Six years ago, Amelia Boynton Robinson, then 103, arrived at the Capitol in a gold suit and sparkling shoes to match.
Invited by Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), Robinson was an honored guest at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, 50 years after “Bloody Sunday,” in which police violently attacked voting rights demonstrators as they attempted to march peacefully across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
Robinson was among those beaten during the protest. A photo of her lying unconscious from the attack went viral, appearing in newspapers around the world. But her legacy extends well beyond that harrowing day. She is credited for persuading the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a stand for equality in Selma. She made history as the first African American in Alabama to run for Congress. And her role as a matriarch of the voting rights movement is immortalized in the movie “Selma.” Still, Robinson was never considered a household name like her friends King and Rosa Parks.
But as she waited in the vestibule to greet Obama ahead of his speech in 2015, Robinson was surrounded by admirers, kneeling down to her wheelchair to take photos with one of the oldest living civil rights activists at the time, Sewell recalled. “Everyone said … ‘Miss Amelia, we stand on your shoulders,’ ” Sewell said. Robinson’s response: “Get off my shoulders and do your own work!"
Those words have remained with Sewell for years, she said; and on Tuesday, after the House passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in a 219-to-212 vote, Sewell felt she had finally honored Robinson’s request.
“I’m so happy that today we’ve done our own work,” the congresswoman said during a news conference after the vote.
Named after the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4) would fully restore protections of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was weakened by a pair of Supreme Court rulings over the past decade.
Amid ongoing efforts by Republican-led states to enact new voting restrictions, Sewell, other Democrats and voting rights experts believe these protections are needed more than ever. Supporters of voting restrictions claim without evidence that unless subject to strict limits, mail ballots open the door to widespread fraud.
“The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, removing essential federal protections for voters in states that have historically disenfranchised people of color,” said Christina Sanders, an adjunct professor of political science at Texas Southern University. “Nearly half of the states in the union have enacted new laws that make it unnecessarily more difficult to vote.”
But H.R. 4 faces tough odds getting through the Senate, where the party’s slim 50-50 majority means it’ll be short of the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster and land the bill on President Biden’s desk. So far, only one Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said she supports the legislation.
“It’s a herculean task,” Sewell said of trying to pass the bill. “But I am not going to be deterred as our foremothers weren’t deterred in their efforts,” she added, referencing women who previously led the charge against voting suppression.
As the United States recognizes Women’s Equality Day on Aug. 26, which commemorates the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920, their contributions are back in the spotlight. But while Black women played a crucial role in the suffrage movement, the bill’s passage did not guarantee them the right to vote. Instead, it marked the start of a new fight to secure voting rights for all Americans, which would take another 45 years.
“The intersectionality of Black women’s identity not only influenced their activism, but it also underscored the barriers that they had to overcome to advance a vision of universal suffrage,” said Franita Tolson, a law professor and vice dean at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law. “Society is just now starting to appreciate the high levels of activism among this group, even though this activism is not new.”
“We see more recognition for Black women by compounding social justice, civil rights and voting rights events," said Sanders, who is also the founder and director of the PoliChic Engagement Fund, which works to engage Texas women in elections.
Indeed, in recent years of increasing political and racial divides, the media has shone a spotlight on the influence that Black women, like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown and Helen Butler, had in record voter turnout across the country.
“One of the things that Black women advocates have been doing, especially in Georgia, is keeping the community’s eye on the prize and crafting methods to inform and motivate Black voters to get out to the polls,” said Adrienne Jones, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College. “Their work is not just of benefit to voters of color, it makes democracy possible for all.”
Ahead of next year’s midterm elections, where Republicans hope to regain control of Congress, the voting rights movement is ramping up again. Thousands are expected to descend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday for a voting rights rally, coinciding with the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington.
The event is the culmination of a summer of voting rights pushes — from nationwide protests to legislative efforts like the For The People Act and Sewell’s H.R. 4.
“I have now filed a version of this bill in four successive Congresses,” Sewell said, and this week, she noted, was the first time she did it without John Lewis by her side. “It was bittersweet. But I do know that John’s legacy lives on in all the people he impacted.”
A Selma native, Sewell said voting rights felt like a natural and personal cause for her to take up. Growing up, Sewell attended Brown Chapel AME Church, where activists like Lewis would convene for mass gatherings, including one on the morning of Bloody Sunday.
“People who were a part of that movement were part of the very fabric of the community I grew up in,” Sewell said. “Whether they were my schoolteachers … church members or my babysitter.”
These days, when Sewell walks the halls of Congress, she said she feels disheartened by congressional infighting. But one thing that lifts her spirits is a portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to serve in Congress, standing with her arms crossed. “It’s probably the only portrait of a Black woman in the Capitol,” Sewell said. “She’s looking unbought and unbossed. And it just reminds me that I should have a pep in my step and a glide in my stride because I get to walk 15 years after her.”
Robinson, who died on Aug. 26 six years ago, has also left an imprint on Sewell. Back in 1964, Robinson ran unsuccessfully for the seat Sewell now occupies. It’s now Sewell’s sixth term representing Alabama’s 7th District, the state’s Black Belt, and she credits Robinson for paving the way: “In so many ways, I really do stand on her shoulders.”