today in black history

June 12, 2024

NAACP Field Secretary and civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, was assassinated in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963.

Black Women Rising in Politics

POSTED: December 01, 2020, 3:00 pm

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When Brooklyn, New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm had the audacity to declare herself a candidate for President of the United States in 1972, it was a move that disturbed the White male status quo in American politics and threatened the sensibilities of her fellow Democrats. Coming just 8 years after Fannie Lou Hamer made her dramatic stand for voting rights in Atlantic City, New Jersey and 4 years after the Democratic Party’s debacle of a convention in Chicago in 1968, and in the aftermath of urban rebellions, Chisholm not only challenged White Democrats but her Black male peers who she leapfrogged in seeking the presidency. It was a bold move but one that was wrought with sexist attacks and fear. Almost fifty years later, a woman now presides over the House of Representatives, are prominent on the United States Supreme Court, serve as mayor of large cities and one is now poised to become the first female Vice President of the United States.

What makes the ascension of women in politics all the more impressive is that Black women are at the center of this new political reality. This past summer at the height of Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it was District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot who stepped on center stage and became the new faces of urban politics. Bowser took the bold step of painting the street leading to Lafayette Park, situated in front of the White House, with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ and renaming the street such. It was Atlanta Mayor Bottoms who challenged violent outbreaks in her city and made clear that she would not allow peaceful protests to be diminished by looting. Mayor Lightfoot boldly rejected and challenged President Trump’s characterization of the Windy City and rejected the idea that federal troops were necessary to restore order in Chicago. Three big city mayors. Three Black women. Each one of them showing leadership and refusing to be typecast as political novelties. It was Black- woman-power and there was no chance the casual observer could confuse these women as props for men hiding in the shadows.

Equally impressive was developments at the state level. In New York, state Attorney General Tish James was defining her legacy as a tough prosecutor, coming after President Trump for his business escapades in the state and the business practices of the Trump organization. In addition, she set her sights on the once all-powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) and exposing the gun lobby’s financial irregularities and challenging its not-for-profit status. Down in Georgia, Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost an election for governor that was rife with Republican chicanery, refused to disappear and led a statewide effort to protect the ballot that played the most significant role in Democrat Joe Biden taking the state in the presidential election. Democrats in Georgia now see the possibility of flipping both Senate seats and capturing a majority of seats in the upper chamber. In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy (D) made the historic appointment of 39-year old former federal prosecutor Fabiana Pierre-Louis, a daughter of Haitian immigrants, to the New Jersey Supreme Court, making her only the third Black to sit on the state’s highest judicial panel. Given her age and the state retirement age of 70 for judges, Pierre-Louis could serve on the state Supreme Court for decades shaping law in New Jersey.

The crem de la cream of this moment of Black women ascending in politics and government was the selection by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden of Senator Kamala Harris of California as his vice presidential candidate and running mate. Harris, a Black woman of Indian and Jamaican descent, rose through the ranks of Democratic Party politics, first as San Francisco District Attorney, California Attorney General and eventually as United States Senator. The Howard University alumna also brought her considerable fundraising prowess to the ticket, as well as her national network of Sorors in Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority, Inc., and fellow members of the ‘Divine 9’ Black Greek-letter fraternities and sororities in the National Panhellenic Council. The ‘Divine 9’ organizations proved to be a formidable get-out-the-vote force on Election Day. Harris’ election to the vice presidency now puts her ‘one heartbeat’ away from becoming the second Black person, and first woman, to serve as President of the United States.

No doubt the success of Harris, the Black female mayors, Stacey Abrams, and New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Pierre-Louis is due to their incredible talents and intellect, but can also be attributed to the work of Black women who paved the way for these newcomers. In Congress, Black women like Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, Cardiss Collins and Maxine Waters faced considerable resentment for their unapologetic advocacy from their peers in both major parties and, despite their success, were passed over for leadership roles in their caucus. While Stacy Abrams had no Black woman role model in seeking the governor’s seat in Georgia, there have been countless Black women in state legislatures who were certainly qualified to seek their state’s highest office and never given the opportunity to do so. On the judicial front, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis only had to look to the life and career of federal judge Constance Baker-Motley for inspiration as well as other Black women who serve on state Supreme Courts across the nation.

The true test of the legacy of this year’s crop of Black female political leadership will be their ability to mold and shape generations of Black women in public service. It remains to be seen whether we witness an uptick of young Black women seeking local political office on Boards of Education and City Councils, or Black women in state legislatures running for Congress or seeking to become governor of their state. The potential is certainly there as well as a population of young Black women on college campuses, particularly those enrolled in the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. The flip side is that to see continued progress, a political fundraising apparatus for Black women, similar to Emily’s List, must aggressively step forward and finance the campaigns of Black women, at all levels of electoral office. We may very well be at the cusp of a new era of American politics when Black women will be at the forefront of policymaking and agenda setting, and bringing to the forefront their unique perspectives and history in the United States.

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