March is Women’s History Month, and this month is the perfect time to lift the Black women’s organizations that make such an essential difference in our lives. Last year, both the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women (NANBPW) celebrated their 85th anniversary. Thanks to COVID-19, neither organization had the opportunity to celebrate in the way they planned; now they are celebrating by Zoom. The differently scaled celebration does not diminish the importance that these organizations have.
When I think of NCNW, I think of the late Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, who used to say, “If I tap you with my finger, you may or may not feel it, but if I combine these five fingers into a fist, you will definitely feel it.” Dr. Height was not a pugilistic woman, but she was a fervent believer in the power of the collective. And NCNW, an “organization of organizations,” certainly fits that bill. Too many times, in modern history, NCNW, the collective, has been present. Many of us, for example, attended Labor Secretary Alexis Herman’s confirmation hearings, many wearing the crimson and cream colors of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Ms. Herman’s sorority (and also mine). Deltas were not the only people in the house. Other Divine Nine sisters joined us, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho. We made an impression, and those senators prepared to grill Herman had to think twice because we were there.
Black women had a tremendous impact on this current election. I think of LaTosha Brown, a Black Votes Matter leader, and the tireless work she did to get voters out. I think of Melanie Campbell and the sisters of the Black Women’s Roundtable. There are so many more Black women and Black women’s organizations that made a difference in this election. President Biden has acknowledged the Black community and Black women in particular.
It is crucial, though, that our coalition continues to stay active and connected. One Black woman, Kristen Clarke, has been nominated to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights. Already, the right wing is going after her with their usual smear campaign tactics, taking comments out of context and blowing them up. The same coalition that worked to get the vote out now must work to support this exceptional woman.
Similarly, two other women of color are being smeared. Vanita Gupta, President of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, has been attacked by rabid right-wingers. Another woman of color, Neera Tanden, who leads the Center for American Progress, has been attacked for her tweets. Really? Her tweets, some say, are vicious. When have tweets adhered to a civility protocol? The coalition of Black women who have always made a difference must step up to support these women, too.
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of NCNW, was a firm believer in diversity and inclusion. She reached out to white women who shared our values and worked in coalition with them when she could, given the constraints of the time. She would approve supporting sisters Gupta and Tanden, women of color just like us. While we might not be on the same page as these sisters on everything, we have enough in common to be passionate in their defense. The smear tactics that the rabid right uses to smear these women are unacceptable. They are the same tactics that these people use against Vice President Kamala Harris. We need to make sure they don’t work.
I often wonder what motivated Dr. Bethune to form an organization in the middle of the Great Depression, when overall unemployment rates soared to 25% and Black unemployment was two or three times higher. In 1935, food lines snaked around city blocks and down dusty roads in rural communities. Too many Black folks were pushed to the back of the line or denied assistance altogether. The indignities were innumerable, but Bethune shrugged them off to build a powerful organization with unprecedented access to President Roosevelt. She walked into Roosevelt’s office with the collective strength of Black women in her fingers or her fist.
Black women’s organizations don’t get the credit they are due, so these organizations must be lifted in this Women’s History Month. What would our nation be without these organizations who get out the vote, raise money for scholarships, provide social and civic services, and do so much more? I don’t want to know the answer. All I know is that Black women’s organizations matter. We must celebrate them!
Malveaux is an economist and author.