06 Jan Raising the States for Black Women
By Gwen McKinney
Early on the bug bit Melanie Campbell.
A student organizer in the “second wave” of southern voting rights campaigns, she’d carry a freshly-minted degree in Business Administration from Clark Atlanta University to a corporate position. Promising and potentially lucrative, the opportunities at her fingertips never completed her.
It was the mid-1980s and Atlanta was teeming with politics and possibilities. “Everything was melded with the advocacy of social and racial justice – voting rights, labor rights, economic justice – they were interwoven into our work,” remembers Campbell.
From on-the-ground labor organizing with Mississippi catfish workers, to Selma Bloody Sunday voting rights marches and trainings, to mobilizing Atlanta University Center Get-Out-The-Vote elections for Ambassador Andrew Young mayor of Atlanta race in the 1980’s, to the third reelection drives for Atlanta’s first Black mayor Maynard Jackson, Campbell’s plate was overflowing.
Increasingly her spare time would be consumed in political organizing and the day job would be an intrusion on her passion projects. The pivot, she confides, was less a reinvention and more tapping into what felt natural.
The die was cast for an activist youth leader who steadily honed her niche in civil rights, political empowerment and civic engagement. When offered a job with the DC-based National Coalition on Black Civic Participation in 1995, it seemed a logical progression.
“I decided to come to DC for about 18 months,” reflected Campbell. Fast forward 25 years and the NCBCP President & CEO, acknowledges that the time and demands have been a perpetual preoccupation, no less consuming than the campaigns of her youth.
Today the National Coalition and its Black Women’s Roundtable (BWR), Black Youth Vote and Unity Diaspora Coalition intergenerational networks focuses on building Black political and economic power and social justice, with an annual reach of over five million Black Americans. The National Coalition comprises over 70 national membership organizations, 11 state-based affiliates and partners in the South. Their ranks include leading Black women civic and political leaders.
Partnering with an array of other women’s and civil rights organizations, NCBCP/BWR continues to raise the stakes in the states, securing down ballot victories and the next generation of Black women leaders. A historic number of Black women are seated in Congress as a result of that activism.
The BWR decades-long push has also helped to explode the electoral power of Black women. Beginning in early 2000 and leading up to the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, exit polls and election outcomes revealed that over-performing Black women voters were tipping the balance in electoral victories across the country.
Melanie Campbell, president/CEO, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, pictured with Dr. Dorothy I. Height (left), former president of the National Council of Negro Women.
The secret sauce, confides Campbell, is in the diversity and unity of our people weaved throughout the fabric of Black civic life – sororities, faith organizations, service clubs and advocacy organizations.
“Prominent veterans and those just starting out, seasoned organizers and emerging leaders all have something to give.” Campbell draws on personal testimony, acknowledging that she was mentored and nurtured at the knees of legendary leaders. They included Dr. Joseph and Evelyn Lowery, Coretta Scott King, Rev. Vincent Orange and her first among equals movement giant – Dr. Dorothy I. Height.
The chair and president of the National Council of Negro Women, Dr. Height was the quintessential “race woman” whose influence and impact touched virtually every major civil rights campaign of the 20th Century – anti-lynching, employment, women’s rights, voting rights, education and Black women’s empowerment.
Campbell says Dr. Height dispensed many lessons, but intergenerational inclusion – a vital hallmark of BWR – was one of the most important. “She knew youth are our future, but never missed an opportunity to salute the Sheroes on whose shoulders she stood.”
“She treated everyone with the same respect and dignity,” Campbell continues. “It didn’t matter if you were the President or First Lady of the United States or the sister from the neighborhood.”