Black women are the heart of the Democratic Party. What will it take for them to be its face?

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Talamieka Brice, one of the event organizers, speaks at the Mississippi Women’s March last year outside the Mississippi State Capitol.

When Talamieka Brice saw that the presumptive Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor voted to stop women from getting abortions six weeks into their pregnancies, she swore.

“If you want the P.G. version, it was ‘Seriously?’ It’s another white progressive who claims to be in your corner, but really only takes your side when it’s convenient,” said Brice, a black woman who runs the Mississippi chapter of the progressive group Pantsuit Nation.

Brice was not alone. In the days after the vote taken by state Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, his supporters, many of them black women like Brice, took to social media and expressed anger at Hughes. That anger took on new dimensions in response to Hughes’ explanation that focused on white men like himself rather than his core constituency. In a Facebook message, Hughes explained his vote as a pragmatic move to appeal to moderates and keep white Democrats in power.

“The Mississippi House has just 10 white Democrats remaining in a body of 122 members. Eight of us are moderates and trying to avoid the Republican goal of eliminating all white (Democrats),” Hughes wrote in a Facebook message to a supporter, who shared it on Twitter.

That supporter, Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, later told Mississippi Today that what she heard in this was that Hughes knew he had the votes of women of color like her. So he voted to appeal to the white moderates who weren’t already in his corner.

“He took our votes super for granted,” Roberts said.

For Roberts and many other women who spoke to Mississippi Today, this wasn’t the first time they felt this way.

“It’s one of those disconnects, not only with Jay but within the Democratic Party, with the whole gold standard of the white vote. It’s a manifestation of white supremacy with a progressive label. It’s a lot of people who consider themselves to be allies of people of color, but when it’s time for (lawmakers to) vote, (they) don’t represent you,” Brice said.

And this, Brice and others said, pointed to an even bigger problem, a perception in Mississippi that no matter how strongly black women support the party, white men are its leaders. 

“There is a mindset that the only way a Democrat can win (statewide) is if it’s a white male. That mentality has been pushed by white men, and it has been accepted for many years,” said Velesha P. Williams, a community activist in Jackson seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination this year.

Pam Shaw, a lobbyist who also works on Democratic campaigns, said there has long been a tacit understanding that African American women would support the party’s white front men as long as they work on behalf of issues black voters care about.

“Black women are at the core of doing the work, in many instances we do the work without the acknowledgement. There’s been this long time (belief that) if you want your idea to happen you tell it to a man and you know it’s going to get done,” Shaw said. In light of Hughes’ comments, she adds: “Well, now we know that’s not right.”

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Rukia Lumumba of the Electoral Justice Project said that African American women “…  are closest to the pain so we’re probably closest to the solution.”

But Rukia Lumumba, co-founder of the Electoral Justice Project, suggests that it’s time to rethink that strategy because white men often lack personal experiences with the issues they’re expected to advocate for on black voters’ behalf.

In Mississippi, black communities – and African American women especially – bear the brunt of Mississippi’s highest in the nation rates of incarceration, poverty, low wages, and infant and maternal mortality.

“We have experienced lots of the ills of bad policies and bad implementation. So we are the ones most impacted,” Lumumba said. “We are closest to the pain so we’re probably closest to the solution.”

And as frustration over this disparity mounts, many advocates have said it’s time for the women who are the heart of this party to be its face.

Nationally black women have been the decisive factor in some of the most high profile Democratic victories. In the 2017 Alabama U.S. Senate special election, 98 percent of black women voted for Democrat Doug Jones. If black women had voted the way even black men did, Jones would have lost. In Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race, Stacey Abrams made history as the first black woman to get a major party nomination for governor. She came within 55,000 votes of winning, propelled by an enthusiastic African American base, who ultimately made up 60 percent of her votes, despite being just 30 percent of Georgia’s population.

“I think people are starting to realize that not enough is being done. I think that people can look at history and records and know that not enough is being done to change the trajectory of Mississippi,” Williams, the governor candidate, said with a laugh. “And so if we want to see a change, we must be the ones to make the change.”

From the ground up

Recognizing things need to change is one thing. Actually changing them is something else, and many women acknowledge that the road to leadership in the Democratic Party – and the state – is a long, rocky one. No black man or woman has been elected to statewide office in Mississippi in the modern era.

Women in general, who make up over half of Mississippi’s population, are also underrepresented in state government, holding just 14 percent of offices in the state Legislature. Black women, who account for nearly 20 percent of the state, make up just 6.7 percent of the Legislature. They fare slightly better in the Democratic party, where black women make up 17 percent of the Democratic caucus.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Velesha Williams is seen outside of the Jackson Police Department at the Metro Center Thursday, February 14, 2019.

Williams said she wholeheartedly rejects the position that white men are more electable.

“What people need to understand, number one is that women – what are we, 51 percent of the population? And African Americans in Mississippi represent the highest percentage of blacks in the U.S. at 37 percent. When you combine that together our voting power speaks volumes. We can elect anybody we want to at any time we want to.”

Mississippi governor candidate Velesha P. Williams: ‘Isn’t it time Democratic Party starts supporting black folks?’

In the days after Hughes’ response made the rounds on social media, many of his supporters said they were ready to elect someone else and tossed out names of potential women challengers. One of them was Heather McTeer Toney, the former Obama-appointed EPA administrator for the southeast and the first woman and African American mayor of Greenville. Toney dismissed the likelihood of finding anyone to successfully challenge Hughes, who has been actively campaigning since last summer, with less than two weeks before the qualifying deadline. But she said public anger at his vote and his comments was already motivating people to prepare for elections down the road.

“I think this is a big moment,” Toney said, referring to the reaction that Hughes’ comments had inspired among some of his one-time biggest supporters. “But this is not a small local race that you can run with $1,000 dollars. This is a major race. So I think we should be wise about what we say and we do at this point, but also take a lot of notes.

“Because just like this is 2019, 2021 is going to come up and so is 2023. So this is a great time for us to start looking at people who are going to be excellent and begin to groom them and elevate them into some of these positions.”

In 2019, however, Mississippi’s Democratic slate will have two African American nominees in the statewide races, the first time this has happened since 2003. Jennifer Riley Collins, executive director of the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and former Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree are running for attorney general and secretary of state, respectively.

Whether the state Democratic party will get on board with these efforts remains to be seen. Democratic party chair Bobby Moak did not return requests for comment.

But Lumumba believes reliance on the Mississippi Democratic Party organization is misplaced.

“I think black women have used (the party) as a tool and as a means to push agendas that support the needs of the community,” Lumumba said. “I can speak for myself as a black woman, I think the Democratic Party is a great intervention tool, but it is not the end-all-be-all.”

Practical challenges

If the first challenge is attracting strong candidates, the next is attracting strong backing for them. And black women, even those elected to state office, are rarely as well financed as their white counterparts.

For every dollar that white men in Mississippi earn, black women in the state earn just 56 cents. In legislative campaigns the disparity is even greater. In 2015, the eleven black female Democrats currently serving in the Mississippi Legislature raised just 47 cents for every dollar raised by their white male Democratic colleagues, according to analysis from Mississippi Today. 

“I think often times we’re not resourced with the financial or political support, and we have to begin to organize ourselves, to demand more access, more resources and support. It shouldn’t be an anomaly for us to be elected. It should be the norm,” Lumumba said.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, introduced an equal pay amendment in 2018. 

It’s difficult to overplay the importance of black Democrats, and especially black women, in promoting not just Democratic candidates but progressive policies that have gained traction, even in a deeply conservative state like Mississippi.

One of these policies, equal pay, briefly got momentum during last year’s legislative session. While black women, earning just over half of what white men do, are the group most affected, the wage gap hurts all Mississippi women, who make an average of 76 cents for every dollar earned by white men.

Mississippi and Alabama are the only two states that lack an equal pay law, and both Democrats and Republicans have attempted to get one on the books. But real momentum has come from black female lawmakers and black women on the ground. In February 2018, after a round of equal pay bills again failed to make it out of committee, Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, introduced an equal pay amendment to a minimum wage bill, which passed the House by a wide margin. And when that bill died, Cassandra Welchin, director of the Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative, kept the conversation alive, organizing a rally on the wage gap in the Capitol last month.

“Look at who does the work of the Mississippi Democratic party on the ground. Who’s organizing? Who’s outside knocking on doors? It’s black women,” Roberts said.

And this experience organizing for candidates and causes, Toney pointed out, makes black women uniquely prepared to fundraise for their own candidates.

“Because they’ve done this for other candidates. They know how to do this. Now it’s about doing this for other women.”