African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965

By Ann D. Gordon; Bettye Collier-Thomas | Go to book overview

women played and more accurately reflect the realities of the movement years in our work. Further, when we see the alacrity with which southern black women seized the historical opportunity to launch a full-scale attack on racial oppression as well as the level of sacrifice and suffering they endured to carry this attack through, we can be sure it wasn't some ordinary political tool, political office, or even full citizenship they sought. We must know they were acting out of the most fundamental human yearnings for justice and freedom. If we listen to them, that will be dear.

When southern black women like Georgia Mae Turner spoke of registering, in the next breath they spoke of freedom. When they stood on voter registration lines, they didn't sing about the vote. Instead, they reached back over a hundred years into their own history and chose a song that expressed their level of commitment and their ultimate goal. They sang, "O Freedom, O Freedom, O Freedom over me / and before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave / and go home to my Lord and be free." 42


Notes
1
It is difficult to define by area—rural, urban, Deep South, upper South—which southern black women (and men) were without the franchise in the 1960s. Although there might be a few individual exceptions, African American residents of Deep Southern, rural Black Belt counties could not vote. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) directed most of its voter registration activity toward such counties. Yet Black Belt conditions might exist outside these states, such as in Haywood and Fayette counties in Tennessee, examples used in this essay. Voting restrictions and racial discrimination tended to be lighter in the upper southern states; still, SNCC workers found areas— certain counties in rural Maryland, e.g.—where black people did not exercise the franchise. In urban areas voting participation might be related to class. SNCC worker Julian Bond has pointed out in conversations with me that middle-class black people in areas such as Atlanta and Birmingham exercised the franchise, but poorer black residents of these cities tended not to vote. Bond, who lived in Atlanta and worked on voter registration there, explained that simply filling out the voter registration form was a literacy test in itself because the person registering was expected to write his or her name and address as well as sign the form. He felt this requirement discouraged a number of less affluent, black urban residents, along with their habit of avoiding white officials and officialdom of any kind.
2
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries ( New York: Macmillan, 1972), 116, 124-25. According to Mrs. Turner, her landowner gave her until January to move but would not give her any food money as was customary during the winter. According to her testimony, she was forced to move in the snow, and Forman notes that she moved into the tent city two days before Christmas of 1960. Shortly after Mrs. Turner moved

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