Rosyln M. Brock reflects on how her great-grandmother, Cousie Pittman, could not vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, despite the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920. On a video published by the First Woman Voter Campaign, she talks about how Ms. Pittman, who lived in rural Florida and the segregated South, cast her first vote in the 1968 presidential election.
“My family often shares the story of how my grandmother would get dressed up in her Sunday Best, and wait for a ride to the polls on election day,” said Brock in the video.
Brock is Associate Minister at the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA, and a nationally recognized health policy advocate, social justice change agent, and noted public speaker. She holds the distinct honor of being the youngest person and fourth woman in 2010 elected to the role of National Board Chairman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its history. Brock currently serves as its Chairman Emeritus.
The First Woman Voter campaign and national women’s organizations, such as the National Women’s History Museum, the League of Women’s Voters, and Obama’s When We All Vote, celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. This bipartisan campaign encourages women to pay tribute in a unique and personal short video to the first woman voter in their family or the one who most inspired them to vote. Four former first ladies, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Rev. Bernice A. King, and other high-profile women in academia, business, the arts, entertainment, government, and more fields are participating in the virtual video campaign. Even with the heartwarming messages by women of all races noting the 100-year milestone, Brock’s story and others underscore acknowledging that the struggle didn’t end in1920 for many Black women in the South.
“The history has to be told that black women were fighting for the right to vote in the 1800s, through the AME clubs, the black women’s clubs … the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs were active in the early 1800s well before the white women were organizing to think about coming into the public square,” said Brock. “White women can celebrate that they marched in 1912 or 1913 and then seven years later, in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed. Black women had to wait almost half a century until the 1965 Voting Rights Act before they had full, unfettered access. Now, many black women in the 1920s lived in the North and were able to vote. I was from South Florida. My grannies … it took us a little longer.”
August 2020 marks the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act’s passage, which, according to the Justice Department, is hailed as the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a vital part of the Voting Rights Act, which required municipalities, counties, and states to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. It didn’t take long for voter suppression efforts to resume.
“I chose to participate in the campaign because it gave me an opportunity to share my great-grandmother’s first voting experience. And I believe it’s important as a black woman in today’s society to acknowledge the role that we did play and continue to play in securing the right to the franchise,” said Brock. “As many of us know, voting remains the only power that we have to affect change in our communities. And the only language that politicians seem to understand is the power of the vote. That’s why I believe so many today are trying to suppress votes by those in minority communities.”
According to a study last year by Pew Research, Millennials and Gen Z will make up 37% of the 2020 electorate. However, older generations are more likely to go to polls or actually vote. This year, voters are highly engaged, but concerns are mounting about difficulties in actually voting. That’s a big deal when so many critical issues are top of mind for many voters — access to affordable health care in the era of COVID-19 and beyond, violence and discriminatory policing, climate change, unemployment, and homelessness.
As a leader in the social justice, racial equity, and community investment space, Brock is inspired and hopeful as she sees the next generation push forward despite the obstacles and political games. Her philosophy is embodied in an African proverb: Care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.
“Courage must not skip this generation. And as Black women stand confidently now in their place of power, they no longer have to accept that they don’t belong at the political table or don’t have a seat. We’ve got to remember Shirley Chisholm, who said, “If they don’t have a seat for you at the table, you come in and bring your own folding chair, and you sit down.”