Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush never set out to make history as the first Black woman elected to Congress from Missouri.
Back in 2014, Bush didn’t even consider herself an activist. But after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a White police officer in Ferguson, she knew she needed to do something. As a pastor and a nurse, she planned to take to the streets to “help pray with people” and to work as a medic, she says. But within months, she would become a leader in the movement and says she was quickly approached by fellow activists and community leaders to run for office.
That led to an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2016 followed by an unsuccessful attempt in 2018 to unseat incumbent Rep. William Lacy Clay (D) in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. But in August, Bush challenged Clay again in the Democratic primary — and won. She also won handily in the general election, garnering 78.9 percent of the vote in her district, which encompasses St. Louis as well as Ferguson and is 49 percent Black. After making Black Lives Matter a central tenet of her 2020 campaign, many activists attributed her victory to the summer’s protests against police violence.
Like other female candidates this cycle, Bush emphasized her unique life story: She is a single mother who overcame temporary homelessness to become a nurse and pastor. She is a survivor of sexual assault. And she has been moved to activism and politics by the killings of Black men and women by police. Now, she’s joining a tradition of Black women who have gone from grass-roots community organizing into electoral politics. Experts say she is paving the way for the next generation of activists, too.
“You don’t have to compromise who you are, you don’t have to shrink,” Bush, 44, says of her win. “I’m intentional about doing this every single day — not changing who I am, but creating my own space so that other women are then able to do the same.”
From Bush’s win to Kamala D. Harris’s historic victory as the first woman of color elected vice president, 2020 has laid bare the electoral power of Black women, says Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies and political science at Macalester College and the author of “Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Trump.” Early exit polls estimate that 91 percent of Black women voted for the Biden-Harris ticket, making them the Democratic Party’s most loyal supporters. Although Black women make up only 7 percent of the population, they tend to vote at higher rates than other groups. This unity effects real change, according to Duchess Harris.
She attributes this to the idea of “linked fate” — that Black women vote with other Black women and minorities in mind. In other words, by voting consistently as a group, Black women are more likely to advance issues most important to them. This goes hand in hand with grass-roots organizing in the movement for racial justice — a movement largely led by Black women.
“If people want to overlook Black women as voters, they’re going to get surprised every single time,” Harris says. “If people think that these protests aren’t linked to getting elected representation, they’re just not paying attention.”
Bush isn’t the only Black female activist in Missouri who has been making headlines in recent months. A week before the election, Keiajah “KJ” Brooks, a 20-year-old student living in Kansas City, went viral for her comments at an Oct. 27 Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners meeting.
Brooks says she had always been politically active in school, but only started grass-roots organizing — planning protests and speaking at events in Kansas City — over the summer, when the George Floyd protests began. A few months ago, Brooks spoke at an event alongside Bush and had “the privilege of meeting” the congresswoman-elect. Seeing another woman go from grass-roots organizing to an elected official was a “beacon of hope,” she says.
Brooks, who is attending Johnson County Community College, says she wants to get through school and maybe attend law school afterward. One day, she could see herself taking a path like Bush’s. “It’s an example of how someone in our position can exalt themselves to a political leadership role,” she says. “I really believe that those who are closest to the issues are closest to the solutions.”
Although Bush represents a first in Missouri, other Black women have laid the groundwork for runs like hers. Harris, the professor, points out that Shirley Chisholm — the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968 and the first Black person to run for a major political party’s presidential ticket in 1972 — was politically active for years in her New York City neighborhood before being elected. More recently, Harris says, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), first elected in 1991, has advocated on behalf of her community of South Central Los Angeles on Capitol Hill.
“It’s this kind of lineage where you can see how Black women have been inspired by their local communities, the way Cori was inspired by Ferguson, and it could lead to, ‘Well, I’ll run for office myself,’” Harris says.
Indeed, Bush’s supporters in St. Louis emphasize that they appreciate how deeply involved Bush is in the community. Trina Rager, a 23-year-old from St. Louis who is currently living in Chicago, voted absentee for Bush. Rager first started hearing about Bush in the Democratic primary in 2018 and later in the Netflix film “Knock Down the House,” where she is featured alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“I felt like I could trust her,” Rager says. “She reminds me of my mother. My mom was a single mom, and we had our own issues that we went through. I liked that she gets to the wounds and doesn’t just slap Band-Aids over the issues she’s going to address.”
For Rager, one of the most salient of those issues is education. She says she went to St. Louis public schools for her entire life and persistently noticed a lack of resources. Police brutality has been an issue for her since Michael Brown’s shooting as well.
Bush says she is going to be focused on “equity” once she gets to Capitol Hill: securing covid-19 relief in the form of universal basic income, “true police reform” and Medicare-for-all. Many suspect she will be the newest member of “the Squad” — four progressive women of color, including Ocasio-Cortez, who were elected in the 2018 cycle — once in Congress.
For Rager, voting for Bush came down to this: “We needed our voice to be heard. And now she’s going from the streets of Ferguson to Congress for it.”