“Protests are nice, but at the end of the day, it’s the politicians who really get things done.” If you live in Memphis, there is no doubt you’ve heard or seen this sentiment expressed innumerable times. The thinking goes something like this: If the object of the game in the struggle for black freedom is the passage of particular types of legislation, then our elected officials are the prime movers in the struggle for freedom.
While this understanding makes sense on its face, it is fundamentally flawed. When we reduce the struggle for black equality down to electoral politics, we do a multilayered disservice to the process of social change, misread the actual scope of our politics and denigrate the men and (especially) women engaged in the struggle for greater freedom.
Politics has never just been about the electoral — especially for black folks.
At no point in our nation’s history have black people gained their constitutional/political rights without having to expand the traditional boundaries of “the political.” When applying this traditional and limited notion of politics, we reduce almost three centuries of black political thought and action to background noise tolerated by the white folks engaged in “real politics.” By this calculation, black people had no role to play in the destruction of slavery, due to the fact they could not vote on the issue — before or after the Civil War.
This is hardly the case. By the middle of the 18th century, enslaved Africans had profoundly shaped the national debate on slavery. Contrary to popular belief — and the workings of Hollywood — white abolitionists did not construct their ideology singlehandedly in the parlors of Boston. Rather, black agency played a central role in making slavery a national issue. Escape, colonization, rebellion and the robust political debates waged in black communities across the country all profoundly shaped the political terrain upon which the issue of slavery was debated.
From Reconstruction through the Jim Crow Era, black folks created vibrant political spaces that seasoned and informed the political decisions made by and for black people. Hence, the story of Reconstruction is not simply the story of black men entering into the electoral process. To be sure, that is a crucial reality. But beyond that, black people amplified the democratic spaces in all of the institutions they constructed. The questions of freedom pervaded every space in which black folks found themselves. The conversations, debates, discussions and other musings conducted in churches, juke joints, beauty parlors and barbershops, lodges, schools all became repositories of democratic possibility.
In addition to these spaces, black folks regularly engaged in rituals of remembrance and celebration, such as Emancipation Day and Independence Day. These public displays were also powerful reminders of the collective journey from slavery to freedom, and of the necessity to move forward with the same sense of collective care and concern. So, on Election Day, black men didn’t simply arrive at their polling places to cast a ballot. Rather, they arrived having been shaped by powerful communal conversations and interactions that informed the choices they made. Black politics have always been a communal enterprise, and they’ve always been about much more than a ballot.
Erasing the sisters: Throughout our time in this nation, black women played a central role in expanding the traditional boundaries of political engagement. However, the expansive role black women play in our politics often bumps up against what many scholars call a “master narrative” of the freedom struggle, a narrative that centers the thought and actions of men, while subordinating the varied efforts of their female counterparts.
According to historian Jeanne Theoharis, black women — even celebrated ones like Rosa Parks or Coretta Scott King — are consigned to the margins of political action. Parks, the fierce social justice advocate, becomes “meek.” Scott King, an activist in her own right, becomes known simply as Martin King’s wife. In this process, the histories we create strip women of their agency, leaving them, in Theoharis’ words, “shrunken versions of themselves.”
Given the gendered ways we view both the narrow and more expansive versions of politics, women who take prominent positions in either of these male-dominated spaces are often characterized as transgressive or disruptive. This view not only diminishes the crucial impact black women have had in the pursuit of black equality; it further reinforces the false dichotomy between the explicitly electoral and other political processes. Perhaps most important, this gendering obscures the dynamic, complex analyses and actions undertaken by black women engaged in these struggles.
In Memphis, Maxine Smith, a legendary civil rights activist, understood the dynamic interplay between electoral politics and mass-based direct action struggle. Smith’s five decades of effort on behalf of black folks stands as a testament to the power and efficacy of blurring the lines between the ballot box and the street. The Black Monday protests played a direct role in creating space for black elected officials on the city’s Board of Education. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’d get a healthy side-eye these days if you suggested Smith’s freedom work didn’t “really start” until her election to the Board of Education.
Similarly, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer has blazed a trail in the pursuit of greater freedom that replicates some of the best facets of the civil rights movement: building broad-based, politically intentional coalitions in the pursuit of justice. Guided by Sawyer, the #TakeEmDown901 campaign cultivated one of the most diverse coalitions in recent memory to contest the presence of the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis monuments in two city parks.
For Sawyer and other activists, the successful effort to remove the statues also represented an opportunity to highlight other crucial conversations around issues such as living wages, police brutality, immigration and LGBTQ rights. Like Smith before her, Sawyer ran for office expressly motivated by the very issues she’d been advocating over the past several years. The progressive agenda she pursues was shaped in large part by her grassroots work. Anyone who would suggest that the broad-based mobilization Sawyer helped organize is somehow disconnected from electoral politics is engaged in a cynical game of omission and subordination.
With elections on the local, state and national level coming up, it is time we remember, once again, that the crucial act of voting is given deeper context and meaning by what we do before, and especially after, each time we cast a ballot.
Dr. Charles McKinney is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.