Updated April 10, 2021
The name Stacey Abrams has become synonymous with voting accessibility and turnout, making history by becoming the first woman and first African American woman to hold positions in state and national politics. Abrams is now one of the most prominent African American female politicians in the United States.
A biography for Abrams appears at Women’s History.
Abrams founded Fair Fight Action, an organization to address voter suppression, in 2018. Her efforts have been widely credited with boosting voter turnout in Georgia, including in the 2020 presidential election, where Joe Biden won the state, and in Georgia’s 2020–21 U.S. Senate election and special election, which gave Democrats control over the Senate.
Abrams was the Democratic nominee in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, becoming the first African-American female major-party gubernatorial nominee in the United States. She lost and refused to formally concede to Brian Kemp in an election marked by accusations that Kemp engaged in voter suppression as Georgia secretary of state. Source: Wikipedia – Stacey Abrams.
In the history of voting rights, the stories of Black women are often “held out at moments when they are convenient or they seem to serve another argument or purpose,” Martha S. Jones, the author of “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All”, wrote. “But too often we don’t get the full sense of their lives and how they are connected to their own histories and the histories of other Black women.”
Those histories go all the way back to the beginning of the modern American movement for women’s political rights. Sojourner Truth represented Black women at the first national women’s rights convention in 1850 in Worcester, Mass., and the following year, in her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, she laid out the core argument that fueled voting rights activism for decades: that equal access to the ballot is a matter of human rights. Source: Wikipedia – Sojourner Truth.
After having campaigned for Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant for President in Michigan in 1872, she—alongside several other suffragists nationwide—tried to vote and got turned away, thus raising awareness of the issue.
Even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Jim Crow state laws meant that Black Americans were in many cases still unable to exercise the right to vote. So as white suffragist groups disbanded, the burden fell to Black women’s groups to keep marching to achieve full voting rights. And they did.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Mary Church Terrell and Nannie Helen Burroughs were key leaders of organizations for Black women voters, and educators like Septima Clark set up citizenship schools to prepare women for the obstacles they would face trying to vote. Other Black women created their own newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets, to publicize their fight for voting rights. Sources: Wikipedia – March Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Septima Poinsette Clark.
Black women carried on these voter-education efforts through the early 1960s, at churches and bus stops and beauty shops, on farms and at community meetings. But they rarely became household names, especially as the male leaders of the fight for voting rights were the spokespeople who talked to and got quoted in news outlets, and there was a lot of chauvinism, as the late Congressman John Lewis pointed out in his memoir.
One of the most powerful voices for Black women’s voting rights came out of this period, when, at a community meeting at a church in rural Mississippi in 1962, a sharecropper in her 40s named Fannie Lou Hamer found out she could register to vote. Though she lost her job for doing so, she gained a reputation as one of the most important voting rights activists of the 1960s. As a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary, she crisscrossed the country speaking to fellow Black farm workers about the importance of voting.
In Hamer’s story, experts see many parallels to the women who organized the vote in Georgia recently. Source: Wikipedia – Fannie Lou Hamer.
In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the law that had brought to fruition many of the goals of Hamer and her peers. That change helped shape the world in which voting rights activists like Abrams do their work.
That dedication to moving forward is one historians recognize in the women who paved the way for today’s activists—and, they point out, there’s another parallel too: that often under-recognized voter-encouragement work by Black women stands to impact people of all races and genders. Source: Stacey Abrams History Black Women Voting Rights.