A Wisconsin matriarch and her granddaughter take seriously their role in American democracy
But she is troubled by the current debates over voting rights and the integrity of the nation’s election system. Pearson has watched as Republicans in Wisconsin have engineered a gerrymander that has given the party a near veto-proof majority in the state legislature. The state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Ron Johnson, who was at the center of efforts to toss out the legitimate results of the 2020 election there, is among a contingent of election deniers who will appear on the ballot this November.
Still, Pearson remains hopeful about the power of her vote. She is closely following the race for Wisconsin’s senate seat, which could give the state its first Black senator.
Nada Elmikashfi, one of just a handful of Black staffers in the Wisconsin state legislature, is frustrated that Democrats in Washington, despite controlling the White House and Congress, have struggled to deliver have struggled to address the issues most concerning to Black Americans, including confronting racism and addressing police use of excessive force.
But she, too, continues to believe in voting as a form of resistance against Republicans who continue to push former president Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread election fraud, especially in cities with large Black populations.
After the 2020 election, a phrase started going around on social media: Thank A Black Woman. National exit polls showed that 90 percent of Black women voted for President Biden. For instance, in Georgia, where a Democrat had not won a statewide contest in nearly three decades, 92 percent of Black women voted for Biden, boosting his margin against Trump, who lost by fewer than 12,000 votes. Democratic activists, and even some Republicans, praised Black women for saving American democracy from what some saw as the existential threat of another four years of Trump.
Black women like Elmikashi and her friend Maia Pearson, Sadie’s granddaughter, are feeling the pressure again this year to save democracy from election deniers now running for office, even though the system hasn’t always delivered for them.
“But where I find my drive is looking at what the agenda of the Republican Party is,” Elmikashfi said. “They are waging a war on issues of race and voting rights.”
Nearly 60 years after the Voting Rights Act led to suffrage for the vast majority of Black America, some Black women who pride themse
lves on their sparkling voter turnout records, said they were struggling to see the fruits of their participation. They described an America where racism is on the rise, voting rights and the electoral process are under attack, and politicians seem unable or unwilling to protect Black Americans.
But for a generation of Black Americans, many of whom saw their parents and grandparents fight and even die for the right to participate in American democracy, the vote is a sacred duty, and going to the polls is sacrosanct. Black women, in particular, vote at higher rates than almost any other group in the country.
Sadie Pearson says she understands that at times it’s hard for Black Americans to continue to believe in the power of democracy. She herself questions it at times.
“Sometimes it just feels like us Black people will never really be free until we’re dead,” she said.
But she feels an obligation to her ancestors to keep the faith. “I just always remember the older people in the South who never got to vote. I remember how long my mom had to wait to vote.”
Sadie Pearson was born in a barn outside the tiny town of Doerun in southern Georgia. Her mother recorded her birth in her Bible. After her father died when she was 2 years old, Pearson’s mother moved to Jacksonville, Fla., where she found work as a fry cook at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. Sadie started working at the base in the day-care center after she was forced to drop out of eighth grade when she got pregnant. She was married at 16 and by 25 had seven children.
In 1963, Pearson, by then a single mother, and a friend headed to Madison, where they hoped to escape Jim Crow.
Even after leaving the Deep South, they continued to encounter racism on the road to Madison; people shouted slurs at them at the gas stations and rest stops along the way.
“They called us all kinds of names,” Pearson said. “It was really scary. I thought I had left racism in Florida, but then, I was like, ‘God, is there racism everywhere?’ ”
The harrowing journey took nearly a week, but it’s one that Pearson never regrets. She said she found respect in Madison, where she continued working with young children. She became a leader in the South Madison community, sitting on boards for groups like Madison’s Equal Opportunities Commission and the Wisconsin Women of Color Network.
And she got the chance to participate in American democracy, a role she has taken seriously. Not long after casting her first vote, she started working at the polls in her precinct, just across the street from her house. Pearson said that while a lot of people she knew worked the polls for the extra few dollars, she was there to help other Black people exercise their right to vote.
“I was asked if I wanted to work the polls in South Madison, because all the poll workers were White, and more and more Black people were moving into the neighborhood,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I ended up working the polls for 25 years. I wanted to be there for people like that person I was, Black people showing up to vote for the first time. I wanted to be there to tell them that their votes really count.”
Pearson passed that belief on to her children and grandchildren, whom she’d bring along to the polls with her when they were growing up.
Maia Pearson, Sadie’s granddaughter, who was elected to the Madison school board in 2020, said that her interest in politics really began on the days when she’d sit at the precinct with her grandmother, watching her do the nitty-gritty, unglamorous work of keeping American democracy functioning.
“I remember the day I turned 18, my grandmother was like, ‘Wake up, let’s go get you registered to vote,’ ” said Maia Pearson, 34. “I remember being like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t even know who to vote for.’ And grandma was like, ‘It don’t even matter, you just got to vote.’ ”
Sadie Pearson, like most Black women, is a loyal Democratic Party voter. But the relationship is complicated. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted earlier this year found that the percentage of Black Americans who say the Democratic Party represents their views and interests is down from 82 percent in 2020 to 73 percent in 2022, while three-quarters of Black Americans wrote off the Republican Party as racist.
Elmikashfi’s frustrations reflect those findings. She said that she understands why so many Black people are disillusioned with American democracy, particularly given the obstacles Democrats in Washington, with a razor-thin majority in Congress, have faced in fulfilling campaign promises.
“The Democratic Party takes communities of color for granted, where it’s like, ‘Oh, these people are going to vote for us anyway, so we’re not going to go to their doorstep. We’re not going to ask them what they need exactly,’ ” Elmikashfi said. “That is exhausting. And I can’t imagine what it’s like for the Black organizers that did so much for Joe Biden.”
A Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted earlier this year showed that Black Americans see a broad constellation of threats facing their communities. More than 8 in 10 said racism, gun violence, the criminal justice system and police brutality are major threats, and more than 7 in 10 said that the cost of health care, restrictions on voting rights, lack of economic opportunity and drugs also constitute major threats.
Sadie Pearson also is concerned that the country is moving backward in some ways. Still, she believes her children and grandchildren have achieved things in Wisconsin that she says would never have been possible for her and them in Florida.
“All my kids graduated and they all went to college, and so did my grandkids, and I know my great-grandkids will go to college,” Pearson Sadie said. “So they got up here and they finally got to be a little free.”
That’s when her granddaughter Maia broke into the conversation.
“Yes, we have opportunities, and it’s different up here,” she said. “But the discrimination has been undercover in a lot of ways.”
Maia believes that many White Wisconsinites, who have historically dominated the state’s social, economic and political institutions, are threatened by Black people’s successes.
“There’s this fear that we’re great, the fear that we’re brilliant, and I think there have been concentrated and even unconscious efforts to kind of check that and not allow it to go too far,” Maia said.
In addition to her role on the school board, Maia works as the Wisconsin state director of Rise, a nonprofit that trains and hires college students to organize campaigns to lower college costs and expand access. While her grandmother was forced to leave her home in Florida and everything she knew to see a better life, Maia is committed to staying in Madison and changing it for the next generation of Black youth.
Maia’s friend and political ally Nada Elmikashfi says she feels the weight of that history every day at the Wisconsin Capitol.
When Elmikashfi was growing up the daughter of Sudanese immigrants, the Wisconsin Capitol, with its towering marble columns and its great granite dome, was an everyday reminder of the power and promise of American democracy.
“It exemplified for me as an immigrant, America and the American promise of equity and structure and law and order,” said Elmikashfi, who arrived in Madison at age 6. Twenty years later, Elmikashfi is working at the Capitol. Walking its gilded halls, she is still awed by the grandeur of the building, but even after three years, she said, she often feels like an uninvited guest.
“There’s a lot of White imagery in these halls that I don’t see myself in,” Elmikashfi said. “This is a White Capitol. It’s a place where you have to make your voice heard as a Black woman, but it’s also a place where you feel like you’re not supposed to even be here.”
Elmikashfi and Maia, despite their frustrations, will again take on the task of trying to save democracy this November. Being on the front line of that fight is exhausting, Maia says, but like her grandmother, Sadie Pearson, she doesn’t really feel as if she has a choice.
“My grandma always said as a Black woman you have two strikes against you at all times, you are Black and you are a woman, and I think as Black women we are constantly having to fight to get what we need,” Maia Pearson said. “But we’re tired, so even with this election coming up, we know the stakes. We know how important it is. So we’re going to fight, but … we’re not superheroes. Black women can’t come and save the day all the time. I have two daughters, and I legitimately want them to be able to rest one day.”
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.