Senator Kamala Harris’s historic election as the first Black woman to serve as vice president is proof that Black people and particularly Black women can exercise their power to move a nation to open doors to everyone. It is a testament to hard-fought and hard-won gains of Black women pioneers who came before her, like Fannie Lou Hamer—who fought for her seat at the 1964 Democratic Convention.
This historic election should be celebrated because it demonstrates the growing power of a group of women Malcolm X once called the most disrespected persons on earth. Black women’s power at the ballot box rescued and energized Joe Biden’s campaign for the Democratic nomination and was the critical edge in swing states to elect Biden and Senator Harris to the highest offices in the land.
Every time Vice President Harris appears and speaks, young girls from every background will be reminded that they can not only dream but be “PIONEERS” for women’s aspirations. As Fannie Lou Hamer boldly announced, Black women are not simply asking for seats at the table, but they are making their own seats.
Currently, 127 women are seated in Congress, with 95 Democrats and 32 Republicans. In this year of 2020, a record number of women and women of color ran for office. The foundation for these groundbreaking numbers was laid in 1964, where one woman’s fight for voting rights in Mississippi opened up the Democratic Party for Black people and women of all colors.
In August 1964 the bodies of missing civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were discovered in a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. This was the climate in which Hamer, a sharecropper’s daughter in segregated Mississippi, would co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).
Hamer’s televised testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention highlighted the undemocratic, racist and inhumane treatment of Blacks in Mississippi.
“All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?” Hamer asked.
Hamer’s speech was so powerful that over the objections of President Lyndon B Johnson and Senator Hubert Humphrey, the MFDP was finally seated and the Democratic Party adopted a clause demanding equality of representation from their states’ delegations.
In 1972, Hamer was elected as a national party delegate. She would say, “We didn’t come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here. We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired.” Afterward, all of the white members from the Mississippi delegation walked out.
Hamer’s courageous act transformed the Democratic Party forever. Being “tired of being sick and tired,” Hamer said, “I’m showing people that a Negro can run for office.” Since 1964 her fight to open up the Democratic Party has resulted in electing 53 of 54 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
One of those CBC members was born in 1964 and named Kamala Harris. Years before she would run for a seat in the White House, and eventually become vice president-elect, Harris sat on a public school bus in Berkeley, California. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me,” she later said.
Fifty-six years later the vision of a “Negro running for office” has become the reality as a Black woman has now been elected vice president of the United States. To be sure, Senator Harris’s historic ascension to the highest level of government is the product of her hard work and talent, but also a manifestation of an “idea whose time has come.”
Just as the backdrop of 1964 for Hamer’s fight for inclusion was hunger, poverty, voter suppression, intimidation, and death by the hands of police, so also Harris will face many of the same issues. The names Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney are now Taylor, Arberry, and Floyd. The Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010 gutted the Voting Rights Act. The Coronavirus pandemic is resulting in more hunger and poverty among communities of color, further revealing the persistence of inequality and systemic racism.
Progress is at times heartbreakingly slow, but because of pioneers like Fannie Lou Hamer and Senator Harris, Black girls born today will know that they can demand a seat not just at the table, but at the White House.
—Revered Reuben Eckels is Domestic Policy Advocate at Church World Service.