Southern Black women make history in the 2020 election

Among the Black women hoping to make history in congressional elections across the South this year are, from left, Joyce Elliott of Arkansas, Candace Valenzuela of Texas, and Melissa Watson of South Carolina. (Photos courtesy of the candidates' respective campaign websites.)

This year marks a century since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but it is important to remember that even after its passage racial discrimination and white supremacist violence denied Black women — and especially Black women in the South — equal access to the ballot box. Black women including Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and the founding members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. were among the first U.S. suffragists, but it was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Black women were protected from racial discrimination at the ballot box and able to utilize their right to vote.

Still, from the beginning of the nation's history, Black women have resisted efforts to exclude them from politics and worked to make the United States a better, more just nation. They have organized, marched, and protested. When they were denied a seat at the table, they brought folding chairs

The country's most reliable voting bloc, Black women have shaped elections. Still, they are vastly underrepresented in the halls of power. To date, there has never been a Black woman governor. Four Southern states — Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee — have never sent a Black woman to Congress, which currently has only 22 Black women members, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). There have been only two Black women in the U.S. Senate.

But that may soon change.

Now one of those two women senators of African heritage — Democrat Kamala Harris of California, whose mother was from India and father from Jamaica — is making history as the first woman of color chosen as a major party's vice presidential nominee. In addition, more Black women are running for Congress this year than ever before, according to an analysis by CAWP, with at least 130 Black or multiracial Black women filing to run for a congressional seat with a major party, up from just 48 in 2012. Of those, 98 filed to run as Democrats and 32 as Republicans. And they're increasingly running in different kinds of districts, moving beyond those that are majority-Black to compete in mostly white or racially mixed districts.

Two years ago, Democrats Jahana Hayes in Connecticut, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts made history when they became the first Black women elected to represent their states in the halls of Congress. In 2020, Black women across the South are aiming to win similarly historic victories. Here are some of the key congressional races in the South in which Black women are blazing trails:

  • Joyce Elliott: A Democrat, Elliott would be the first Black woman to represent Arkansas in Congress if she wins her bid to represent the state's 2nd Congressional District, which includes Little Rock and its suburbs. She previously made history when she became the second Black person to graduate from her high school, preceded only by her sister. A state senator and educator for over 30 years, Elliott has championed reproductive rights, environmental justice, and immigrant rights. She faces incumbent Republican Rep. French Hill and Independent J. Glenn Smith in November in a race the Cook Political Report rates as likely Republican.

  • Christine Olivo: In running as an independent in Florida's 24th Congressional District, which includes Miami, Olivo is challenging a Black woman incumbent, Democrat Frederica Wilson, from the left. However, she says she does not want to replace Wilson but "take her legacy and make it better." An activist and organizer, Olivo watched her uncle die because he lacked health care and wants to fight for single payer health insurance. The Republican candidate in the race, Lavern Spicer, is also a Black woman.

  • Patricia Timmons-Goodson: Running as a Democrat in North Carolina's 8th Congressional District against incumbent Republican Rep. Richard Hudson, Timmons-Goodson has long been a trailblazer. She was the first Black justice to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court, appointed by former Gov. Mike Easley in 2006, and is the former vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 2016, President Obama nominated Timmons-Goodson for a federal judgeship in the Eastern District of North Carolina, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is up for re-election this year, and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina blocked her nomination. Cook rates the race as leaning Republican.

  • Candace Valenzuela: Running as a Democrat in Texas's 24th Congressional District, which covers much of the suburbs between Dallas and Fort Worth, Valenzuela would be the first Afro-Latina in Congress if elected. The educator and member of her local school board is seeking the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant, running in a crowded field of five candidates including a Republican, a Libertarian, and two independents. She believes that the recent Black Lives Matter protests and conversations around racial inequities helped her to secure the nomination. Last month she was endorsed by President Obama.

  • Melissa Watson: If she wins her bid to represent South Carolina's 7th Congressional District, Watson, a Democrat and first-time candidate, would be the first Black woman to represent South Carolina in Congress. An Army veteran and a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston, Watson is a teacher who knows what it is like to have to wait tables as a second job. She is running against incumbent Republican Tom Rice, an attorney, in what's considered a solid Republican district.

  • Nikema Williams: Currently a Georgia state senator, Williams is running as a Democrat in Georgia's 5th Congressional District, a majority Black district that includes much of Atlanta and surrounding suburbs. The seat was previously held by John Lewis, the longtime congressman and civil rights leader who passed away in July. Williams is also the head of the Georgia Democratic Party, and the first Black woman to hold that position. She has said she plans to make her top priority passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore the parts of the Voting Rights Act gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2013 landmark ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case, which unleashed a storm of state voter suppression laws, especially in the South.