Lecture series focuses on Black women, voting rights

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“It is deliberate, it is purposeful, and it is targeted,” Professor of African American Studies at Emory University Carol Anderson said of voter suppression, one of the largest issues facing American democracy.

In a two-day lecture series on Tuesday, Sept. 22 and Wednesday, Sept. 23, Anderson shared the floor with Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at John Hopkins Martha S. Jones as they examined the history and current state of voting rights in the U.S. First, on National Voter Registration Day, gave a lecture titled “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.” The next day, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University Martha S. Jones gave a lecture entitled “The Struggle for Voting Rights.” Jones previously spoke at the College in August 2019, when she presented a talk entitled “Birthright Citizens: Black Americans and the Making of Democracy before the Civil War.” 

Chair of Africana Studies and Faculty Affiliate in Political Science and Religion Neil Roberts introduced Anderson and asked her questions over Zoom. Anderson began by defining voter suppression. “Voter suppression is when you have a series of policies and laws that are designed to extricate or silence key segments of the american electorate so that their political voice, their political vision, has no access to the ballot box,” Anderson said. 

Anderson’s lecture shared its title with her latest book, published in 2018. She has a number of other published works and books, including White Rage (2016). 

Throughout much of the lecture, Anderson described the history of voting in the U.S. Whenever voting rights were expanded, she said, some form of voter suppression was most often the response. In particular, Anderson described how in postbellum years, southern states used the legacy of slavery to limit voting access to Black Americans. “They believed that they could dance around the 15th Amendment while trampling on the Constitution,” she said.

“That kind of linguistic dance around being specific about race is what we’re dealing with now in the 21st century,” Anderson continued. “We’re having laws written that are designed to block out African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics as well as the young and the poor without identifying African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans as the targeted group for these laws, but cloaking them in the language of protecting democracy the same way Mississippi did in 1890.”

Jones’ lecture took place the following evening, also over Zoom. Jones, who recently published her book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (2020), was introduced by Professor of English Alison Case.

Jones’ lecture in particular was commemorative of the centennial anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which in 1920 granted women the right to vote.

To begin her lecture, Jones described the lost story of her great great grandmother, a once-enslaved Black woman from Louisville about whom little else is known. Jones related her ancestor’s story to that of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was fatally shot by police entering her Louisville home in March 2020. 

“They’ve become woven together for me across the centuries, caught in a web of violence — state perpetrated, state sanctioned,” Jones said. “This talk is for the two of them.”

Jones described the violence and oppression historically inflicted upon Black women on public transit. One tale she related was that of Black scholar and activist Anna Julia Cooper. “Cooper affirmed a collective tale of rough indignities, personal violence to colored women travelling in less civilized sections of our country, where women have been forcibly ejected from cars, thrown out of seats, their garments rudely torn, their person wantonly and cruelly injured,” Jones said.

Broadening her argument about Cooper, she continued, “Seeing their children touched and seared and wounded by race prejudice is one of the heaviest crosses which colored women have to bear.”

Jones went on to reflect on the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment — both on what the historical stories and movements she described meant to the amendment’s ratification and later civil rights progress, and conversely on what that progress can mean for those who historically have suffered. 

Like Anderson’s lecture, Jones’ concluded with a question and answer section, where she received queries from viewers, including faculty and students. 

During the lecture, Jones twice asked, “What if Black women, in their struggles over the ladies car and their right to ride, were at the heart of the women’s movement?” She continued emphatically, “What if that movement was premised in claims to dignity and equality for all women, for all of humanity? What if their movement was one that concerned itself with political rights, but simultaneously with human rights?”