Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 4

68 Seats and More: Black Women and the Myth of American Democracy

Yashua Klos, Rise

Image Credit: Yashua Klos, Rise, (2015). Paper construction of woodblock prints and graphite on archival paper mounted onto unstretched canvas, 90″ x 70″. Courtesy of the artist.

Backs might have been breaking in Louisville, in Portland, and in Kenosha, when the ghosts of Black radicalism were called upon once again to bridge the chasm between the liberal democratic tradition of representative democracy and the radical demand for abolition democracy.1 By late summer 2020, that demand had municipal governments defunding their police squads and local shopkeepers, suburban moms, and public relations experts for corporations and universities scrambling to put their commitment to antiracism on conspicuous display. In a virtual speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris began by paying homage to the Black insurgents on whose shoulders she claimed to stand. Among her honor roll of predecessors were: Black woman suffragists who “rallied and marched for a seat at the table”: anti-lynching organizer Mary Church Terrell; New York State Senator and federal judge Constance Baker Motley; educator and NAACP president Mary McLeod Bethune, who served in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration and helped to pull Black voters from the Republican to the Democratic Party; Sunflower County organizer Fannie Lou Hamer, who faced merciless beatings to register others to vote in Ruleville, Mississippi and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; Nashville student organizer and SNCC co-founder Diane Nash; and New York congressional representative Shirley Chisholm, who helped secure provisions for women with infant children (WIC) before embarking on a Black feminist contest for the presidency in 1972. Harris’s list of predecessors with shoulders stout enough to uphold the “trailblazers” Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as herself, echoed DNC Chair Tom Perez’s infamous 2017 tweet proclaiming Black women the “backbone” of the Democratic Party. This utterance, while roundly criticized for invoking the mammy-like trope of the Black woman tirelessly caring for a democracy now on life support, was reproduced in celebrations of Senator Harris’s nomination on the evening news and on the morning talk shows. In a nightmarish replay of the nadirs that followed the 1960s surge in radical democracy, when Black politicians in high places traded the demands of revolution for individual distinction and the promise of reform, the Democratic Party leadership dragged Black women by their backbones, or perhaps, their very strong shoulders, into a scene of inevitable compromise.

The backbone thesis, a name we use for the argument—sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes performed by beautiful, well-manicured, beige spokespersons for the state—that Black women are foundational to American democracy, and that it is our vocation to support the myth that equality, liberty, and justice can be secured through incremental, procedural reforms rather than militant confrontation, is a dangerous presumption of contemporary liberal politics. It undermines the ways that the Black feminist radical democratic tradition has consistently refused the compromise that trades abolitionist demands for symbolic representation.2 It is not Black women’s mission to bolster American democracy; it is our work to identify its grammars of subjection, especially when these appear in the guise of inclusion, and to subvert its founding myth of progress through “seats at the table.” Black women are not the backbone of American democracy, but are rather its chronic pain: We are its reminders that democracy, even as best imagined, rests on the backs of those whose pain sustains a society not only in the throes of ecological disaster, pandemic, militia and vigilante violence, and authoritarian rule, but also through its moments of inexorable breakdown and dystopian crisis.

Senator Harris’s claim to be the inheritor of Black feminist electoral activism was received as a welcome gesture in contemporary political discourse in part because it was in line with the U.S. government’s post-World War II embrace of antiracism to signify its beneficence as a global democratic superpower. But the official antiracism that motivated, for example, State Department–sponsored foreign tours for Black artists, was not just public relations for a putatively multicultural democracy. It was also a strategy to legitimize the authority of a state that was contracting public services while steadily feeding the military and carceral industries after the seemingly irreparable rupture of the 1960s, during which the worldwide rebellion against racial capitalism threatened to engulf the government’s official program of gradual and limited desegregation. Members of the liberal-conservative intellectual elite were key strategists for the state’s recovery of authority or “governability.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is now infamous for demonizing the Black women who were leading the world in true democratic transformation, and Samuel Huntington, whose “clash of civilizations” thesis ultimately justified George W. Bush’s declaring the “war on terror,” were among the experts who co-authored the 1968 report, The Crisis of Democracy. They posited that the “excess of democracy” unleashed by the antiracist, anticolonial, and antiwar movements had dampened the American public’s approval of defense spending and had led to demands for increased spending on public services. They blamed the failure of the U.S. war on Vietnam on the overwhelming popular opposition at home, which limited the ability of the state to act aggressively. They urged a “moderation” of democracy, a contraction of “the democratic principle.”3 Inclusion was the antidote to a crisis of democracy they saw as enacted not by armed militias at the polls or by police trampling, raping, and beating protestors, but by those who risked their lives to “make democracy a reality,” in Fannie Lou Hamer’s words.4 The wager Huntington and his colleagues made was that the promise of social visibility and cultural recognition could force radicals to stop fomenting rebellion in the streets and instead sit their backbones down at the table. While some accepted that bargain, Black feminist radicals refused, continuing through their insurgent acts and defiant speeches to slow the self-assured forward motion of a “democracy” built on the violent denial of the power of the people.

When Kamala Harris invoked the name of Fannie Lou Hamer, we were quickly reminded of the civil rights leader’s powerful speech in front of the Credentials Committee fifty-six years ago, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. On behalf of the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer detailed how white police officers violently arrested and beat her when she attempted to register Blacks to vote. “I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush,” she said. Hamer attempted to move her body away from the blows of another white man who, seeing that her dress was “worked up high,” walked over and hiked the hem up further. “I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up,” she lamented.5 Hamer wanted the committee and the world watching the televised proceedings to know that Black women organizing to claim their citizenship rights were subject not only to merciless beatings but also to repeated sexual violence at the hands of the state.6

MFDP was formed in response to the legal and extralegal violence that disfranchised Blacks in Mississippi and throughout the South. Registering Black voters and building a moderate Democratic Party base of support throughout Mississippi, MFDP workers risked their lives to build democracy in the South. They challenged the official Mississippi Democratic Party’s assertion that it had the sole right to represent the state at the national convention. Arguing that the all-white delegation refused to support President Lyndon Johnson’s domestic policies, backed the Republican presidential candidate, and denied Black citizens their right to participate in the electoral process, they asked that all sixty-eight Freedom Party delegates be seated at the convention in the white delegates’ stead.7 The demand that the Democratic Party be governed by both democratic principles and the law was met with opposition as the national Democratic leadership made back-door deals and twisted arms to force the MFDP to accept President Johnson’s compromise of just two seats for people he would designate and for few opportunities to speak from the podium.8 Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey repeatedly warned the MFDP that he had long been a supporter of the civil rights movement and could become Johnson’s vice president if the MFDP supported the Johnson compromise. California delegate Verna Canson was told that her husband could lose a potential federal judgeship if she continued to support a minority report that favored the MFP. Martin Luther King was even reminded that the United Auto Workers labor union would not continue its financial support of his organizations if MFDP rejected the compromise.9

For Black women leaders like Hamer and Ella Baker, the goal was always democracy for all, not token recognition for a few. During one heated strategy meeting, Baker stated: “I don’t care about people getting $20,000 a year judgeship. . . . And [I] don’t care about some professor losing his job. I don’t care about traitors like Humphrey deserting their liberal trend.”10 After days of negotiations, the MFDP refused to accept the compromise. Hamer refused because, she later said, “that’s all we been doing, you know, compromising our lives in Mississippi.”11 The biggest concession had already been made by Black women and girls like her, who would never bear children because of forced hysterectomies, and by Black boys like Emmett Till, who were brutally lynched by white Mississippians. Hamer understood that the price of admission into American democracy was continually being paid by Black bodies. The “moral victory” of occupying two seats would only turn MFDP into a symbol for the Democratic Party’s myth of inclusiveness. Hamer wanted no part of any ruse that trivialized Black lives and tokenized their legitimate calls for full citizenship. Had the Democratic Party heeded the MFDP delegation’s demand for sixty-eight seats, it would not have guaranteed the delegates a seat at the proverbial table of American politics. It would have upended its incrementalism and upset the myth of American democracy. The table would have faltered under the weight of radical democracy.

As we attempted to square the claims of Black women serving as the backbone of the Democratic Party with the history of radical Black feminist organizing, calls for full citizenship and for Black lives to matter, and indeed, calls for the abolition of prisons and policing, could be heard from the streets of New York to the sidewalks Los Angeles. Black women organizers, such as #BlackLivesMatter founders Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, are leaders calling for radical democracy writ large. It should come as no surprise that the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements formed under a Democratic president after the police killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland. State violence was weighing heavily on Black women’s lives despite the fallacy of democracy’s arrival through Barack Obama’s ascension and the installment of a Black family in the White House. Becoming what is arguably the largest social movement in American history, BLM was organized by the call to tend to Black death instead of the tendency to celebrate Black achievement. During the democratic presidency that preceded the “return” of unbridled white supremacy personified by Donald Trump, Black queer feminists, strategizing with organizations like Black Visions Collective, the African American Policy Forum, BYP 100, and the Dream Defenders consistently called attention to the collective Black death and the rage it deserved instead of Black achievement and the celebration it elicited.12 Rejecting postracialism and respectability politics, they provided the linguistic and gestural vocabulary that fueled the very rebellion that likely forced the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee to choose a Black woman running mate. Meanwhile, the summer 2020 rebellions in cities across the world used this vocabulary to expose the failures of the white-supremacist Trump presidency in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately called on Black people’s bodies to work and die while white lives were spared.

If Harris called upon the Black feminist spirits whose past organizing for radical democracy have so easily been forgotten in choruses of celebration for Black women’s offering their backbones to the cause of the Democratic Party and American democracy itself, the legacy of refusal inherent in that organizing tradition—the legacy of refusing seats at tables of compromise–was also revived this summer. The sixty-eight seats and more that the MFDP demanded are indeed filled with organizers and dreamers abolishing prisons and policing, shutting down roadways, writing missives, and, to be sure, mailing in ballots, with all of us still too tired to settle for a seat or two at the table.

1 Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy : Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005).
2 For examples of this radical tradition, see Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970); and Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement : A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
3 Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Jōji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York: University Press, 1975), 114.
4 Fannie Lou Hamer, ‘“What Have We to Hail?”, Speech Delivered in Kentucky, Summer 1968’, in Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is, ed. by Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck, 2010, pp. 87–94 (p. 201).
5 Fannie Lou Hamer, ‘Testimony before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 22, 1964’, in Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is, ed. by Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck, 2010, pp. 63–65 (p. 44).
6 For a history of the civil rights movement as a struggle against sexual violence, see Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance (New York: Knopf, 2010).
7 See Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Women in American History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).
8 Lee, For Freedom’s Sake, 94.
9 Ibid., 96, 98.
10 Ibid., 93.
11 Quoted in Fannie Lou Hamer, ‘“We Haven’t Arrived Yet,” Presentation and Responses to Questions at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, January 29, 1976’, in Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is, ed. by Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck, 2010, pp. 176–85 (p. 183).
12 See Barbara Ransby, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century (Univ of California Press, 2018).

Works Cited
Brooks, Maegan Parker and Davis W. Houck, ed. Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Chisholm, Shirley, Unbought and Unbossed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
Davis, Angela Y. Abolition Democracy : Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.
Hamer, Fannie Lou, “Testimony before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 22, 1964,” Brooks and Houck, pp. 63–65.
———, ‘“We Haven’t Arrived Yet,” Presentation and Responses to Questions at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, January 29, 1976’, Brooks and Houck, pp. 176–85.
———,‘“What Have We to Hail?’ Speech Delivered in Kentucky, Summer 1968,” Brooks and Houck, pp. 87–94.
Lee, Chana Kai, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1999.
McGuire, Danielle L., At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance. New York: Knopf, 2010.
Payne, Charles, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1995.
Ransby, Barbara, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement : A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2003).
———, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century. Oakland: Univ. of California Press, 2018.

Author: Sherie M. Randolph
Sherie M. Randolph is an associate professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the co-director of the Black Feminist Think Tank. Randolph’s book Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical examines the connections between the Black Power, civil rights, new left and feminist movements. The former Associate Director of the Women’s Research & Resource Center at Spelman College has received several grants and fellowships for her work, most recently being awarded fellowships from Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Center and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Currently, she is researching and writing her second book, “Free Them All”: African American Women Political Exiles in Cuba. Randolph teaches courses on social movements, black feminist theory, gender, race and incarceration, Black Power, African American history, and women’s history.

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