The often-overlooked role that Black women played in ending discriminatory voting practices in the United States got some attention on Thursday night, at a webinar hosted by the League of Women Voters of Amherst (LWVA.)
UMass Assistant Prof. Traci Parker, of the W.E.B DuBois Department of Afro-American studies, was keynote speaker during the LWVA’s opening meeting, which was held virtually.
Parker focused on the contributions of Fanny Lou Hamer (1917-77) a Mississippi woman who became an influential grassroots activist and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
While Martin Luther King Jr., and the late Georgia congressman John Lewis are often in the spotlight when the civil rights era is recounted, Parker said that Hamer and others did the legwork which supported national efforts to secure full citizenship for people of color. “There are countless African-American women who are rarely honored or recognized,” Parker said.
The LWVA’s newly-formed Racial Justice Task Force helped organize Thursday’s event. The League’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Terrizzi, noted that September 17 was Constitution Day, which recognizes the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and those who have become citizens. “We have a lot more to do, to form that more perfect union,” Terrizzi said.
The League is a non-partisan organization which encourages citizen participation and activism on local, state and national levels. Parker was introduced by Marcie Sclove, chairperson of the Racial Justice Task Force.
Parker, who holds a PhD in History from the University of Chicago, and is the author of “Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and Civil Rights,” responded to questions from the audience and offered analysis of the current political situation.
Parker said that the 1960s and 1970s led to an “explosion” of Black political empowerment, with many people of color serving as mayors and congressmen, while voter registration among Black citizens increased dramatically.
However, there have been persistent efforts to reverse course and undermine the Voting Rights Act, including the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby vs. Holder, Parker said. In that case, the court invalidated a decades-old “coverage” formula, which required named jurisdictions to pass federal scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act before passing new election or voting laws. (Further information is here.)
Parker said that within 24 hours of the decision in Shelby vs. Holder, Texas announced a new strict photo identification law for voters, and other states began to follow suit. Between 2014 and 2019, Parker said, states purged 16 million voters from their roles, while conducting supposed “list maintenance.” Meanwhile, consolidation of polling places, reductions to polling hours and gerrymandering have continued to have a negative impact on minority voters.
Last year, Parker said, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore prior protections, but the measure recently renamed in Lewis’ honor has not been brought to the floor of the U.S. Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Further information is here.)
Parker, in response to questions from attendees, said she fully expects there to be difficulties with voting during the Nov. 3 Presidential election, as were noted during the primaries, including long lines and wait times at polls in Nevada, Georgia, Texas and Wisconsion.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we will be having the same problems in the same states,” Parker said.
Parker said she was excited to see Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden pick U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a woman of color, as his running mate, although she is troubled by Harris’ record as prosecutor whose work led to incarceration of many Black men and women. However, Parker said she believes that Harris would be a strong vice president, and inspire women of color and others who feel disenfranchised. “I think she’ll do a fantastic job,” Parker said.
Attendees heard the history of Fanny Lou Hamer, one of 20 children born to sharecroppers, who worked on a plantation. As an adult, Hamer was sterilized without consent during a medical procedure. In 1962, she became an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to help black Mississippians register to vote.
Hamer led 18 volunteers to register to vote at the Indianola, Missippi courthouse, where they were allowed in only two at a time to take a literacy test. Such tests were often used to bar Black voters, Parker said, with more difficult passages presented to them for copying and interpretation than were shown to whites.
In addition to literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses were used to suppress the Black vote, Parker said. Such clauses granted people the right to vote if their grandfathers voted in the past, effectively barring Black people. “African-American grandfathers had not voted, because they had been enslaved,” Parker said.
Hamer’s group was harassed on the way home by police who stopped their bus and fined them, claiming the bus was “too yellow.” The owner of the plantation where Hamer worked told her to withdraw her new voter registration or be fired, and Hamer left that night.
Hamer was badly beaten and sustained lifelong injuries in 1963, after she and several other Black women were arrested for sitting in a “whites-only” bus station restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.
In 1964, Hamer helped organize Freedom Summer, which brought hundreds of college students to help with African-American voter registration in the South. She co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MDFP), which sought inclusion of Black Democratic Party delegates. Hamer and other MFDP members went to the Democratic National Convention that year, and by 1968, Hamer was a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation. In 1971, she helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Black southerners hoped that securing the vote would facilitate equal access and opportunity, and enable them to secure “first-class citizenship,” Parker said.
Marla Goldberg-Jamate is a member of the LWVA’s Steering Committee.