Honoring Black Democracy Leaders
Setting an example in public service and as citizens.
Our democracy is strongest when every voice is heard. As Black History Month comes to a close, we lift up the leadership of Black Americans who are working every day to defend the freedom to vote and protect the will of the people.
By organizing, by educating, by pursuing justice and accountability, they continue to light the way toward a more perfect union. The leaders we highlight here have been prominent over the past year, but the words they use to describe the ongoing work of democracy are timeless.
They also remind us, this Black History Month, that for inspiration we should look not just to the past but to leaders like these, who are making our democracy stronger today and for tomorrow.
Some are leading through positions of public service.
- Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in last year as the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. “I commit to you,” she said at her confirmation hearing, “that I will work productively to support and defend the Constitution and the grand experiment of American democracy that has endured over these past 246 years.”
- Rep. Bennie Thompson’s steady leadership guided the work of the House January 6 Select Committee, which exposed how close our democracy came to the brink and sounded an alarm about threats that are still with us. “We’ve struggled across generations to make our country’s great vision a reality for all Americans,” he said at a hearing. “We’ve won victories and suffered failures. But the peaceful transfer of power has stood as a pillar of our democracy.”
- In Georgia, Fani Willis, the first Black woman to serve as district attorney of Fulton County, made clear that she wouldn’t be cowed by attempts to impede her investigation into the attempted hijacking of her state’s 2020 presidential election. “I think that people thought that we came into this as some kind of game,” she said last year. “This is not a game at all.”
- As Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of the commonwealth in 2022, Leigh M. Chapman oversaw an election that was free, fair, secure, and accurate. In an interview with Ms. magazine last year, she talked about dedicating her career to civil rights, racial justice, and “just making sure that every eligible American in this country can register to vote, cast their ballot, and have it counted. It’s an honor to be on the front lines fighting for democracy at a time when there’s so much at stake.”
- In a discussion last month at Stanford University, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her concern that Americans are losing confidence in elections and other institutions. She recalled growing up in segregated Alabama, when her parents struggled for the freedom to vote. “We have had continuous improvement in American democracy,” Rice said. “But if you try to negate the progress of the past, then not only do you lose your sense of optimism, you also negate the experiences of the sacrifices of [those who got us to where we are],” she said.
Others are making the most of what’s been called the only title higher than president—that of citizen.
- Annie Benifield is the first Black woman to lead the League of Women Voters of Houston. She has spoken prominently and eloquently about the need for all of us to vote in every election—to have our say, even if our side doesn’t always win. “Voting rights is not a partisan issue,” she told the Defender last year. “It’s critical that people get to participate in the political process in a democracy. The expectation is that citizens get to weigh in and engage. And one way they can do that is by the ballot. So this is not partisan, this is just affirmation of the democratic process.”
- Her colleague Cecile Scoon, the first Black woman to lead the League of Women Voters of Florida, reminded voters last year that the freedom to vote “is one of the most basic promises of our democracy”—yet is under attack in states across the country.
- Proving that our democracy works best when we work together, When We All Vote is a Black-led, nonpartisan national initiative that reached more than 100 million eligible voters in 2020, with a philosophy of meeting them where they are. Executive director Stephanie L. Young has written that voting isn’t a one-time transaction—“it’s a long-term investment we make every single day, not every two or four years, in building the communities, cities, states and country where we can all thrive.”
- In the media, the podcast “The Brown Girls Guide to Politics” spotlights trailblazing Black, Brown, and Indigenous women. Its founder and host, A’shanti F. Gholar, says she started the project because there was “no place for women of color that were interested in politics to go to get advice on how to get involved in politics, receive news about how politics impacts women of color or find out about amazing women of color running for elected office.”
- And Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an expert on constitutional law, hosts “Your Democracy,” an animated digital series that has explored the freedom to vote, criminal justice, and what it means to be an American in the 21st century. “This is about empowerment,” she has said. In an interview last year, she invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who once spoke of the founding of our democracy as a promissory note. “We are supposed to inherit it in that promissory note of democracy, which is the foundation to all the other promises.”
Those words were true in King’s time, and they are true in ours. This month and every month. The freedom to vote is the freedom that protects all others, and we thank these Americans for celebrating it, protecting it, and safeguarding it for the next generation.
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State of the States
In Arizona, newly released documents show that a state investigation of the 2020 election “systematically refuted accusations of widespread fraud,” The Washington Post reported. The investigation was launched by then-Attorney General Mark Brnovich and took 10,000 hours of staff time. Investigators prepared a report in March 2022, but Brnovich kept it private, and instead “used his office to further claims about voting in Maricopa County that his own staff considered inaccurate,” the Post said. Kris Mayes, who succeeded Brnovich as attorney general this year, released the documents this week. “The results of this exhaustive and extensive investigation show what we have suspected for over two years—the 2020 election in Arizona was conducted fairly and accurately by elections officials,” she said. “The 10,000-plus hours spent diligently investigating every conspiracy theory under the sun distracted this office from its core mission of protecting the people of Arizona from real crime and fraud.”
In Georgia, the foreperson of the special grand jury charged with investigating attempts by former President Trump and his associates to undermine the 2020 election gave a series of media interviews this week, but added little to what was already known about the investigation. Legal scholars and ethics experts say the media tour is unlikely to have any legal significance. Because the special grand jury lacked the power to directly issue indictments, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis will need to seek any indictments from a separate grand jury. The majority of the special grand jury’s final report remains under seal pursuant to a court order. States United has a full guide to the investigation.
In Michigan, Kristina Karamo, a prominent Election Denier, was elected chair of the state Republican Party. Karamo lost the race for secretary of state in November by 14 percentage points, a margin of more than 600,000 votes, but has not formally conceded. As recently as last Saturday, she continued to float the unfounded allegation that “fraud” cost her the race. Election Deniers were decisively defeated last fall in races for offices that oversee voting in key states. But Karamo’s victory illustrates that the Election Denier movement remains a threat, particularly in Congress, in state legislatures, and in races for state party chairs.