Dying to Vote

As voting controversies multiply I think back to origins. I think of a Senator from Missouri and a lady who recently celebrated her 97th birthday in North Carolina.

Her name is Rosanell Eaton. As folks gathered in North Carolina to march to the polls, she stood, worn and feisty, and talked about the days when the poll tax, the tax on those showing up to register, was occasionally death. She and her mother rode in a mule drawn wagon for two hours to the courthouse in 1939, where she was determined to exercise her right to vote. She was confronted by the traditional test, the one given to black folks.

One man, as they were looking at each other again, told me: Stand up straight, against that wall, with your eyes looking directly toward me, and repeat the Preamble of the United States of America.

To everyone’s surprise, she looked the man in the eyes and repeated, word for word, the entire preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

Without missing a word, I did it.

The stunned guardians of the old South relented, and decided she could vote after all.

The task of memorizing, word for word, long sections of national documents would be beyond most of us. It was a minimum requirement of black people in those days.

Other requirements were less formal. Jobs were lost when employers were told of visits to the courthouse. Houses were burned.

The whole history of voting, of course, was one of the things that led to the enactment of civil rights legislation. Blacks were routinely denied the right to register – let alone vote.

They were threatened if they came to register. Some were hung. Others were injured. Churches were burned. Homes were blown up. The whole history of the right of the black population to vote, had gone on for years with very little success.

Benjamin Zelenko, Former Counsel, House Committee on the Judiciary

There was famous progress. Lyndon Johnson signed civil rights and voting rights acts:

Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield.

President Lyndon Johnson, August 6, 1965

In the 1970s, thirty five years after Rosanell Eaton rode in a wagon drawn by mules and faced down voting rights obstacles, the direction of the country was more than a little discouraging. Those of us who looked toward a hopeful future of continued progress had been inspired by images of Kennedyesque vigor and Martin Luther King social morality. But then came the cascade of tragedy, the death of national leaders, JFK, Martin, Bobby. We wondered if the nation would survive.

And finally, we had Nixon.

The bright spots were hard to see in the glare of national news. Brave people who had been told not to vote, not even to register, told by those with guns and the determination to use them, those under threat were showing up, filling out paperwork. They were going to vote. They were following in the footsteps of the first lonely few.

Prices were paid, of course. For generations, trees had been decorated with human bodies. In the early 1970s, decaying remains were still found in swamps and earthen dams. Rosanell was one of the survivors.

The national bright lights were not just the heroes of the south. And national figures were not just Democrats. The Republican party was still the Party of Lincoln. Jacob Javits, Charles H. Percy, Mark Hatfield, and Margaret Chase Smith were among them.

One bright light was here in Missouri. Christopher Bond was the youngest governor ever to serve in the state. He was a contrast to traditional, dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. He was the new breed. He was a friend to minorities. He favored the Equal Rights Amendment for women. He moved to excise old antiquated laws of oppression, like one declaring a war of extermination against Mormons. Ugh.

His Lieutenant Governor was more the Republican type we were used to. Ed Phelps was the very image of the aging buttoned up, vested conservative.

Then came Watergate and all Hell broke loose. As Nixon’s maneuvers to hide evidence of wrongdoing approached the edge of absurdity, it became obvious that hiding evidence of guilt had itself become evidence of guilt. It became a sort of cosmic test of Republican politicians, an almost biblical separation of goats and sheep.

Here in Missouri, it was not exactly a shock when the bright young Kit Bond broke from his crusty old partner Ed Phelps. How they broke was surprising. Kit Bond went to ridiculous lengths to defend the corrupt President. Extreme conservative Phelps was sputtering angry as he demanded that Nixon resign and that people go to trial for criminal acts.

Watergate was a political turning point for young Mr. Bond. His friendly demeanor became surly. The easy relationship with historically oppressed minorities became one of mutual suspicion. Even his appearance seemed to change, lips curling quickly into an angry sneer.

Then came the 2000 election. Kit Bond was a Senator by then, and was not even up for election. But he had friends who were. John Ashcroft was running for the senate. Jim Talent was the Republican candidate for Governor. Both lost.

The election itself was an obvious national mess. It was worse in Missouri, especially in St. Louis. Records were mislaid. Precincts ran out of ballots. One polling place was closed when voters in line exceeded recommended crowd size for the building. Folks were shuffled from one polling place to another. Then polls began to close with thousands still waiting in line.

Judge Evelyn Baker ordered polls to stay open until voters who had been waiting all evening could vote. She was eventually overruled by another court. Voters who had been waiting in line for hours were told to go home.

It wasn’t about long lines. It was about the fact that there were thousands of registered voters who were denied the right to exercise their franchise.

Judge Evelyn Baker, November 8, 2000

Kit Bond was mad as all hell. He promised there would be an investigation of St. Louis voting.

He was not angry that thousands of voters had been denied the right to vote. He was mad because of efforts to keep polls open to allow them to vote. He accused voters of voting illegally. They had voted more than once. People who were not real voters had voted. Even pets had been registered, their owners voting.

As he and others insisted, investigations were indeed conducted. Every accusation was run down by investigators. Every accusation was disproven. Well, almost. One accusation was true, and it was apparent to everyone. Thousands of voters had been deprived of their right to vote.

Today, the right to vote is disrupted by more indirect means. Voter fraud is still charged. Investigations still reveal virtually all accusations are false.

It’s easy to see why: Penalties are high. Conspiracies involving actual voters would be easy to detect, but are never detected. The chances of tilting an election is minuscule.

Actual fraud does happen. It occurs in two ways. One is manipulating totals: In back rooms where votes are counted, or on-line as totals are changed electronically. That is one concern about Russian interference in future elections.

The other fraud occurs by making it harder to vote. For example, demanding photo IDs from those who do not have them: those who take the bus to work, or college students who live on campus, or retirees who no longer have a license to drive. Making photo IDs harder to get is part of the process of voter repression.

National arguments about Photo IDs are cast as partisan debates. One political party is accused of violating the right of the other to a fair election.

We miss the significance. The right to vote does not belong to political parties. It belongs to people.

There are a few bright lights, other Rosanell Eatons.

96 year old Dorothy Cooper was told she could not vote without a legal Photo ID. She did not have a license to drive, so she had to get a non-drivers ID.

She showed up with several documents. She had her birth certificate. She had a rent receipt. She had a copy of her lease. And she had her voter registration card, the one she had presented in order to vote for many decades.

But she did not have a marriage license. The clerk was firm. She needed that marriage license to prove her name had really changed.

She has a photo ID issued by the Chattanooga Police Department to seniors, but state legislators wrote the new restrictive law so only a few types of IDs will count. The one issued by the police to folks like Dorothy was not on the authorized list. Can’t be too careful, you know.

She kept coming back until finally, she was given an absentee ballot. She just won’t be allowed to vote in person. During one of her contacts, a state worker started to laugh. The worker was not being mean. It’s just that she had never seen anyone work so hard to vote. Everyone else finally gives up.

Kind of like in the Jim Crow era.

And in North Carolina, Rosanell Eaton, the woman who, as a teen, recited the entire preamble to the United States Constitution and began voting in 1939:

Without missing a word, I did it.

After she spoke about her experiences, she was arrested by North Carolina police for protesting about voting rights being taken away.

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2 thoughts on “Dying to Vote”

  1. That’s the interesting thing about history. All you have to do is change the names and you jump forward to current times.

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