Today, black women are among the country’s most politically active citizens. According to Higher Heights for America, in 2012, 70 percent of eligible black female voters went to the polls, providing the highest rate of voter turnout for any group. This statistic highlights black women’s ability to be defining factors in election outcomes. Regrettably, despite this growing power, black women’s electoral might is not translating into legislation and policies that address their concerns.
Fierceness of the black woman’s political power was exemplified in Fannie Lou Hamer, a poor black woman with a sixth-grade education who spent much of her life working in the cotton fields. Her legacy demonstrates that each of us has an important voice and role to play in our democracy, and as we launch our inaugural initiative, The Donice M Harbor Public Service Leadership Academy (DHLA), named after our beautiful and passionate chapter Soror, Donice M. Harbor who fought valiantly for political inclusion, let us remember the real power black women have in blazing the path toward true political equity and leadership.
The DHLA’s goal is to harness our turnout power into seats at the table. Soror and Activist Hamer showed up at the 1964 Democratic National Convention as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, intent on securing voting rights for black people. Her formidable presence and insistence that she, too, deserved a seat at the decision-makers’ table rattled the likes of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Hubert Humphrey and threatened their bid to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidential ticket.
Black women continue to experience significant inequities in public education, health outcomes and economic opportunities that hurt not only them, but also their families and communities. Research shows that employers paid black women just 64 cents for every dollar they paid white men. Black women lost more jobs than their male counterparts during the recent recession, and they are significantly more likely than white women to go without health insurance. Lack of health insurance is a primary barrier to receiving lifesaving health care. These facts alone demonstrate the ongoing need of DHLA. Even if you are not interested in running for public office, we encourage you to apply!
Although the data is sobering, the Knightdale-Wake Forest Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. is a change agent using the DHLA to train black women in progressive politics and leadership. Across the country, we see examples of black women running for office, winning and taking on the hard issues. One such example is California Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose policies have helped reduce jail sentences and the recidivism rate of black males. We observe it in the work of Rep. Yvette Clarke, who has sponsored bills aimed at broadening access to family planning services and affordable housing in the state of New York. And, we look to newly elected Congresswoman Alma Adams to continue her voice, presence and progressive policymaking. Further, we see it in many other black women on the local and state level.
Yet, there is more work to be done. Currently, not a single black woman is among the 100 members in the U.S. Senate. Will you be the first, or will you campaign to elect the first? Currently, just 16 of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are black women. (By the time of this publication, Congresswoman Alma Adams would have been sworn in as the 17th.) Only one of the nation’s 100 largest cities currently has a black female mayor, and no black woman has ever been elected to a U.S. governor’s office.
Furthering black women’s efforts to gain political power is hardly a unilateral win. Initiatives like the DMLA create an atmosphere as well as resources that support and encourage black women. Historically, when women such as Hamer (who ran for a U.S. House seat in 1964 and a Mississippi State Senate seat in 1971), Rep. Shirley Chisholm (who made a historic bid for the White House in 1972) and Sojourner Truth (a vocal abolitionist and women’s suffrage movement supporter) have put their might behind issues like the anti-war movement, employment equality and voting rights, other groups have also realized economic, social and political gains. Their success in the face of resistance shows why it is crucial that we close the political leadership gap.
We must continue in their legacies. Your presence in The Donice M. Harbor Public Service Leadership Academy will ensure that black women’s voices are elevated in the political process.