“If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964
We revere Fannie Lou Hamer and countless others for her fierce defense of our rights and freedoms. Defenders of our families and communities, Black women played a lead role in ensuring that all people have the right to vote, despite those who tell the story with different heroes in the forefront. But the struggle we revere was not just for the vote. The vote is a symbol of equality, access and respect for our citizenship. However politics today has turned the act of voting into the ultimate act of civic participation, while silently shifting power and public accountability into the private sector, market forces and inside political relationships. Those who came before us were not voting for symbolic participation, but for the power of self determination. To decide who would represent and govern them, they fought and some gave their lives. While we are often reminded of the struggle to obtain the vote, we are not as often reminded of just WHY the struggle was so important, because of the access to power it afforded our communities. By telling us that our predecessors fought for the right to vote, and leaving out the power of the vote, we are telling only half the story and allowing leaders to hold in their hands what is rightfully ours.
Black women are the most reliable voters in America. In 2012, 74 percent of eligible black women went to the polls. If you have set your sights on the oval office, you literally can’t win without us. However, by too many measures, the value of our vote has not been returned to us. Besides the political theater of candidates showing up to church, sorority meetings and viral videos with our favorite stars, on the issues that are near and dear to our hearts, where do politicians stand? Why do our phones get quiet after election day? I believe the answer lies in Sister Hamer’s question of America. This country has yet transform into a true democracy, and, though we are no longer literally locked out of the halls of power, our presence is still in the service of a mainstream agenda that does not yet value our full humanity. They have traded us power for mere participation.
“If I am truly free, who can tell me how much of my freedom I can have today?” – Fannie Lou Hamer
The current political system has not only Black women’s votes, but our genius and labor as strategists, staffers, volunteers and elected leaders. Black women are running for office, but not nearly enough, running campaigns (but not nearly enough) and even leading political parties (dare I say, still not getting nearly enough respect) to victory. But the lack of political will and accountability to Black women in between election days speaks to a lack of respect and recognition for how important we are. We help others gain and maintain positions of power. But then we are told that we need to wait to see change in our communities. This year, I urge us to accept no set backs or delays, but to control the momentum and lead from the position that our pivotally important role in American society should afford us.
We have to build our own power. We have to win every single political office we can, where we have a majority of black people… The question for black people is not, when is the white man going to give us our rights, or when is he going to give us good education for our children, or when is he going to give us jobs-if the white man gives you anything-just remember when he gets ready he will take it right back. We have to take for ourselves. – Fannie Lou Hamer
Politicians demand Black women vote today and do not have a plan to address how to return our vote to us. However, just as we did not sit back and wait on their plans when we organized our communities to demand the right to vote, we don’t need to sit back and wait on their agenda for how we will claim our power in this next election. Just as Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party arrived at the 1964 DNC with their agenda in hand, so to must Black women organize our political agenda in hand and be prepared to DEMAND policies, budgets and initiatives that reflect our priorities. Yes, it is important for Black women to show up and show out, let’s just make sure that election day is just the beginning.
National Organizer, Black Alliance for Just Immigration