Black History Month: Yvonne Walker: Celebrating hard-earned rights

Voting gives us a voice. It gives us a seat at the table. It’s the great equalizer to money and power, and has been a central pillar to our democracy since the inception of the United States. But due to centuries of institutional and socialized racism in America, African Americans did not have the right to vote until 55 years ago. In a new op-ed for N&R Spotlight, SEIU 1000 President Yvonne Walker reflects on the hard-earned rights won by African Americans and reminds us that the fight for voting rights remains as critical as ever.


Our voting rights did not come easy. I’m reminded of that often during Black History Month and this centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment that enabled American women to vote in 1920.

Originally, only property-owning white men could vote. No one else was granted full citizenship or allowed to participate.

Three years after the Civil War ended, the 14th Amendment formally granted African Americans citizenship in 1868. But it took the 15th Amendment in 1870 (after continued pressure on Congress) to overtly grant voting rights to African American men.

That amendment enabled African American men to vote — and even to run for office — at least for a time. During the 1880s, about 2,000 African American men were elected to public office.

However, by the 1890s, several states had enacted poll taxes, literacy tests and used violent intimidation to disenfranchise Black voters.

Walker continues to walk us through history and highlights that it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that both Black men and women were given the right to vote. Yet even to this day, Black, brown and disenfranchised communities still face barriers in our electoral process. With republican voter suppression efforts on the rise and new voting restrictions in states with large minority populations, it is extremely questionable to make the claim that America is a “democracy.” However, Black Americans have fought hard and continue the fight to make this true.

And the battle continues. In 2013, that act was weakened by the Supreme Court, and states have since passed new laws restricting voting rights disproportionately for people of color.

Today, Black leaders are still fighting for people’s rights and making history. In 2018, Joe Neguse became the first African American person elected to Congress from Colorado. He also co-founded New Era Colorado, which registered 150,000 young voters.

At SEIU Local 1000, we use our hard-earned voting rights to ensure our elected representatives reflect our priorities, including the right to join a union, ending structural racism, health care for all, and the right for immigrants to live and work free from intimidation and fear.

While much work remains to be done, we will continue to lift up those who suffered and lost to put us in a position to win.

Black history is our history, and this February – and all year round we celebrate and uplift the Black leaders who challenged systematic exclusion and suppression of voters of color. And Like Yvonne Walker said, unions across the country will continue to fight against oppression, and throw our support behind organizations and leaders fighting for human rights, because an injury to one is an injury to all.

Read Yvonne Walker’s full piece here