Published: October 5, 2020

Be Determined about Democracy

Reda Brooks, Budget Coordinator, Exhibitions

Alert

 Look to our ancestors for inspiration to vote today.

 A group of African American women suffragists pose for a photo. On the left, closest to the camera, Nannie Helen Burroughs holds a banner that reads, "Banner State Woman's National Baptist Convention."

At the Field, our mission is to help ensure a brighter future rich in nature and culture. But we as a society won’t be able to create a better future unless all people have a voice in it. We’ve encouraged you to vote in the past, and the 2020 election is especially critical. 

This year isn’t the first time that so many harrowing circumstances have combined to frustrate Americans’ ability to break through divisiveness, forge our connections, and by sheer strength in numbers combat attempts to limit us.  

Over 100 years ago, the 1918 Spanish Influenza was the national health crisis, and many people perished during that election year. Women protested and marched in the street to claim their rightful place to cast their votes. White supremacy escalated, eventually becoming race riots that leveled Black communities across the country. People of color were disproportionately affected by everything going on at that time, yet maintained aspirations for parity.

Main image: Suffragist Nannie Helen Burroughs leads fellow activists in the early 1900s, Library of Congress.

A newspaper clipping that includes the headlines “Wear Mask When Voting” and “Everybody Should Vote Tomorrow.”

On November 4, 1918, the Monterey Daily Cypress included the headlines “Wear Mask When Voting” and “Everybody Should Vote Tomorrow.”

Monterey Daily Cypress/CBS News

Honoring those who fought for the right to vote

As we acknowledge the centennial of women gaining the right to vote, it’s also important to reflect on the resilience and persistence that various United States citizens have demonstrated in their quest for equality. In particular, we can learn from African American women’s suffrage leaders and other people of color who were denied voting rights.

 A group of women pose in front of a building. Two women in the front hold a sign that reads, "Head-Quarters for Colored Women Voters."

Black women suffragists in Georgia hold a sign reading, "Head-Quarters for Colored Women Voters."

New York Public Library

Years before it became a movement, Black women were in the vanguard for what ultimately became the 19th Amendment in 1920. Maria W. Stewart, a free-born African American teacher, journalist, lecturer, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate, was the first American woman to speak publicly to a male and female audience of Blacks and Whites. She wrote political manifestos and addressed suffrage as early as the 1820s. 

In 1850, former slave Sojourner Truth spoke in favor of women’s suffrage at the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. Despite the discrimination and racism that marginalized Black women activists in mainstream 20th-century suffragist movements, they formed their own groups and carried on.

Portrait of Sojourner Truth, seated next to a vase of flowers.

Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and women’s rights activist.

Library of Congress

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the U.S. war against Mexico and recognized the right to vote for the Latinx/Mexican population, but prejudice and voter suppression against them continued. Although the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States” in 1868, the majority of Native Americans weren’t recognized as citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act was signed into law in 1924. And even after that, individual states prevented Native Americans from voting.

Our Constitution has been amended four times to address prohibiting citizens to participate in the voting process (15th, 19th, 24th, 26th). Yet despite this civil liberty that should have been guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments, additional federal legislation was necessary to fight ongoing discrimination at the state level. 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was originally signed into law during the height of the civil rights movement to address suppression of African Americans voters. It has been legally challenged five times and renewed or altered five times to include other minorities. But well into the 21st century, Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) are still rallying for fairness.

The future of voting equality is up to us

As an institution, the Field Museum has researched and studied how deeply societal weaknesses are rooted in racial and economic inequality. Voting can be a vehicle to overcome what stifles progress. Individual needs and actions are strengthened when intertwined with the entire country’s collective fate. Elections offer the chance to be on the democratic playing field, allowing those who participate to empower themselves. 

The undercurrents of civil unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic, deliberate discrimination, and ongoing efforts to ignore, intimidate, or disenfranchise citizens all make voting more relevant than ever. Marches and peaceful protests that are marred by lawless forces can divert attention from the real issues. Voter subversion may remain ever-present and take on new forms. But we are much savvier now and can’t let the powers that be continue believing that legal tactics, confusion, and bullying will deter us from voting.

The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t just about combating racial injustice and brutality at the hands of law enforcement. Determining pathways to opportunity and equity are the same goals that motivated many diverse peoples’ hard-fought, century-long, dogged, and brave challenge of obstructions to their pursuit of freedom and inclusion throughout U.S. history.

The 1963 March on Washington focused on issues that still resonate today.

Marion S. Trikosko / Library of Congress

Field staffer Ylanda Wilhite at a protest in Chicago in 2020.

Ayesha Qazi

The right to express an opinion that gets counted in shared decision-making, to be at the table and participate in the conversation, and to not remain voiceless is a desire for anyone who wants to be recognized and heard. Indeed, people have dedicated their lives to and died for this privilege. While we still face many of the same obstacles today, failing to vote would ignore the efforts of those who came before us and disregard the possibilities of further advancement for those coming after us. 

U.S. Senator John R. Lewis and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are just two of the many voting rights champions ​who taught us that voting is our ​prerogative and permits us to maintain hope and optimism for America and ourselves. They ​recently ​left their legacy and resolve for liberty in our care to vote in the November 3rd election.

Reda Brooks, wearing a face mask, holds up an “I voted!” card.

The author after voting early in the 2020 election.

Reda Brooks

Don’t allow anything or anyone for any reason to diminish the value of your right to vote. Registering to vote or verifying your registration are key first steps. Take every precaution to protect your health. Make an effort to vote early. Carefully complete and mail in your ballot. Be safe going to the polls. Be determined about democracy​​​. ​