women discovered that their voting rights, though “partial and oftentimes denied,” nonetheless gave them a “new platform upon which to build influence.” They were at the forefront of a “new movement – one that linked women’s rights and civil rights in one great push for dignity and power.”


Voting Front and Center in the Civil Rights Era

Although the struggle for voting rights appeared to resurface in the 1960s as part of the Civil Rights Movement, Jones reminds us that the struggle was “as old as any cause.  It was the latest chapter in the two-hundred-year-long story of how Black Americans had fought against laws and customs that kept them from the ballot box.”   Passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965 required “all the vision, organizing, and risk-taking that Black Americans could muster. Black women were on the front lines, as they always had been.”


Among the many heroes and heroines on the front lines, Fanny Lou Hamer stands out. Born in rural Mississippi in 1917, Hamer was the youngest of 20 children. She left school at age 12 to support her family by picking cotton. Focusing her activism on voting rights as the key to all other rights, Hamer contended that without the power of the vote, Black women “could not expect the state to address their concerns or take up their interests in fair wages and equitable work conditions, along with decent housing, public schools and municipal services.”


Returning to Mississippi in 1963 after completing a voter registration campaign in South Carolina, Hamer was the victim of a vicious beating and sexual assault by local police, leaving her with the loss of one eye and permanent kidney damage. The injuries she sustained were her “first form of testimony about the price that Black women paid for the vote,” Jones writes. Hamer helped organize Freedom Summer in 1964, which brought hundreds of college students, Black and white, to help with African American voter registration in the segregated South. That same year, she also co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).


Hamer rose to national prominence when she and other MFDP members went to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, seeking to displace the all-white Mississippi delegation.  As she spoke before the Credentials Committee, President Lyndon Johnson held a televised press conference, intended to draw attention away from her testimony. But her spellbinding account of the terror provoked by her assertion of voting rights was televised later that same evening. With a national audience viewing her testimony, Jones writes, Americans were “tuned in to the struggle for voting rights as never before, and had Hamer to thank for it.”


 Still Struggling for Voting Rights

Vanguard is ideal reading for Black History Month, which begins in the United States and Canada later this week. Not only is it inspiring history, although it is assuredly that.  With many American states seemingly intent upon making voting more rather than less onerous, it is also a reminder that the extraordinary combination of tenacity and optimism which drove the women Jones portrays remains much needed today. The story of Vanguard, she concludes, is “still being written.”


Image Credit: Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All [cover] (Basic Books), Fair Use.

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