By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Kamala D. Harris is the Democratic nominee for Vice-President of the United States. Her acceptance speech was laced with reflections about her late South-Asian mother and the Black women who laid the path for this moment. Due to COVID-19 and social distancing, the Democratic National Convention was without fanfare. But her words made history.
“I accept your nomination for Vice-President of the United States of America,” said Harris.
Harris, 55, is a graduate of Howard University, University of California-Hastings Law School and, as she stated, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Harris was a prosecutor who gained national attention by staking claim to California’s Office of Attorney General which propelled her into the U.S. Senate, becoming the second Black woman in this high chamber.
Now, Harris is the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, the first Black woman to run for a national office on a major party ticket. In her acceptance speech, Harris acknowledged standing on the shoulders of Black women who won the right to vote 100 years ago this month. “We’re not often taught their history,” said Harris. She went on to recognize a debt to the Black women who “organized, testified, rallied and marched and fought” for passage of the 19th Amendment and for voting rights or suffrage.
Harris would know of Black suffragettes like Isabella Baumfree. Baumfree was born into slavery in New York State. She boldly walked away from bondage, changing her name to Sojourner Truth to better describe her own destiny. In 1848, women met in Seneca Falls, NY, at the first convention for women’s rights. But no Black women were invited. White Suffragettes demanded equality from men but segregated themselves from Black women. Truth famously interrupted an all-white convention in 1851, asking attendees “Ain’t I A Woman?”
Born in 1797, Sojourner Truth lived long enough see the passage of the 15th Amendment granting Black men the right to vote. But, for Black suffragettes, too often their battle for equality and the vote was a lonely one. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a Black suffragist who openly chastised her white female counterparts for appeasing southern lynch mobs in order to gain their political support. Wells- Barnett was an educator and journalist who courageously documented the horrors of American lynching.
Harris praised Mary McLeod Bethune who was an adviser to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and co-founded Bethune-Cookman College. Harris went on to name two fierce advocates for voting rights who are unknown to many. Mary Church Terrell was a wealthy Black suffragette who led the early civil rights movement, challenging segregation in Washington, D.C. and Fannie Lou Hamer was a voting rights activist and sharecropper in rural Mississippi.
Hamer ignited the nation with her televised testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention describing the brutal assaults on Black voters, including the beating she received for registering Black farmers to vote. Hamer spoke of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Terrell and Hamer are among the women Harris said, “Fought not just for a vote but for a seat at the table.”
The rise Harris represents the vision of Black suffragettes and voting rights activists who fought for equality under law against all odds. Harris was chosen by Biden from a short list that included Stacey Abrams, contender for Governor of Georgia, and U.S. Rep. Val Demings from Florida, two Black women. In recent elections, the percentage of Black women voters is among the highest in the nation as more Black women attain political power.
As candidate for Vice-President of the United States, Harris must persuade the country that she can resolve crucial issues with the American economy and the pandemic crisis as well as healthcare, immigration reform and police-involved civilian shootings. She spoke of structural racism. “There is no vaccine for racism,” said Harris. “We’ve got to do the work.”
Harris recognized that gaining the second highest office in the world is a tremendous responsibility. But there is a proud legacy of Black women she can call on while creating a road for other women to follow.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a writer and professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College (CUNY). She is the author of “The Voting Rights War.” Her forthcoming book is “She Took Justice: The Black Woman, Law, and Power.” @GBrowne-Marshall