African American Women in Defense of Ourselves Proclamation
In 1991, Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination and Anita Hill’s Senate testimony ignited the combined fuel of racism, sexism, and violence that was seeping out of our history. In response, more than 1600 signatories and their allies, as African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, signed a public proclamation of outrage and resistance that still echoes today.
Immediately following Anita Hill’s testimony, three women, Elsa Barkley Brown, Deborah King and Barbara Ransby launched an effort to raise funds to buy ads in several newspapers, including a full page in the New York Times. Galvanized women raised over $50,000 in just a few weeks, in an era without cell phones, widespread email, social media, or texting. It was a true social media mobilization and it happened before the Internet was ubiquitous.
Yet, these women who contributed money and signed their names were not in alignment with others in their communities. Shortly before the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings began, 54% of African Americans supported his nomination to the Supreme Court; immediately after Anita Hill’s testimony, that percentage increased to as high as 70%.
This is the full text of the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves proclamation as it appeared in eight major newspapers in 1991
African American Women in Defense of Ourselves
As women of African descent, we are deeply troubled by the recent nomination, conrmation and seating of Clarence Thomas as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. We know that the presence of Clarence Thomas on the Court will be continually used to divert attention from historic struggles for social justice through suggestions that the presence of a Black man on the Supreme Court constitutes an assurance that the rights of African Americans will be protected. Clarence Thomas’ public record is ample evidence this will not be true. Further, the consolidation of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court seriously endangers the rights of all women, poor and working class people and the elderly. The seating of Clarence Thomas is an aront not only to African American women and men, but to all people concerned with social justice.
We are particularly outraged by the racist and sexist treatment of Professor Anita Hill, an African American woman who was maligned and castigated for daring to speak publicly of her own experience of sexual abuse. The malicious defamation of Professor Hill insulted all women of African descent and sent a dangerous message to any woman who might contemplate a sexual harassment complaint.
We speak here because we recognize that the media are now portraying the Black community as prepared to tolerate both the dismantling of armative action and the evil of sexual harassment in order to have any Black man on the Supreme Court. We want to make clear that the media have ignored or distorted many African American voices. We will not be silenced.
Many have erroneously portrayed the allegations against Clarence Thomas as an issue of either gender or race. As women of African descent, we understand sexual harassment as both. We further understand that Clarence Thomas outrageously manipulated the legacy of lynching in order to shelter himself from Anita Hill’s allegations. To deect attention away from the reality of sexual abuse in African American women’s lives, he trivialized and misrepresented this painful part of African American people’s history. This country which has a long legacy of racism and sexism, has never taken the sexual abuse of Black women seriously. Throughout U.S. history Black women have been sexually stereotyped as immoral, insatiable, perverse; the initiators in all sexual contacts – abusive or otherwise. The common assumption in legal proceedings as well as in the larger society has been that Black women cannot be raped or otherwise sexually abused. As Anita Hill’s experience demonstrates, Black women who speak of these matters are not likely to be believed.
In 1991, we cannot tolerate this type of dismissal of any one Black woman’s experience or this attack upon our collective character without protest, outrage, and resistance.
As women of African descent, we express our vehement opposition to the policies represented by the placement of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. The Bush administration, have obstructed the passage of civil rights legislation, impeded the extension of unemployment compensation, cut student aid and dismantled social welfare programs, has continually demonstrated that it is not operating in our best interests. Nor is this appointee. We pledge ourselves to continue to speak out in defense of one another, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.
About Sisters Testify
Sisters Testify is a history project to connect with the signatories of the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves proclamation. More than 1600 signed it following Anita Hill’s testimony during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. The proclamation appeared in The New York Times and several other newspapers in November 1991. Anita Hill’s testimony reverberated throughout our society and continues to echo in current events.
The last line of the proclamation is: “No one will speak for us but ourselves.”
Since then, the signatories have each done just that as they navigated their own individual journey, and their collective impact has been far-reaching. Sisters Testify is my project to connect with as many of the other signatories as possible.
Copyright 2016-2023 Delida Costin