For this Selma native, the legacy of the 19th Amendment continues in fight against voter suppression

Twenty-two years ago, LaTosha Brown ran for State Board of Education in Alabama.

Throughout the campaign, the Selma native recalls making speeches at churches and being asked to speak from the floor. The incumbent, a male minister, spoke from the podium.

“I sit squarely at the intersection of racism and sexism,” Brown said. “There was a lot of this going on.”

On Election Day in 1998, the race was too tight to call, with results delayed for a week. Once the election was certified, Brown got a call from the Alabama Democratic Party Chair, Giles Perkins.

She lost.

But Perkins was especially apologetic as he explained what happened at election headquarters. Five minutes after the results became final, the local sheriff “found” 800 uncounted ballots locked in a safe.

Brown was incredulous. “It was one of those moments when I felt completely powerless,” she said.

In 2016, Brown, who now lives in Atlanta, co-founded the Black Voters Matter Fund. While Brown has been working in voter empowerment for over 25 years — her entire adult life, she said — she finally decided to build an organization that could help grow the capacity of grassroot groups in the Black community following the election of President Trump. Beyond providing funding and resources to the groups, Black Voters Matter also acts as a thought and strategy partner, helping organizations identify and meet specific advocacy goals.

Since her first foray into politics as a young woman to the establishment of BVM, Brown has dedicated her life to fighting voter suppression and mobilizing Black voters, starting in Selma — the home of “Bloody Sunday” — and has since expanded her efforts nationally.

Brown’s work builds upon an over century-long legacy of women-led enfranchisement activism. Exactly 100 years ago, women earned the right to vote following the 70-year struggle of the women’s suffrage movement, the longest social justice movement America has yet seen. It culminated in the ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920.

More: Stories of efforts to expand voting rights in today’s America in commemoration of the 19th Amendment

But not all American women reaped the benefits of the single largest enfranchisement effort in the nation’s history. Poll taxes, literacy tests and other forms of voter suppression largely kept Black women from the polls until the hard-fought passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Now, Brown and many other women are still leading the charge nationwide in the fight for free and fair elections, an initiative they have found increasingly important since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted crucial elements of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

“We find a lot of the grass roots work is being led by women,” Brown said. “But oftentimes what you see is the voice and face of a man. And this has happened throughout history, even during the civil rights movement.”

To elevate these voices, Brown says they prioritize working with organizations that are led by Black women, and the majority of her staff at Black Voters Matter are Black women.

In April, Brown signed a letter along with over 1,000 other women requesting that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden put a Black woman on the ticket for vice president.

But then George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and records soon surfaced that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — a likely contender for VP — declined to press charges on more than a dozen officers accused of killing civilians during the years she was Minnesota’s top prosecutor. Their request suddenly seemed more dire amid protests for racial justice.

Brown and others didn’t see any evidence that Biden was taking their request seriously, so they redoubled their efforts. She and seven other women published an op-ed and video in The Washington Post demanding — not requesting, Brown emphasized — that Biden choose a Black woman running mate.

“Black women are miracle workers,” said TV-personality Sunny Hostin in the video. “We have been saving the Democratic Party since 1965.”

Brown received a slew of praises and criticisms, including from people who said they should just be focused on beating Trump.

The tone, Brown says, changed when Sen. Kamala D. Harris was announced as Biden’s pick last week.

They “didn’t think that it would be possible,” Brown said. “But we were willing to risk it all. We knew that now is the time.”

More: Six US women leading the fight against voter suppression

This article is part of a reporting effort by GroundTruth on voting rights in America, with support from the Jesse and Betsy Fink Charitable Fund, the Solutions Journalism Network and the MacArthur Foundation.

A version of this story appeared on THE LILY on August 18, 2020

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