Black women have always led the charge for voting rights
On this date in 1965, Amelia Boynton nearly died as she tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., a day that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Boynton wasn’t a random marcher; she was a pioneering voting rights activist and organizer. It was she who asked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma to help organize civil rights marchers. Though the march was stopped that day, the struggle continued and, ultimately, the marchers made it from Selma to Montgomery — and the Voting Rights Act was passed.
Boynton went on to make history as the first black person to run for Congress in Alabama. Before her death in 2015, she joined President Obama and others to commemorate the historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
That day in Selma, many women who are now nameless and faceless marched and organized to push for voting rights. Black women too often are the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement; they’ve always led the charge for justice and equality. Historically, the story of the civil rights movement is dominated by black men and the story of the women’s rights movement is dominated by white women, which pushes the leadership and contributions of black women to the margins of history books.
But no longer.
This Bloody Sunday anniversary comes on the eve of International Women’s Day during Women’s History Month, and on the heels of Black History Month. The timing presents an opportunity for a reckoning of history and for justice in the moment. We need to set the record straight and acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of black women, who have been the leaders of every successful human rights movement in our country. But perhaps even more importantly, we must respect the leadership of black women today and heed our call for justice.
During this highly polarized time in our country, black women leaders are carrying both the water — as we do the hard, unglamorous work of organizing in and nurturing our communities — and the torch, as we inspire the country to see past the darkness to a just future. As we engage in a renewed fight for basic human rights, including the resources and freedom to raise our families with dignity, black women are calling out the problems and demanding action.
Just as it was in 1965, our energy must be focused on our right to vote.
The 2020 election will hinge as much on the attacks on voting rights as it will on voter turnout. White conservatives have been systematically dismantling voting rights and erecting barriers to voters of color — note the unfair voter ID laws, the illegal purging of people of color from the voting rolls, and the closing of voting locations in communities of color — and we are committed to making our voices heard.
Across the country, black women are working to mobilize black voters and ensure that our votes are counted. We must continue to knock down the barriers. We didn’t march and die fighting for our right to vote in the 1950s and ’60s only to have that right denied us unscrupulous politicians whose goal is to stay in power. We must continue to reject any attempt to turn the clock backward.
Fifty-five years after Bloody Sunday, we find ourselves struggling to cross another bridge, one that will carry us over the modern abyss of voter suppression. Our path is clear: We must fight to stop losing ground, and to ensure that our children and their children will not have to fight this battle again. We must meet our would-be oppressors at polls across the country on Election Day. And like the marchers in Selma, we will meet them with strength, resilience and pride. We cannot rest until our country lives up to the constitutional promise of liberty and justice for all.
Black women are leading the way — and we invite you all to join us.
Marcela Howell is the founder and president of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. Follow her on Twitter at @BlackWomensRJ.