“Well, little lady, you did it.”
That is what a white electoral official told Rosanell Eaton in 1939 after she recited the preamble to the Constitution of the United States in full, from memory, in front of him and his colleagues. Eaton, a black 18-year-old woman, knew that she should expect such challenges from voting officials. She had been facing discrimination long before she became one of the first registered black voters in Franklin County, North Carolina.
Eaton is one of the “unsung heroes” praised by President Barack Obama in a letter written to the New York Times Magazine on August 12. Written in response to Jim Rutenberg’s “A Dream Undone,” an explainer on the efforts made to dismantle the equalizing effects of the Voting Rights Act in the 50 years since it became law, President Obama used his letter as an opportunity to sing Eaton’s praises.
“I am where I am today only because men and women like Rosanell Eaton refused to accept anything less than a full measure of equality,” Obama said. “Their efforts made our country a better place. It is now up to us to continue those efforts.”
Obama’s letter calls on Congress to “restore the Voting Rights Act,” an anti-discrimination measure signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 that has since seen restrictive changes in the 50 years since.
In June 2013, a ruling from the United States Supreme Court freed nine primarily southern states—Eaton’s North Carolina included—from having to receive federal approval before changing their election laws. Restrictions against voters reappeared in Eaton’s home state shortly after, when North Carolina’s Republican-controlled general assembly passed House Bill 589, a set of strict voter ID measures that were quickly called the “most restrictive since the Jim Crow era.” The law made voting for most North Carolinians a difficult process, but especially hard for African Americans like Eaton, who composed 23 percent of registered voters in the state at the time and are said to be disproportionately affected.
Eaton, who marched for equality with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights era, is still fighting for the rights she worked tirelessly for decades to obtain. In 2013, she was arrested protesting the voter ID laws. At a “Moral Mondays” protest in North Carolina’s capitol, she told the crowd how she had personally registered 4,000 people as voters in the state. “I am fed up and I’m fired up,” she said. Now, Eaton is one of the lead plaintiffs in North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. v. McCrory, a federal district court case challenging restrictive voter ID laws, claiming they violate the Voting Rights Act.
“I’ve always been politically inclined. I’ve always fought,” she told WRAL in 2013.
She is joined by the League of Women’s Voters, A.C.L.U., N.A.A.C.P., a group of college voters, and the Justice Department, who all filed suits that were combined after House Bill 589 was made North Carolina law. The group awaits a verdict from U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, who heard arguments in July.
Eaton, called the “grande dame of the trial” in Rutenberg’s piece, says HB 589 was purposefully written to disenfranchise black voters like her. Under the new strict voter ID rules, which will be enforced for the first time during the 2016 election, she may be unable to vote because, after a full life, different versions of her name appear across her birth certificate, driver’s license and voter registration card. “It’s disgusting,” she said.
“You know, all of this is coming back around before I could get in the ground,” Eaton told her daughter in a September 2014 report from the Guardian. “I was hoping I would be dead before I’d have to see all this again.”
To understand her journey as a civil rights pioneer, history must be examined. The Civil War came to an end in 1865. During and after the Reconstruction era that followed its end, many African Americans who attempted to vote were subject to violence at the hands of angry whites and faced electoral fraud in the southern states that kept their newly-granted Fourteenth Amendment rights from being fully exercised.
The segregated south where Eaton was raised proved a violent, aggressive place to be a black person: her family’s cotton and tobacco farm, the only African American-owned plot in the neighborhood, was subject to cross-burning, property destruction and threats of gun violence from white neighbors. She attended segregated schools and drank from water fountains marked ‘blacks only.’ For most of her lifetime, voting while black proved nearly impossible because of provisions that allowed discrimination against racial or language minorities at the polls.
On the day she recited the Constitution’s preamble, Rosanell Eaton faced Jim Crow-era voting laws meant to keep black and minority populations disenfranchised and from the vote. Literacy and interpretation tests, poll taxes, property-ownership requirements, and “grandfather clauses” were common. This guaranteed American right of passage did not come easy for women like Eaton, who cast her first vote cast three decades before suppression laws were outlawed in 1965, after years of protest from civil rights activists like herself.
“It’s a cruel irony that the words that set our democracy in motion were used as part of the so-called literacy test designed to deny Rosanell and so many other African-Americans the right to vote,” Obama said. “Rosanell is now 94 years old. She has not given up. She’s still marching. She’s still fighting to make real the promise of America.”
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