The late Dick Gregory, a brilliant social activist and comic, was my best friend. He warned us of the unfathomable place our nation would be in today. What he meant with his warnings became clearer when Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE became president. Although Gregory warned us of many things to come, I have to confess that I was among the non-believers who could not see Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States under any circumstances.
I was among friends who were with Gregory in his hospital room when he died last August. While he was still alert, he warned us to “stay woke.” I remember the conversation as we watched protests in Boston against white supremacy, bigotry and hate. He kept telling us, “Listen — but stay out of this, because this is white folks’ business.” A week earlier, similar uproar happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, when our dear sister, Heather Heyer, was killed in public by a motorist who crashed into demonstrators protesting a white supremacy rally.
I wonder if white women are serious this time about ensuring their own rights, as we women of color always have had to be. I remember all the times we felt betrayed by white women — including their helping to elect Trump as president. We women of color are still shaking our heads about that choice. There have been other times we felt betrayed, but we never stopped working on equal rights for women as we worked to achieve basic human rights for all.
These resistance marches are quite impressive, although many organizations that specifically represent women of color, such as the National Congress of Black Women, were not formally invited to the table for input by organizers of either Women’s March on Washington. For years, leaders of groups such as ours have been hurt by exclusion — but we participate anyway. In other words, if we aren’t invited to take a seat, we pull up our own chairs and join the assembly anyway when others are dealing with issues about which women of color care deeply.
Women of color in America have had disappointments throughout the history of this country. For example, during the women’s suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony was quoted as saying, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” History tells us that Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton objected to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments unless women specifically were included with the black men to whom these amendments would grant equal rights — rights that other Americans enjoyed.
The Fourteenth Amendment clearly says, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Juxtapose that with laws for which my ancestors worked — fair housing, equal employment and voting rights. With each of these laws, there were no exclusions, only inclusions; the laws benefit all. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 enforces the right to vote to include African Americans. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 protects the buyer or renter of a dwelling from discrimination by a seller or landlord on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Again, there were no exclusions — all women benefit from laws that forbid discrimination based upon on race, religion, sex or national origin, though an argument could be made that white women have benefitted more than women of color.
We women of color still fight for our basic rights as human beings, and we welcome the support of our white sisters to help us, as our ancestors have helped them. I pray that, this time, as we march and resist together, we can put aside any negatives and betrayals of the past. Let us show that we can truly work together — this year, for a common goal of electing more women to office and placing more women in positions of high responsibility to make the changes that we need politically, socially and otherwise.
Together, we can hold accountable those men who haven’t supported us and instead have treated women as lesser beings. Together, we can push for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment; four bills have been introduced in the 115th Congress.
We can do this, black and white women together, as long as we women of color can trust that all of us are working in the best interests of all women. Yes, women of color in America must “stay woke,” and we will.
E. Faye Williams is president and CEO of the National Congress of Black Women, Inc. and former counsel to Congress’s D.C. Subcommittee on the Judiciary and Education.