There are numerous accounts and retellings of momentous civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s. Perhaps most notable is the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, which took three attempts and federal protection for activists to reach their destination safely on March 25, 1965, and which pushed President Lyndon B. Johnson to send voting rights legislation to Congress. Photographs of the Selma march usually honed in on the frontline: a phalanx of notable faces such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, and a young John Lewis, who would go on to serve in the House of Representatives. However, there were times when the photographer’s lens panned out toward the sidelines, capturing the thousands of Americans, many of whom were ordinary Black women dressed in their Sunday best, standing in solidarity along Highway 80. On sidewalks, in fields, and perched on rickety porches, Black women of multiple generations held American flags, handkerchiefs, and their little ones as they waved on the marchers. Buoyed by the possibility of a national voting rights act, they knew soon it would be their turn to join the action.
Stephen Somerstein, two mothers with children watching marchers in Alabama, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act on August 5, 1965, and the following day, President Johnson signed the bill into law. Achieving what the 19th Amendment had failed, the act fulfilled the promise of suffrage for Black women, especially those living in the Jim Crow South, who had long been denied the vote through malicious literacy tests, poll taxes, and racist violence. The act called for the enforcement of the 15th Amendment and allowed federal examiners to register Black voters in areas with histories of discrimination. This provision was necessary as white southerners did not willfully accept this change with the presidential stroke of the pen. Recalcitrant southern officials largely ignored the act at first and continued their tradition of suppressing the Black vote. Though the need for federal help was urgent, it was slow to arrive in the South. According to historian John Dittmer, “as late as March 1966, no registrars had been sent to 30 Mississippi counties where less than 25 percent of the adult Black population was registered.”
There are too few stories told about the ordinary women who mustered the courage to head to the polls after legislative victories. Oral histories, such as those I conducted for my dissertation research as well as by other historians like Dittmer, center these voices.
Here and above: Stephen Somerstein, “Things Go Better With Coke” sign and multi-generational family watching marchers in Alabama, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer
Some rural Black women, like Mary Taylor of Leflore County, MS, chose to face the county clerk without federal aid. Hearing the news that the bill had been passed and signed, the mother of six, including a child with muscular dystrophy, told me that she bolstered her courage when she decided to register immediately. In late August of 1965, before the arrival of federal registrars, but with the assistance of a few friendly freedom workers, Taylor went to Greenwood “to get ready to vote” so that “we can get the people we want to be in office.” Taylor was somewhat surprised by the actions of the kind, white accomplices who shuttled her to the courthouse. Indeed, her work as a domestic worker and seasonal farm laborer had introduced Taylor to precious few white folks in the Delta who had been kind to her. The promise of the Voting Rights Act granted Taylor the opportunity she had long yearned for: a chance to change her family’s circumstances by voting and electing officials concerned with the needs of people in her community.
Rosie Head initially attempted to register to vote in Mississippi in 1964, but it took the Voting Rights Act to finalize her registration. Head’s experience speaks to the terror incurred by African Americans who boldly defied the status quo. When she first arrived at the courthouse, the sheriff was already there. “He came out with the dogs and their billy clubs and everything,” Head recalled. The dogs frightened Rosie the most. Head remembered the officers tightening and then adding slack to the leashes so the dogs would jump at the registrants, nearly nipping their legs as they made their way into the building. Once inside, the clerk admonished Rosie: “I know you know better… You go home and do like your mama, and your grandmama did. You don’t need to come out here. This ain’t for Black folk.” His words were a threat aimed to assert power over three generations of women in her family.
A resolute Head sat for the literacy test anyway and finished within an hour. As she tried to depart the small testing room, every time she touched the doorknob a dog growled. “They left him there,” Head recalled, “guarding the door. And it was about four hours before they came and let me out.” More than a year later, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Head found out she had passed the now obsolete literacy test. “[The local chancellor clerk] never told us that we had passed the test until the federal registrars came, and they found the records and everything.” Though delayed in their arrival, federal examiners removed this direct barrier to voting: terror at registration sites. With this protection, rural Blacks could vote without mental or physical injury. However, the threat of economic retaliation was outside of the jurisdiction of the “voting rights” but remained.
After obtaining her voter credentials, Head helped register other rural Mississippians. She was usually met with some trepidation from poor sharecroppers “afraid of not having a place to live” for attempting to vote, but local people eventually grew encouraged “once they saw other people,” sometimes even truckloads, headed to the courthouse to register. “You had to take them,” argued Head. “Most people wouldn’t go on their own. Somebody had to be with them like, they had protection.”
A. Philip Randolph Educational Fund poster, ca. 1965. Library of Congress.
Civil rights veteran of Greenwood, MS, Alice Blackwell told me a similar story. Impoverished farmhands were increasingly out of work due to mechanization of the cotton industry, and now faced massive economic backlash for their interest in the civil rights movement, as white farm owners threatened political oppression. The passage of the Voting Rights Act was a glimmer of hope for the poor to control their destiny. Blackwell recalled how the legislation assisted her grassroots efforts, saying “Some of them being born under fear is almost afraid to let their names be mentioned. But since the civil rights bill and the voter’s bill have passed, we have been able to get quite a few to go to the post office and register.”
Organizers like Margaret Block also realized the survival needs of rural Black southerners had to be met before they could expect mass numbers at the courthouse to register. In the early 1960s, Block remembered large shipments of food sent to Mississippi from comedian–activist Dick Gregory after local officials blocked the distribution of commodities due to civil rights activity. Likewise, Head recalled people in “the North” sent vital “food and clothing and money” to encourage political action among the rural poor.
After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, poor southerners still utilized emergency food programs—boxes of food and clothing sent from the North —to meet their immediate needs. They saw voting as one possible way to shift their long-term economic justice circumstances. Moreover, new federal War on Poverty programs, like Head Start, were just as significant to rural African Americans as voting. Black women in Mississippi especially embraced Head Start (specifically the Child Development Group of Mississippi) as both a new source of employment and as an education project. They saw their work in Head Start as an extension of their participation in the Civil Rights Movement after 1965. In many ways, the anti-poverty work that extended through the end of the decade and the rural communities’ quest for voting rights were two sides of the same coin. As early as 1967, Black voter registration rates, boosted by the efforts of local activists and federal examiners, increased to 59.8 percent, an incredible leap from 6.7 percent in 1964. Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and its much weaker, post-Shelby v. Holder iteration), Black women have been the nation’s most reliable voters, as well as among the most vocal of advocates for quality education and the needs of poor communities. Black women have championed voting as an essential act of citizenship, but as just one tool among many to bring about the holistic transformation of their communities. Looking back at the period immediately following the passage of the landmark voting rights legislation from the ground up reveals how Black women understood the power, potential, and limitations of suffrage, and their continuing work beyond the ballot box.
Read more from our suffrage centennial series:
- Commemorating an Incomplete Victory: The 19th Amendment at 100
- Why Suffrage? A Broader Look At Women’s Collective Action in the 19th Century
- The Many “Official” Colors of the Suffrage Movement
- White Supremacy and the Suffrage Movement
- “Girls in Caps and Gowns”: The Deltas March for Suffrage
- Obstacles to Suffrage after 1920
- Fighting Back: Women of Color and the Ongoing Struggle for Citizenship Beyond the Vote
- Many Fronts, One Struggle: Native American Women’s Activism Since the 19th Amendment
- The Suffrage Centennial: Righting, and Rewriting, Historical Wrongs
Written by Pamela Walker, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.