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interviews

When Voting Fails

by Dr. Martha Jones
July 9, 2020

This interview with Dr. Martha Jones, a Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University, was conducted and condensed by franknews. 

frank | Hi! I’m curious to know what’s on your mind right now.

Dr. Martha Jones | I live in Baltimore, Maryland. It's where I teach and where I live. When the spring 2020 protests began, for a moment my city was of interest to the national media. As uprising began to break out in other places across the country, the country recalled that we had had a major uprising here in 2015 after the killing of Freddie Gray. And still, in 2020 national gaze quickly turned away when Baltimore didn't comport, somehow, with expectations. The demonstrations here didn't look like Minneapolis. They didn't look like Louisville. They didn't look like LA or New York.

Media is essential to amplifying and projecting the voices of the disenfranchised. At the same time, the media is moved by the sensational. 

There is something untenable for me about the view that we must rise to the sensational in order to be heard.

It's not just that we have to raise our voices. We have to raise them, and that spectacle must be sensational before journalists will deeply partner and become embedded in the scene.

What did Baltimore teach itself in the time between Freddie Gray in 2015 and George Floyd in 2020?

It's important to say I didn't live here in 2015, so I'm learning in real-time about my city. 

The city had not only its own sense of outrage but its own vision for how to be. This comes in part from the roles played by seasoned community activists, folks who were part of the 2015 uprising who are still here and have remained deeply committed. In 2020, they have helped to shape an extraordinary series of demonstrations here in Baltimore. 

In Baltimore, we were also getting ready to elect a new mayor in June, though with a limited capacity to get to the polls. Maryland had committed to mail-in voting without much debate or objection. But there were troubles with getting the ballots into people's hands and getting the right ballots into people's hands, so in-person polling places had to be opened up. People, in the midst of protests, in the midst of a pandemic, showed up here in Baltimore to cast their ballots. That evidenced another side of the civic culture here. People were tuned in to the fact that there was an election, and people came out for that. 

Participating in democracy need not be an either-or proposition. We can simultaneously be in the streets, engaged in direct protest, a democratic tradition in this country, and we can show up to the polls.

That is what I saw happening in Baltimore, and it happened in the midst of a pandemic that encouraged us to stay home and to do nothing at all. Of course, that is complicated by important public health concerns. But I think an insistence that democracy is a participatory culture and not simply a set of principles or a structure, is an important part of what I play out here in real-time. 

How does civil unrest and protest lend itself to more civic participation?

The story of the 1960s is instructive for me. It was simultaneously the scene of voting rights and the scene of uprisings. The two facets of that time may not often be told together. But they were not wholly antithetical to one another at all. Immediately in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the number of African American voters grew importantly and significantly. It is that context that we move into an era of uprisings in cities like Detroit and Los Angeles and New York.  Part of what can be learned by voting, are the limits of the ballot. Yes, political power is embodied in casting a ballot and in electing a candidate. At the same time, harnessing political power requires more than showing up at the polls. Demonstrations are another way of being heard and influencing law and policy. I am an historian of Black politics in 19th century Baltimore, which may seem like a very long time ago. Still, that history includes important lessons in how people created their own power in an era, time, and place when they could not vote at all.

I'm interested in what we do when voting fails us, which it almost certainly will. 

On this, I draw from the lessons of African American women in history. African American women have been engaged with politics for a long time, and for most of that time, they could not vote. They organized, they lobbied, they used men as surrogates. And when by a state constitution, or the 19th Amendment, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they received legally sanctioned political power, they were ready. When African American women got the vote, they were ready to use it as fully formed political actors because they had been constructing their own power for a very long time.

I want to talk more about the prominence of Black women through the history of protest and civil unrest in America.

One of the moments most well known to people during the civil rights movement is the march in Selma, Alabama. Among the best remembered of those marchers, is a young man who is today among our most venerated members of Congress, John Lewis. Lewis was among the scores who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the name of winning voting rights, only to be met with brutal police violence. 

Behind the scenes was a Black woman named Diane Nash. She cut her political teeth organizing sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee as a student at Fisk University. She played a critical role in the work of the Freedom Rides in 1961 by sending young people from Tennessee further South to replenish the ranks of the Riders after many had been brutally attacked. It was Diane Nash who, long before Martin King and the SCLC assented to the strategy, came to Selma to wage a voting rights campaign. 

Nash was an organizer, planner, and orchestrator, but we don’t see her photo as folks make that fateful march across the bridge. In those long moments, she was back in Selma making sure that there would be medics available when people are brutalized. To me, this is an example of a woman who taught us how leadership takes many forms. She taught that political leadership must embrace many forms of action. Nash never took the stage as a charismatic, upfront character. Still, she was someone who, when we look closely at the scenes in Selma, becomes critical to that story.

Contrast Nash with someone like Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. The two were peers but worked very differently. Hamer not only understood, she deliberately looked to exploit the cameras to propel her image, and her message, and project efforts to win voting rights in her home state and transform Democratic Party politics nationally. The two women worked by way of different philosophies and differing styles. They adopted divergent tactics even. Taking the work of Nash and Hamer as two parts of a whole during the Modern Civil Rights Movement helps us think in expansive ways about how political power can be won and how it can be wielded.

Looking back is one style more effective than the other?

It's difficult to say, because they are parts of a whole. The thing that knits them together, in some sense, is violence. Nash is deeply committed to nonviolent direct action, the sit-in, the march – but she still sees violence as essential. There's an often-quoted moment when she speaks with federal officials from Washington who tell her to desist from sending young people to join the freedom riders:  “You know, we understand that we are walking into a brutal scene. The young people had made their wills the night before they left.” Hamer also knew violence and had a defining moment early in her career when she was stopped, detained, jailed, brutally beaten and sexually assaulted by police after attempting to register to vote.

The women I write about are all, each in their own way, wrestling with the violence that is woven into American politics. They know that violence will be directed unashamedly at their very bodies. 

That core insight, one that sits at the foundation of Black women’s political consciousness, extends back to confrontations between enslaved women and their enslavers. In our own moment, the tragic killing of Breonna Taylor is the latest example of how Black women's bodies remain the targets of a brutal politics of violence. This thread runs through Black women's political philosophy and their practice, across time.

African American women have always been plagued by a specific form of violence: sexual violence. So many of the Black woman activists who I write about eventually explain their confrontations with either sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence. This not only informs their tactics, but sets the goals for political power must accomplish. When Tarana Burke gave us the Me Too movement in the 21st century, she was echoing a long-standing critique. Black women aim to use their power to end the scourge of sexual violence, a story that has an origin in the history of slavery but doesn't end with emancipation. It continues until this day.

Thank you for your time, I appreciate having this conversation. 

One of the dangers of a conversation like this is to leave the impression either that nothing changes or nothing can change. I struggle with that. History is a tough endeavor in that regard. It is possible to look across two centuries and recognize what hasn't changed. 

And still, I am inspired. Black women have been the conscience of this nation since its inception. They have studied the lay of the land. They have thought very hard about our founding ideals. They have also set the bar when it comes to what liberty, equality, and dignity mean. They have shared their ideas, pointing us where the bar is.

Listen and Black women will remind you of the ideals that we all should aspire to, individually and collectively.

The women I write about say no racism, and no sexism. Period. They say that in 1820 and have waited ever since for us to catch up as a nation. I've watched Breonna Taylor's mother, Tamika Palmer, speak, and I think I recognize something familiar in that act. She is an African American woman, representing her deceased daughter, and at the same time speaking to all of us about the violence which, as a nation, we must not, cannot, and should not allow.

There is nothing enviable about this position in body politic. And it's not enough. Still, voices that speak fundamental truths, that hold up indelible principles, that insist upon equality and dignity for all are absolutely essential. Someone has to set the bar high in a nation that has been built upon countless indignities and injustices. Someone has to remind us that ideals animate this country, not interests, convenience, or pragmatism. 

Someone has to do that. Black women took up that mantle in the earliest days of this republic and they continue to bear that burden even today, in the 21st century.