From Vice President Kamala Harris energizing the presidential ticket and satisfying the demand for effective representation coming from President Joe Biden’s Black voter base, to Stacey Abrams spearheading the effort to turn Georgia blue for the first time in years. The narrative that Black women saved the Democratic Party this election cycle, while finally giving Black women their due, unintentionally overlooks all the other times that they have been the saviors, champions and driving forces of the party.
Here are six other instances of Black women coming to the rescue for Democrats.
1. Coretta Scott King swung Black voters toward Kennedy
For decades, Black voters tended to support the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln and generally the less racist of the two options. By 1960, however, things had changed. The Democratic Party had become split between staunch segregationists and more progressives willing to advance civil rights for Black Americans, albeit cautiously.
In October of that year, Coretta Scott King made an urgent phone call to Harris Wofford, a friend of her husband Martin Luther King Jr., who worked for the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy. Martin had been arrested in Georgia and Coretta, pregnant with their third child, feared for his safety. She urged Wofford to do what he could to get Martin released. Wofford eventually convinced Kennedy to call Coretta and express his sympathy. During the two-minute call, Coretta got Kennedy to pledge to do what he could to help out, and a series of phone calls by his brother and campaign manager Robert led to Martin’s release the following day.
JFK perceived the call and intervention on behalf of Martin as a way to make inroads with Black voters without being too overt and alienating white southerners. The move worked. As news of Kennedy’s intervention spread among the Black community, prominent Black leaders – including Martin Luther King Sr. – publicly endorsed the Democrat. The Kennedy campaign printed pamphlets recounting the candidate’s intervention and circulated them among Black churches.
Whereas Republican President Eisenhower had won about 40% of the Black vote in the 1956 election, Kennedy beat Nixon among Black voters in 1960 by a margin of 70% to 30%, and Black support for the Democratic presidential nominee stayed above 80% in every subsequent election, becoming the Democrats' most consistent group of supporters. After the death of her husband, Coretta continued to be an activist and active member of the Democratic Party, including delivering a speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.
2. Shirley Chisholm blazed the presidential trail for future Democratic candidates
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress. Four years later, the New York representative one-upped her achievement by becoming the first Black person of either major party to run for president, as well as the first woman to run in the Democratic Party. Although institutional pushback and skepticism from even Black men and white women limited the success of her campaign, the congresswoman used her race to leverage the party towards greater inclusiveness and respect for the issues of Black people, women and other marginalized groups.
In her autobiography, Chisholm wrote, "I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo. The next time a woman runs, or a black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready' to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start."
Her legacy fulfilled those words. Jesse Jackson won more than three million votes in the 1984 Democratic primaries and double that amount in 1988. When former President Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination and eight years of the presidency, followed by his 2008 runner-up Hillary Clinton becoming the 2016 Democratic nominee, both owed a debt to Shirley Chisholm for being “taken seriously from the start.” Now, a Black woman, Kamala Harris, occupies the vice presidency, solidifying Chisholm’s legacy within the Democratic Party.
3. Black women frame and name identity politics
As the two parties diverged over civil rights and social issues, the Republican Party became the bastion of conservativism – often a euphemism for maintaining the power of heterosexual white men. The Democratic Party emerged as the party that embraced the issues and causes relevant to various minorities and marginalized groups in America. The theoretical basis for this acknowledgment of the role that identity and marginalization played in American politics came from a group of Black lesbian socialist feminists who declared themselves “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression.” The Massachusetts-based Combahee River Collective coined the term “identity politics” in its 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement.
“We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us,” the collective announced in its statement. “Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression.”
In the years after this statement was released, the Democratic Party embraced the focus on identity. When President Ronald Reagan's Republican Party withdrew support for the Equal Rights Amendment and took a hard anti-abortion stance, women voters broke for the Democrats. As LGBTQ+ individuals and activists began demanding recognition and equal rights, the Democratic Party was the first to embrace gay rights, beginning with its 1980 platform. These stances and others solidified the Democratic Party's position as the progressive force in American politics.
4. Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the world to intersectionality
Even as the Democrats sought to incorporate members of marginalized groups – Black and other racial minorities, women, LGBTQ+ individuals and the working class – there were still people who remained marginalized due to combinations of overlapping oppressions. Black women, in particular, were often left out of the progress achieved by Black men and white women.
Seeing this phenomenon, in 1989 legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined a new term and method of analysis to describe it – intersectionality. Recognizing that issues were not simply reducible to the sum of their parts – the challenges facing Black women being different than those faced by Black men or white women, for instance – the Democrats slowly adopted the intersectional approach in both their policies and their leadership.
It’s only been in the past five to 10 years that intersectionality became mainstream, showing up in the rhetoric of the Women’s March and the 2020 Democratic primaries and even in the Oxford English Dictionary. Conservatives have mocked, condemned and rejected the concept. For Democrats, meanwhile, former President Barack Obama chose a “wise Latina” for the Supreme Court with his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. Then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden saw the need to choose a Black woman as his running mate with the selection of Kamala Harris. And President Biden recognized that “transgender Black Americans face unconscionably high levels of workplace discrimination, homelessness, and violence, including fatal violence.”
Though Crenshaw herself has often been critical of the Democrats, all of the aforementioned instances demonstrate ways in which the party has been building off of the legacy of Crenshaw’s analysis and activism.
5. Black women define the movements that set the party’s 21st century agenda
Black women have always played a key role in the social movements that have shaped progress in America, including the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation. But all too often, their contributions were hidden behind those of Black men and white women. In the 2000s, however, Black women have not only founded the two most potent social movements that have shaped the platform and stances of the Democratic Party, but these Black women have remained front and center.
In 2006, activist Tarana Burke began using the phrase “Me Too” in-person and on social media as a way to create a safe space for women of color to discuss their experiences with sexual abuse and violence. The hashtag became viral in 2017 when, in the wake of the dozens of sexual assault allegations made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano
urged her Twitter followers to use the tag to express solidarity and share their own experiences. Milano, initially unaware of the tag’s origins, quickly learned of Burke’s work and credited Burke as the founder of the movement. Burke, meanwhile, has continued to guide the movement back towards Black women and forward towards greater accountability in society.
Meanwhile, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi founded the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 in reaction to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Starting as a social media post and hashtag, Black Lives Matter quickly grew to a national and then international movement against racism and police brutality.
With significant pressure from the public, both the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements have shaped the Democratic Party’s moral and political stances in recent years. While Republicans have largely ignored or even cheered alleged sexual abusers within their own ranks, Democrats have mostly held Republicans and members of their own party accountable for sexual misconduct. Meanwhile, despite the initial reluctance of high-profile Democrats to say the phrase, the Democratic Party has now embraced Black Lives Matter in its rhetoric and in its policy focus, with the Biden administration making racial justice and the dismantling of systemic racism one of its key goals. Meanwhile, members of the movement, like activist turned congresswoman U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, now occupy positions of power within the Democratic Party.
6. Black women create a blue wave in the Deep South
The stunning victories of Biden, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia did more than just secure Democratic control of the White House and Congress. They also showed that the party, under the skilled leadership of people such as voting rights advocate Abrams, has a long-term prospect for making significant inroads in the section of the country that has been the most deeply conservative for some time.
But some people may remember that this Deep South Blue Wave actually began three years earlier, with a special election for the U.S. Senate in Alabama. Democrat Doug Jones won a shocking upset victory over Republican Roy Moore, and pollsters quickly realized that it was the high turnout of Black women, nearly all of whom voted for Jones, that tipped the scales. Black women were motivated to vote for Jones and against Moore, whose Republican supporters brushed off accusations that he had a history of sexual predation against young girls.
Black women voters were mobilized through various grassroots organizations that had been founded and run by Black women, including Adrianne Shropshire’s organization, BlackPAC; Black Voters Matter, co-founded by LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright; and the Woke Vote campaign of Dejuana Thompson. Abrams, meanwhile, drew inspiration and strategy from the Alabama race for her own efforts in Georgia, first as a candidate for governor and then as an advocate for voting rights.
Black women have shaped the agenda of the Democratic Party and showed themselves to be pivotal for the party’s electoral victories, from the president on down. And now, with more Black women in higher positions of power and influence within the party than ever before, they are not only gaining their just recognition but also keeping their hands on the steering wheel of the party. If Democrats want to build upon their electoral and policy victories, they had best recognize how important Black women have been and will continue to be for those things to happen.