Opinion

If She Didn’t Give Up on Democracy, Neither Should We

When it came to voting, Rosanell Eaton wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer

After the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, Rosanell Eaton, center, fought back, Curtis writes. (Walt Unks/AP)

OPINION — If you don’t know Rosanell Eaton’s name, it’s time to learn exactly who she was and why her life and life’s work matters. She is the antidote to the cynicism infecting politics in 2018, a hero of democracy when democracy is under siege. She cared about her country and its highest principles, demanded her basic human and civil rights and brought others along with her.

Rosanell Eaton would not take “no” for an answer.

Her 97 years of life were full of the kind of accomplishments and resistance that truly make America great. We can mourn Eaton, who died on Saturday, and then honor her by following her example.

Those who think the state of our democracy is fragile have plenty of legitimate reasons, including continuing efforts by the Wisconsin and Michigan state legislatures to shrink the power of incoming Democratic elected officials, following the lead of members of Congress in Washington driven more by the urge to hoard power than a constitutional duty to provide checks and balances to the executive branch.

In Georgia, Republican Brian Kemp’s win over Democrat Stacey Abrams wasn’t exactly unexpected, since Kemp, as secretary of State, oversaw the election, a situation too absurd to be believed.

And then there is the example in Eaton’s home state of North Carolina, where the Republican-dominated legislature has passed a bill, after voters approved an addition to the state constitution, awaiting signature or veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, requiring certain kinds of identification to vote. On this, the state GOP has long been as relentless as Javert in pursuit of Jean Valjean, while staying mostly quiet on what investigations show could very well be election fraud in the 9th U.S. House District midterm race, where Republican Mark Harris’ lead over Democrat Dan McCready is looking shakier by the day.

Against the odds

Yes, fighting back against the odds can be exhausting. But then, Eaton never had it particularly easy.

A granddaughter of slaves and the youngest of seven children, she was born at a farm outside Louisburg, North Carolina, in 1921 and lost her father when she was 2. Her mother was a sharecropper, and Eaton was a star pupil in her segregated schools, learning lessons that included the ideals embodied in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

That came in handy when she had to recite it from memory — “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice…” and the rest — fulfilling the unfair tasks set by the white men who stood at the county courthouse between her and the right to vote. She passed their test, and voted in 1942, one of the few African-Americans able to do so in her time and place.

She continued treating the franchise as worth risking a lot for, going on to serve as a county poll worker and also helping about 4,000 people to register to vote. She worked as a farmer and a plant worker, and then, after pursuing higher education, as a teacher. And she tutored children into her 80s, her daughter said.

History repeated

Eaton did not forget the meaning of those constitutional promises when the modern-day equivalent of those past discriminatory efforts made the woman who had voted in almost every election since 1942 travel for hours and more than 200 miles to cut through the needless bureaucracy erected by the law North Carolina passed after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted key provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Because documents showed both married and maiden names, her voting streak almost ended.

Eaton gladly lent her name and testimony as lead plaintiff to the eventually successful lawsuit challenging the law.

In his tribute this week on NPR, the Rev. William Barber II recalled protesting the voting restrictions at the state capital alongside Eaton: “And she was on a walker with — that had the wheels on it. … And she got in line to be one of the persons that would submit to civil disobedience. I went up to her and said, Miss Rosanell, you don’t have to do this. This was in the summer. And she said, I know what I’m doing. You don’t have to tell me what I don’t have to do. I do have to do this. And on that day, she actually led 150 people into the Legislature.”

Her commitment caught the eye of President Barack Obama, who wrote a letter to The New York Times in 2015 in response to an article on efforts to dismantle the Voting Rights Act that mentioned Eaton’s story. “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. Their efforts made our country a better place,” Obama wrote, noting what many, especially those in North Carolina, already knew.

Judging the 2018 political scene, with the right to vote just another partisan cudgel, citizens might be tempted to give up. Considering the obstacles thrown in her way, Eaton could have — but she never did.

We need to remember the life of Rosanell Eaton — for her sake, and for our own.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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