Want to See Black Women Making History? Look to CongressRoundup
tags: Congress, African American history, political history
Ashley D. Farmer is an assistant professor of history and African & African diaspora studies at the University of Texas-Austin. She is the author of Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era and the forthcoming biography, Queen Mother Audley Moore: Mother of Black Nationalism.
During the last presidential debate, President Trump attacked Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s climate change platform by remarking, “you know who developed it? A.O.C. plus three. They know nothing about the climate.” Trump was not only referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), but also to Re. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). While the president’s goal was to diminish these women and their politics, his comment instead served as a reminder of this cohort’s power and public influence. Often called “the Squad,” these four minority women have energized American politics since their entry into Congress in 2018. They soon may be joined by others.
A record-breaking 130 Black women across political parties filed to run for Congress at the start of the 2020 election cycle. A number of candidates, such as St. Louis activist Cori Bush and Candace Valenzuela in El Paso have won their primaries and are campaigning to become the first Black and Afro-Latinx women to represent their states. More than simply making history as “firsts,” these and other candidates are running on progressive and radical platforms that reflect the demands of current social movements. Valenzuela, for example, is a pro-choice candidate who also supports ending the cash bail system, government-sponsored health care and widening pathways to citizenship for immigrants. Bush supports defunding the police, Medicare-for-all and abolishing ICE. It is no accident that these and other women of color are contenders for congressional seats. Social movements have previously propelled minority women into formal politics. If history is any indication, we are likely to see the Squad expand through the upcoming election.
The significant increase in Black women congressional candidates during this year of unrest is not without precedent. Historically, widespread social movement organizing has prompted shifts in politics and political representation at the local, state and national levels. Civil Rights and Black Power organizing for example, ushered in a period of previously unseen Black political representation.
Activists’ fights to desegregate schools, neighborhoods and the voting booth in the 1950s culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which collectively ended state-sponsored segregation and discrimination and established federal oversight in areas where disenfranchisement was rampant. With these measures in place, by the 1970s, cities and towns elected their first Black mayors and a discernible Black electorate and political agenda developed. Capitalizing on grass roots activism, the Voting Rights Act and a growing black electorate, Black women not only made their way to the polls; they successfully pursued Congressional seats in record numbers.
Barbara Jordan, a native of Houston, was both a product and a beneficiary of the social justice movements of the mid-to-late 1960s. A Boston University-trained lawyer, Jordan returned home and mounted two unsuccessful campaigns for a Texas State Senate seat in 1962 and 1964. She won in 1966 after court-enforced redistricting thanks to civil rights legislation created a minority, left-leaning district in her area. With this victory, she became the first Black woman elected to the Texas state senate and the first African American to hold a seat since Reconstruction.
Working in the otherwise all-White and male state senate, Jordan effectively championed causes of the civil rights movement. She helped pass the state’s first minimum wage law and established the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission to promote anti-employment discrimination legislation.
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