Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, Ph.D.

(WOMENSENEWS)–In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned a Crusade for Citizenship to enforce voting rights for blacks. As a part of the Crusade, Dr. King led a Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., with the intent, he wrote in his autobiography, “to arouse the conscience of the nation in favor of racial justice. Our most urgent request to … every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.

“Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. … Give us the ballot and we will place judges on the benches … who will do justly and love mercy. … (Give us the ballot) and we will place at the head of the Southern states governors who … have felt not only the tang of the human but the glow of the Divine.”

Dr. King’s Pilgrimage and the Crusade for Citizenship ultimately resulted in the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, which granted that precious franchise to African-American men and women. The Pilgrimage and the Crusade were joined, fueled and coordinated by bright, young leaders from across the country, like Antioch College student organizer Eleanor Holmes Norton, now the District of Columbia’s voteless delegate to the still entrenched and conservative U.S. House of Representatives.

Today, almost a half century later, African Americans across the country again organize to march, converge and protest throughout the month of January, in Tallahassee, Fla., Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, because during the November 2000 presidential election, the votes of Florida’s African Americans were hijacked, blacks’ voting rights were obstructed, and the precious franchise was denied to thousands of voters–over 80 percent of whom are confirmed, by sworn affidavits, to be African-American. And Congress continues to deny voting representation to the District of Columbia, where over 75 percent of the half-million population is African-American. Apparently, the marching, crusading and pilgrimages for voting rights have to continue until America gets it right.

For African Americans, Voting Is More Than Perfunctory Civics

The exercise of the vote is more to African-American voters, over two-thirds of whom are women, than a perfunctory act of civic participation. In the November 2000 election, the first national election in the 21st Century, the black women’s vote was an indispensable investment in social, political and economic outcomes, which are core determinants of political and economic access, progress and family stability for the black community.

In polls, survey research and focus groups, all targeted to African-American women, respondents emphasized their concerns that economic and civil rights gains are being threatened by intense attacks against affirmative action policies. Programs and resources that support family stability, educational competitiveness and entrepreneurial opportunities were identified as high priorities for black women. Yet these benefits were viewed as vitally dependent upon the outcomes of national as well as local elections, where black voters cast their votes, but where their votes too often went uncounted.

Available, affordable, quality health care is increasingly illusive, especially for single parents and the elderly, groups in which black women predominate, because a Health Care Bill of Rights may not be on the national agenda, hiding instead in the deep pockets of the “vested” health care industry and foreclosed by an insensitive, conservative congressional majority.

Credible research supports a summary of African-American women’s priorities. A recent survey of 450 “Black Women in the Middle,” which consultant and entrepreneur Dr. Jeffalyn Johnson and I have concluded; national polls, regularly conducted during the past 30 years by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research institution specializing in African-American policy priorities; and a series of focus groups, which the Black Leadership Forum and the National Political Congress of Black Women have conducted during the last four years, all have provided rich evidence of issues challenging black women, many of whom are the primary power centers of their families.

Black Women Want: Family Health, Safety, Security, Children’s Education

Their concerns are: health of the family, a top priority for 64.5 percent of surveyed black women; reducing crime and violence within and against black communities, including effective gun control, and family safety and security, cited by 72.4 percent, 40 percent and 49 percent of the survey respondents, respectively, and by all focus group participants; education of the children, including post-high school and college opportunities, identified by 56.6 percent of such women; and “meeting day-to-day expenses,” cited by one-third of all respondents.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee majority’s racial animus perpetuated the shame of a historically segregated Fourth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, until President Bill Clinton seized the initiative by giving an interim appointment to the bench to Roger Gregory, a distinguished African-American attorney from Richmond, Va. Never had an African-American jurist gained Senate confirmation for appointment to the Fourth Circuit, although 35 percent of all Deep South blacks live in that Circuit, and 22 percent of the population of that Circuit is African-American.

Yet, incoming President George W. Bush offers as his choice for Attorney General Missouri’s defeated Senator and former Senate Judiciary Committee member John Ashcroft, demonstrably opposed to black federal jurists. Ashcroft led the fight to defeat black Missouri State Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White’s nomination to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

And he has shown himself to be an anti-affirmative action, anti-women’s rights, anti-minority rights and anti-birth control ideologue. To many African Americans, the disaster of an appointee like John Ashcroft results from the denial, to Florida’s African American voters, of Dr. King’s hard-won right to vote, and to have our votes count.

Black women have deep concerns that the John Ashcroft mentality foreordains mandatory sentencing, which disproportionately penalizes African Americans, especially black women, whose incarceration rate since 1980 has increased at nearly double the rate for men. Illegal drug possession, arguably the refuge of mentally ill, oppressed and abused low-income women, accounts for half of this increase. Mandatory sentencing for drug abuse offers no flexibility to women who are first-time offenders or single parents, and who largely are black and Hispanic.

Hijacked African-American Vote in Florida Led to Ashcroft, Other Nominees

A hijacked African-American vote in Florida ushers in such top federal nominees as New Jersey’s Christie Todd Whitman, whose tenure as governor encouraged state and local driving-while-black (DWB) law enforcement excesses. Black women’s sons, husbands, brothers, other male relatives and, in fact, black women themselves are victims of this racially driven abuse. Families are disrupted and often destroyed by the trauma of driving-while-black-related police brutality and its concomitant jail or hospital internments.

Black women have been left behind white men and women, as well as behind black men, in many indicators of American success, including economic and wage parity. While women in general earn 72 percent of men’s salaries, even after adjusting for work experience, education and merit, black women earn only 60 percent. According to recent analyses by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, “white females and black males must work about 8 months to earn a salary equal to what white males earn in 6 months, (and) black females must work 10 months to earn a comparable salary.”

Black women voted to end these income disparities, but now, given the views of Labor Department nominee Elaine L. Chao, and before her, ex-nominee Linda Chavez, black women face the elimination of federal protections to wipe out these inequities.

Black women are a potent, undervalued, pivotal power, historically capable of leveraging in their own interest their issues and priorities. African-American women were the voters who provided the margin of victory for President Clinton in both the 1992 and the 1996 presidential elections.

Much of the mainstream media perpetuate the myth that a generic “women’s vote,” apparently meaning all voting women, made the difference in both of these elections. A New York Times article in March 2000, headlined “Presidential Race Could Turn on Bush’s Appeal to Women,” emphasized presidential candidate Bush’s “strong showing among women compared with recent Republican nominees.” But these generalities masked a significantly different story and actually ignored the black women’s vote.

African-American Votes, With Big Women’s Majority, Decided 11 States

Here is compelling evidence that African-American voters–with their large majority of women–were the primary determinant of victories in 11 states where a potential Bush victory over Gore was reversed by the margin of the black vote. Perhaps this awareness has driven the disenfranchisement of voters in Florida.

Given the ideological and personal distinctions between candidates and their party platforms with regard to African-American core issues in the 2000 campaign, black women’s presidential stealth power might have struck again–if the votes of many of Florida’s black women who turned out to vote had been counted. Black women’s priorities are life altering, and survival-driven, because life, for most black women, “ain’t been no crystal stair,” as Langston Hughes poignantly has written.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not write or speak often, analytically or euphemistically, of black women’s political clout during his era, or for that matter, in the civil rights movement. In fact, critical analysis of this aspect of internal black political dynamics increases. Yet, this tension has not prevented African-American women from extracting and applying to their own ethic the tenets of equality and voting rights advocacy that he advanced. Black women believe that when Dr. King demanded, “Give us the ballot,” he included all African Americans.

But in many places on Nov. 7, 2000, we either had the ballot with an obstructed right to vote, or the right to vote without a counted ballot. Neither is acceptable.

Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, Ph.D., is the executive director and chief operating officer of the Black Leadership Forum Inc., a 23-year-old confederation of the nation’s most prominent and prestigious civil rights and service organizations. She is a political scientist, urban planner and public administrator by training.

Other Women’s eNews commentaries by Scruggs-Leftwich:

Nov 15, 2000 Significance of Black Women’s Vote Ignored
Sep 27, 2000 Black, Latina Women Locked in Jailhouse, Poorhouse
Aug 24, 2000 Candidates: Don’t Underestimate Black Women