The 2016 Democratic National Convention began in Philadelphia on what would have been Emmett Till’s 75th birthday.
Till, however, did not live to see adulthood. When he was 14 years old, in 1955, two white men in Money, Mississippi abducted and tortured him before shooting him in the head. Till was alleged to have violated the city’s racial order, and for this, the men sought retribution.
After the boy’s body was recovered, his mother, Mamie, resolved to show the world the fruits of centuries of institutional racism. She would not keep quiet. Mamie Till ensured that the country could not forget her son’s murder, facilitating coverage of his death and open-casket funeral in the media. “I took the privacy of my own grief and turned it into a public issue,” she later wrote.
Tilll’s death, and his mother’s bravery, catalyzed youth activism in the Civil Rights movement already underway. Because she did not shrink away, Mamie Till ignited the consciousness of generations and uncovered the broken promises of American democracy. Today, black mothers who lose children to violence spurred by injustice continue Mamie Till’s work. These are women who, in addition to mourning their children’s stolen futures, have become media figures in order to fight for equal protection under the law. It is their pain that provides the backdrop for Black Lives Matter, a movement started by three black women.
In an attempt to represent the concerns of black women, the Democratic National Convention offered primetime appearances on its second day to “Mothers of the Movement,” including the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Jordan Davis, Hadiya Pendleton, Dontre Hamilton, and Mike Brown—as well as Michelle Obama.
Their placement on the DNC stage days before Hillary Clinton’s acceptance of the nomination underscores that way black women have become the lifeblood of the Democratic Party. It is their words and work that shape a larger vision of a more perfect union–and remind us that, as Rep. Marcia Fudge, DNC chair told the Wall Street Journal, black women are her party’s “backbone.”
Fudge has a point. Black women voters turned out at the highest rates of any race and gender group in the last two presidential elections. So far, the Clinton campaign’s pointed efforts to reach out to this influential demographic during the primaries has paid off with sweeping victories across the country. Now Hillary Clinton has to make sure that that the same demographic is energized to go to the polls in November, particularly in swing states like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.
But this isn’t simply an issue of partisanship. On Tuesday, the mothers of slain children stood together on stage as cheers of “Black Lives Matter” filled the Pennsylvania Convention Center. “This isn’t about being politically correct,” Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, told the crowd. “This is about saving our children.” It was a moving soundbite, but these women were not there merely to evoke emotion. They aimed to solicit support. They come together because they understand it is harder to argue with the intent behind Black Lives Matter when staring into the faces of the mothers who have lived the struggle. They are self-possessed, respectable, and righteous.
And while these particular black women occupy public space as Clinton supporters, the impact of black women generally extends far outside the Democratic Party. While some, including the president, may argue that new forms of grassroots organizing are not as important or effective as electoral politics in making change, the work inside and outside of political systems can act as dual modes of disruption. This is especially true when parallel movements work in tandem.
After all, it is largely because of black women’s organizing that criminal justice reform has entered the national political conversation and Hillary Clinton has been pushed to embrace a more populist, class-conscious agenda. Today, the Democratic Party’s Platform now explicitly addresses these concerns.
Even the “impolite” and less orderly activism of black women prompts important shifts. The Democratic nominee did not renounce her 1996 endorsement of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—in which she infamously referred to young black men as violent “super predators”—until 23-year-old Ashley Williams confronted her at a fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina. That moment, captured on cellphone video, was a turning point for the campaign.
It’s time to recognize the true power of the black woman in American society. But our work is not done. While fear-mongering and xenophobia fuel Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the ticket, black women continue to work towards a future in which their lives and the lives of their loved ones matter beyond the voting booth.
On many fronts, black women’s work anchors progressive political movement by providing a moral and rhetorical center. And in a small way, the DNC honored that this week.