1. Tuscaloosa, AL, October 2017.
It’s a warm Saturday in late October, and my canvassing partner and I are walking over cracked sidewalks and around parked cars in the late morning, before the football game starts. I knock on the painted front door of the next house. A young African-American girl greets us and then runs to get her mother. Soon a woman comes to the door, blinking into the sunlight.
“Sorry,” she says. “I just got off of work. How can I help you?”
I introduce myself and my partner, verify her name, and then launch into my prepared script, loaded into the app on my phone where I found her name and address: “I’m here with the Doug Jones campaign, and we’d like to ask if you will be supporting him in the special election in December?”
“I sure will,” she smiles. “And I’m telling all my friends and neighbors to vote too.” We talk for a few more minutes about the election, whether she wants a yard sign, and if she might be able to volunteer with the campaign. While I live just a few blocks away, I have never met my neighbor before, and this is a transactional relationship. I wish her a good day and turn away from the house, marking her off as “Strong Support.” I walk to the next house on my list, feeling like I’ve done something productive.
This neighborhood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is only 80 miles from Selma and the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the site of the Bloody Sunday March on March 7, 1965, organized by James Bevel and Amelia Boynton and led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, who, along with approximately 550 people of all ages, were attacked by Alabama state troopers. The demonstrators were attempting to march to Montgomery in support of voting rights and in protest of the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson, an activist and preacher from nearby Marion, who was shot and killed by an Alabama state police officer the previous week (Lewis & Aydin, 2016).
I am constantly reminded, and I actively remind myself, of how close I am to this history, as I walk through the old, historically African American neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa on my weekly canvassing routes throughout the fall of 2017. As soon as I discover the Details feature in the MiniVAN voter engagement app I have loaded into my iPhone, I become obsessed with it as I knock on door after door–first registered: 1965, first registered: 1965, first registered: 1966, first registered: 1968. I’m speaking to people who registered to vote for the first time as a direct result of the Bloody Sunday bridge crossing, the eventual march to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the securing of women’s suffrage, I am thinking less about the grainy photos of suffragists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt, and more about the marchers in Selma: Amelia Boynton-Robinson, Annie Lee Cooper, and Marie Foster. Women’s suffragists came chronologically before the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, yet the limits of their tactics and achievements made the activism of the marchers in Selma necessary. More than 50 years later, that work feels both more relevant than ever, and also continually needed. At the centennial, then, we should be considering movements for racial as well as gender equality and how we can continue their work in 2020.
2. Selma, AL, March 2018.
Just five months after my canvassing day in October 2017, I am in Selma to participate in the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, an annual week-long celebration in the city commemorating the Bloody Sunday March, complete with speeches and a march through town and over that same Edmund Pettis Bridge. I walk as part of a multiracial group of people, behind now-Senator Doug Jones and Congressman John Lewis, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senator Kamala Harris, and a broad U.S. Congressional delegation.
The Bridge Crossing Jubilee is a practice of remembering and memorializing. Rather than just planning events around specific milestones and anniversaries, every single year people travel to Selma to participate in the commemorations and walk across that bridge, led by those who participated in the 1965 demonstration. This practice is living history in action. In holding the march each year, the Bridge Jubilee organizers not only keep the memory of the event alive, but they demonstrate that honoring the legacy of the original marchers means a constant reenactment of their work. That Sunday in Selma, I can see the top of John Lewis’ head as we cross the bridge, I feel both the solemnity of the event and the hope of some forward progress, and I know I’m witnessing something important.
But as a white woman who grew up in the Midwest, this is not my history, and I am not sure of my place here. I am not entitled to claim any part of the feelings of this day, and while I had no family on that bridge in 1965, I have benefited from a lifetime of white privilege that allowed me to take voting rights for granted. Before I moved to Alabama, I had only vague notions of the bravery and radical resistance of activists fighting for voting rights in the face of very real violence. These events felt like something from the distant past, something over and settled. It doesn’t feel that way on this day in Selma.
The movement that secured voting rights for women also does not feel like something I can claim or identify with. The history of the women’s suffrage movement feels more distant, and more problematic.
Just on the other side of that infamous bridge in Selma is a small, low building of corrugated steel with a flat roof, which is the home of the National Voting Rights Museum, an unassuming and easily overlooked building on the way out of town. For a $6.50 entrance fee, you can view personal artifacts from the Bloody Sunday marchers, written and oral first-hand accounts of the event, and other artifacts from the Selma to Montgomery marches and the subsequent Bridge Jubilees. Like the bridge crossing event itself, the museum also feels like living history, as people have contributed their and their families’ stories through artifacts, oral histories, and continued reflections on the event’s legacy in Selma.
The museum, founded in 1990 by Dr. C.T. Vivian, Albert Turner, Amelia Boynton-Robinson, and Marie Foster, among others (National Voting Rights Museum), also places the events in Selma within a larger context of voting rights movements. In the largest front room of the museum is a timeline of “Voting Rights Milestones,” which begins with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, “signed by wealthy white men.” An entry from 1916 references Jeannette Rankin as the first woman elected to Congress. The next entry from 1917 is a photo of Alice Paul and the Silent Sentinels in front of the White House, and the third date, 1920, accompanies a photo of white women dressed in black, holding banners with the words VOTES FOR WOMEN on the front. The timeline entry for 1920 reads, “The 19th Amendment enacted guaranteeing black and white women the right to vote.” Less of a living history than the other exhibits in the museum, this timeline and the moments of the women’s suffrage movement are presented without additional commentary, tracing a history that created both the space for and the necessity of the events in Selma in 1965.
Further along a museum hallway sits a smaller room dedicated to women’s contributions to the voting rights movement and to politics in general, with silhouettes of Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells painted onto the back wall. The display notes how the women’s rights movement of the 1970s owed a great deal to the Civil Rights Movement that came before it, but there is little other commentary to this curation. The exhibit mainly features pictures of women roughly organized by era. Portraits of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony hang next to Harriet Tubman and Charlotte E. Ray. “Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton writing harsh criticism of the Republican Party, who were pushing for African American male suffrage, published the Revolution,” the curatorstates frankly. While Anthony and Stanton are recognized in this museum for their contributions to women’s suffrage, the curators also emphasize the racist arguments made by these women in direct opposition to voting rights for African-American men. While the timeline in the front room of the museum notes the importance of the Nineteenth Amendment in securing the right to vote for “black and white women,” the caption connected to the portraits of Anthony and Cady Stanton draws attention to a woman’s suffrage movement led by white women that had competing aims with movements for racial equality and often worked in opposition to them. In failing not only to truly secure the vote for all women but also work against racial equality, the portraits of the white women in this room hang in tension, their place in the museum more of a question than a part of the narrative.
3. Tuscaloosa, AL, October 2018.
In October, I’m back to canvassing in different neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa, cul de sacs this time on the edge of town, places with no sidewalks and long driveways. Fueled by enthusiasm from the Doug Jones win and perhaps over-confidence that we can do it again, I’m working with the county party to get more Democrats elected and to break the Republican super-majority in the state legislature. But these are gerrymandered Republican districts, and we’re having much less success this time, as well as a precipitous drop in volunteer numbers.
We knock on a wooden door with decorative glass panes, and an older white woman answers. My frequent and dedicated canvassing partner, also an older white woman, has decided that she can appeal to Republicans on the angle of fiscal responsibility. I let her do the talking as she moves from a reference to the recently impeached Republican governor Robert Bentley to the accusations against former Senate candidate Roy Moore.
“Those accusations bothered me,” my canvassing partner says, “and I think it’s time for some women to run things.”
The woman at the door nods. My partner hands her a postcard for Miranda Joseph, a young African-American woman running for State Auditor. “Miranda Joseph is a professional, certified auditor who has real exciting ideas about how to make this state work better for Alabama taxpayers, and how to keep state property from growing legs and walking away. This is a non-policy position, and you really should consider voting for her.”
The woman nods without saying anything, thanks us, and wishes us a good day despite the hot weather. She keeps the postcard.
Three weeks later, on Election Day 2018, I’m poll watching all day at an elementary school in a split party precinct where we’re hoping to have some success for our candidates. I watch hundreds of people come into the polling place over the course of the day, quickly mark one circle on the front of their ballot and vote on the four amendments on the back, one of which enshrines “the sanctity of unborn life” into the Alabama State Constitution.
“Remember,” one person says to another as they hunch over a table meant for small children. “It’s straight Republican ticket, and yes on all four amendments.”
As they slide their ballots into the optical scan tallying machine, I feel our weeks of work and arguments for the policies of specific down-ballot candidates evaporating into the air. An older, white male poll worker asks me with an air of curiosity and disdain, “how does it feel to work here all day with the enemy?”
I laugh him off while readjusting the orange Poll Watcher badge on my shirt, all while repeating this stark fact over and over, more despairingly throughout the day: White women voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump.
This reminder crystalizes into a hard truth by the time the polls close: white women will support systems of gender inequality in order to maintain white political power. Miranda Joseph would go on to lose the State Auditor race to an older white man who not only had given a speech to the League of the South in 2015, an organization described as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but also had recently surrendered his law license to the State Bar’s Disciplinary Commission (Cason, 2018). Joseph lost by 20 points, roughly the same as the rest of the statewide Democratic Party slate. The abortion policy amendment passed, 59.01% to 40.99%.
4. Montgomery, AL, March 2019.
“In its history, Alabama has never had a free and fair election,” Stacie Propst announces to a crowded seminar room. I’m in Montgomery for the Organize Alabama conference that emphasizes training and strategies for get out the vote efforts. Organize Alabama is one of many progressive groups trying to fill the gaps left by the divided and ineffective state Democratic Party, and Stacie Propst is the Director of Emerge Alabama, the state arm of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office. In its first year in operation in 2018, Emerge Alabama trained 36 women to run for office or manage political campaigns throughout the state. One alumna was successful: Marshell Jackson Hatcher, Circuit Court Judge for the 10th Circuit in Birmingham.
Stacie Propst has an argument. Keri Leigh Merritt has written about the ways that many Southern states like Alabama established an “intricate system of voter suppression, intimidation, and outright election fraud” in the mid-nineteenth century to keep anyone but wealthy slaveholders from voting, a system that she argues still functions effectively today (Merritt).
Sitting in a classroom at Troy University’s downtown Montgomery campus, I am at the epicenter for the struggle for voting rights in America, steps from the state capital, just 50 miles from Selma and 70 miles from Shelby County, plaintiff in the Shelby County v. Holder (2013) Supreme Court case that gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
More recent voting rights restrictions allowed after the Shelby decision sound similar to the judicial and extrajudicial restrictions to African American voting described in detail at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma. In 2014, Governor Robert Bentley, as a result of that very Supreme Court decision, implemented a strict voter ID law in Alabama. In 2015, citing budget concerns, he closed a number of driver’s license offices, leaving almost a third of counties with no open locations, including 8 of 11 counties with a majority African-American population. The Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation forced the state to reopen some of them at the end of 2016, shortly before Bentley was removed from office, but damage was done, and this was yet another incidence in a long series of overt and covert political actions to deny African Americans the right to vote in Alabama.
In 2017, the state legislature passed HB282 that revised Alabama’s constitution to more narrowly define crimes of “moral turpitude,” allowing thousands of people formerly convicted of felonies in Alabama to restore their voting rights through an application process. Secretary of State John Merrill, however, deemed education about this new law unnecessary and a federal judge agreed. This decision has left the responsibility of communicating with individual voters about their new eligibility and assisting with the opaque application process to outside groups, led mostly by the ACLU, the SPLC, and the Equal Justice Initiative, among others.
These organizations have done extraordinary work, though they are just getting started. The Alabama Voting Rights Project, a division of the SPLC, estimates that over 200,000 people are now eligible for voting rights restoration (Sheets), but most of those newly eligible individuals have not yet had their voting rights restored. Applicants are also required to pay all outstanding fines and fees before they can register to vote, adding a poll tax to an already draconian process.
5. Tuscaloosa, AL, May 2019.
I write this just two weeks after the passage of HB314, which makes abortion a Class A felony in Alabama with no exceptions for rape or incest. While much media attention has been given to the twenty-five white, male Senators who passed the legislation through the upper chamber and sent it to the Governor’s desk, this bill was written and sponsored by Representative Terri Collins, a white woman, and signed by Governor Kay Ivy, another white woman, who cited her commitment to “the sanctity of life” while signing away the rights to bodily autonomy of roughly half of the state’s citizens. That day I thought again about the pictures of the suffragists in that museum in Selma and the calculation they made to secure their own voting rights while leaving others behind.
I wanted to share this more reflective narrative of my experiences participating in voter engagement in Alabama because I believe the best way to commemorate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment is to reflect on the continued existence of barriers to voter enfranchisement and to act to dismantle them. To truly consider the state of voting rights at the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, one must consider Alabama, where these rights are tenuous and seemingly always under attack, where white women will sell out other women to maintain their position adjacent to white male political power and to uphold systems of white supremacy, systems that white women, myself included, are complicit in. But the problems of Alabama, while they may sometimes appear to be extreme, are not unique to Alabama. They are America’s problems too.
Commemorating the passage of the nineteenth amendment means acknowledging and rectifying the truths of the Voting Rights Museum in Selma: securing the right to vote for women was only securing the right to vote for some women. For Black, indigenous, and Latinx women- identifying people, those rights would only come after additional activism and struggle. We need to include those movements in our conversations about the Nineteenth Amendment as well, as the failures of the women’s suffrage movement made them necessary. In other words, we can’t celebrate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment without Selma, and Selma should be part of our discussion about the Nineteenth Amendment.
The Voting Rights Museum in Selma reminds us that honoring the memory of those who fought for voting rights means continuing that work, which never went away but has become more urgent after the Shelby County v. Holder (2013) decision. There have been several new groups and initiatives created in the South to combat continued and renewed problems of voter disenfranchisement. Stacey Abrams’ organization Fair Fight aims to combat voter suppression in its many current forms. Black Voters Matter, founded by activist LaTosha Brown, works on voter engagement and fights voter suppression across the country, though much of its work is concentrated in the South. Former Obama staffer DeJuana Thompson also created Woke Vote in Birmingham, AL before the Senate special election in 2017, which encourages younger African-American voters to participate in politics. These organizations, all founded by Black women, are carrying on the legacy of the activists in Selma, working to expand access to the ballot and to combat voter disenfranchisement everywhere. I believe white women especially have a responsibility to join in these efforts, work for woman-identifying candidates of color, and fight against voter disenfranchisement. As the Voting Rights Museum in Selma reminds its visitors, the white suffragists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often pursued access to the ballot at the expense of other groups, and the victories of the Nineteenth Amendment left many people of all genders behind. White women in particular have some things to make up for.
There is another way to see the room emphasizing women’s contributions to voting rights at the Voting Rights Museum. Facing the wall of pre-Reconstruction era activists I mentioned earlier in this essay (including Cady Stanton, Anthony, Tubman, and Ray) is another wall, a collection of more contemporary activists and politicians, displayed with little commentary. Most of the portraits are of African-American women, but not entirely. Ella Baker’s photo hangs near Septima Poinsette Clark, Cynthia McKinney, Joan Baez, and Hillary Clinton. The text of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” is displayed in the middle, inviting interpretation from the museum’s visitors. Does the presence of this text imply a commonality among the figures on the wall? Is it instead reminding us that African-American women like Sojourner Truth had to fight for their own inclusion in the women’s suffrage movement? How might we build coalitions instead?
Today I can only state this as a question, but I wonder if we might, 100 years after the Nineteenth Amendment, stand in greater solidarity across race and gender binaries as well, to work for true ballot access. This work isn’t something white women should pursue for women of color; we need to work alongside and to support women of color who are already fighting for voting rights for all.
So in 2020, at the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, I pose a challenge and a call to action. Voting rights are under attack all over the United States. Identify barriers to voting rights and political participation in your own state and your community and work to change them. Work to move past the fraught history of early women’s rights leaders to build intersectional coalitions for change. The best way to honor the work of the activists that came before is to follow in their footsteps. And we have work to do.
- Cason, Mike. “Documents Shed Little Light on Jim Zeigler’s Law License Surrender.” Al.com. Accessed 14 June 2019.
- Lewis, John, and Andrew Aydin. March: Book Three. Top Shelf Productions, 2016.
- Merritt, Keri Leigh. “The Myth of a Southern Democracy.” The Bitter Southerner, Nov. 2018.
- National Park Service. We Shall Overcome—The Cost. Accessed 14 June 2019.
- National Voting Rights Museum. Museum Brochure. The National Voting Rights Museum. Selma, AL.
- Sheets, Connor. “New Initiative Aims to Help Alabama Felons Restore Their Right to Vote.” Al.com, 18 Oct. 2018.
- “Voting Rights Milestones.” The National Voting Rights Museum. Selma, AL.