Stacey Abrams’s Fight against Voter Suppression Dates Back to the RevolutionRoundup
tags: slavery, African American history, voting rights, womens history, Stacey Abrams, Revolutionary War era
Karen Cook Bell is associate professor of history at Bowie State University and author of Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
The recent effort by the Georgia legislature to suppress African American votes through the newly enacted Election Integrity Act reflects a longer history of exclusion and marginalization. As voting rights activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams points out, the act revives “Georgia’s dark past of racist voting laws.” Abrams is continuing a long tradition of Black women fighting against institutional practices that keep African Americans from exercising their voting rights. Many have celebrated Abrams’s accomplishments, pointing out that her effective marshaling of community resources led to Georgia electing two Democratic U.S. senators and a Democrat winning its electoral votes for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Abrams’s efforts embody how Black women have been at the forefront of movements to address inequity, social oppression and freedom for the Black community for centuries. In fact, African American women waged their political battles against slavery using similar forms of grass-roots activism. Black women employed escapes from slavery, petitions to courts for freedom, written testimonies of racial violence and organized protests as strategies to ensure freedom, equality and justice for themselves and their communities. These informal and formal political strategies were important forms of Black women’s political activism.
The roots of Black women’s activism can be traced back to the Revolutionary Era, when thousands of Black women protested with their feet and ran away from their enslavers. The flight of enslaved women was one of institutional invisibility — there was no formal organization, no leaders, no manifestoes and no name. And yet, their escapes constituted a revolutionary social movement in which fugitive women made their political presence felt, ultimately shaping the radical Black politics following the war.
During the American Revolution, one-third of fugitives were enslaved women. Lack of oversight and the presence of British troops provided an opportunity for them to escape and lay claim to the same philosophical arguments for liberty that White revolutionaries made in their own fierce struggle against oppression. Thousands of women of diverse circumstances, many of them mothers and wives, did just that. The stories of Margaret, Jenny and Bett, all enslaved people, reveal both the precariousness of these lived experiences and their resolve for freedom.
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