Be Free or Die: Voting Rights & African American Suffragettes

Harriett
Photo Credit: Focus Pictures

This year, we celebrate 100 years of suffrage in America. On June 4, 1919, women received the right to vote via the 19th Amendment.

This month, we also celebrated the 170th anniversary of Harriett Tubman liberating herself from the chains of slavery – which enabled her to bravely return multiple times to the South to free so many others. Her story will be brought to the big screen this November, bringing historic context of the fight for liberation and equality to the masses. 

As we celebrate, we also must recognize that the freedom given by the 19th Amendment was not for all women — African American women were left out of the equation. While this has been a long road, we are not yet at the finish line. Women still face barriers to voting — and it is even felt more acutely in communities of color. 

Let’s look back in history through the eyes of African American suffragettes, and their unique role. Many of you have heard the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; there are lesser known names that have had a major impact on voting rights. 

 

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1800’s)

Frances.png
Photo Credit: WOSU Public Media

I say then that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law (1866)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a dedicated activist, poet, public speaker and author who fought for suffrage, the abolition of slavery and civil rights. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she discovered her love for the written word early. By the age of 21, she had written her first book of poems that was later published. She ultimately published seven books of poetry, the first four of which sold 50,000 copies. After witnessing the injustice that resulted from a Maryland law prohibiting free African Americans in the North from entering the state, she dedicated her life to the anti-slavery cause. She traveled the country lecturing and writing, raising awareness of the curse upon our nation. 

She had a high profile split with suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton left the American Equal Rights Association because it was supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, which would allow black male suffrage before white women won the vote. 

In December 1865 Stanton stated that white women had been staunch supporters of securing “freedom for the Negro.”  However, in light of emancipation, the Negro is no longer “lowest in the scale of being,” and “it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.”

In 1869, the year of the split, 52 African Americans were lynched — which led Frances to the conclusion that political rights for African Americans was most urgent, followed by the rights of women. 

In 1866, Frances noted “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.”

Despite the indifference and racism that Frances endured, she continued to advocate for the right to vote for all. 

 

Ida B. Wells (1900’s)

Ida
Photo Credit: Natalie Wade/14East

“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

Born in Mississippi, Ida B. Wells is known as an anti-lynching activist, and a trailblazing journalist. She became frustrated at the ineffectiveness of the court system as a vehicle for ending injustice, and turned to journalism to fight racism and sexism. She founded  the Alpha Suffrage Club in her home town at the time — Chicago — in January 1913. Through her work with the Alpha Club she realized that African-American women did not necessarily have the education to participate in politics and the electoral process. Ever the agent of change, she reached out to other clubs for black women at the local, state, and national level in order to encourage more women of color to become involved in politics.

In March 1913, Ida traveled to the first suffrage parade in Washington D.C., an event organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. On the day of the parade, Wells and sixty other Black women arrived to march with the Illinois delegation, but were immediately told to march in the back, so that the Southern delegates would not become upset. Ida refused, arguing: “Either I go with you or not at all. I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.” She marched along her own Illinois delegation, supported by her white co-suffragists Belle Squires and Virginia Brooks. This event received massive newspaper coverage, shedding light on the truth of African-American participation in politics.

Ida would be defined today as a community activist/organizer. Her community work, especially with the Alpha Suffrage Club, helped the women’s suffrage movement reach its success. Her work helped pass the Presidential and Municipal Bill in Illinois in June 1913, giving women over age 21 partial suffrage (the right to vote in presidential and municipal, but not state, elections). She helped register women voters and constantly encouraged women who remained doubtful of their place in the electoral process. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted in 1920, Ida  traveled throughout Chicago and Illinois emboldening African-American women to vote and participate in politics.

 

Crystal Mason (today)

Crystal
Photo Credit: Ed Pilkington/The Guardian

In 2016, Crystal Mason, who was on supervised release felony tax fraud, did what millions of people across the country did — she voted. However, she did not realize that she was not eligible to vote. When she arrived at her voting place back in November 2016, since she was not on the voter roll, Crystal received a provisional ballot. But by casting that provisional ballot, she broke a Texas state law that says residents are prohibited from voting until their sentence is complete. By definition, a sentence includes probation, parole and, in Crystal’s case, supervision. In multiple interviews, she has maintained that it was an honest mistake, and that she wasn’t even aware of the law in the first place. Additionally, since she voted using a provisional ballot, her vote was not counted in the final tally. 

In March 2019, Mason was first sentenced to five years in prison for breaking the voting law, but was released on a $20,000 bond. She had requested a new trial on the grounds the court did not consider the evidence that she did not know she was  ineligible to vote. Her request for retrial was denied in June.  Her attorney was quoted as saying “She was never told she couldn’t vote. Not by a district judge. Not by anyone at the half-way house where she lived after she got out. Not by the probation officer.” The ACLU and other civil rights groups are fighting for her freedom through the appeals process. 

Crystal’s case is symptomatic of one of the current barriers to voting– being convicted of a felony. Until Amendment 4 passed in Florida in 2018, we were one of 4 states that permanently disenfranchises people with felony convictions. By contrast, Maine and Vermont allow people to vote while incarcerated. Now that Senate Bill 7066 has passed, having a felony conviction does not prohibit voting — but having a felony conviction and being poor does. If you finish your sentence, you are not able to vote until you have paid all of your fines and fees. If you are unable to work due to having a felony conviction — because most employers will not hire you — how will you be able to vote? Additionally, only recently are we viewing sex trafficking victims as victims — what about those who have felony convictions as a result? What about the victims of domestic violence who lash out at their abusers, but end up incarcerated instead? Environmental factors, such as abuse and sexual assault derail the lives of so many and funnel them into the criminal justice system.  The ability to vote is critical to reintegration into society. Caring about your community and having a say in your government is directly linked to a reduction in recidivism — which results in safer communities for everyone. In one study, among individuals who had been arrested previously, 27 percent of non-voters were rearrested, compared with 12 percent of voters. When the system imposes barriers to fully re-entering society — of which voting is a key component — we are not truly at equity. 

Another issue is that of the reduction of early voting hours which affects women who are working.  Truthfully, Election Day should be a holiday so that everyone’s voice can be heard. But in the absence of this, reducing early voting hours disproportionately affects people who cannot take off work for multiple hours to wait in line to vote. The voters that are disproportionately impacted are working women of color. 

In closing, I ask that you do not look upon these issues with indifference — stand with us and continue the fight for equality. In the words of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper:

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.

 

 

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