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Rosanell Eaton, 97, remembered as “a warrior for justice”

Photo by Phil Fonville

Civil rights groups, voting rights advocates and elected officials are remembering Rosanell Eaton as an inspiration to generations of African-Americans in North Carolina.

The 97-year-old Franklin County native, who died Saturday, served as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that successfully challenged North Carolina’s restrictive voting law in 2016.

The New York Times remembered Eaton this way:

Caught up as a witness to history in one of the nation’s major controversies, Ms. Eaton, an obscure civil rights pioneer in her younger years, became a cause célèbre after Mr. Obama cited her courage in his response to a 2015 article in The New York Times Magazine about growing efforts to dismantle the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“I was inspired to read about unsung American heroes like Rosanell Eaton in Jim Rutenberg’s ‘A Dream Undone: Inside the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act,’ ” Mr. Obama wrote in a letter to the editor. “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.”

 

A lifelong devotee of voting rights who vividly remembered the terrors and degradations of the Jim Crow era, Ms. Eaton, one of seven children of a North Carolina farm family, attended segregated schools, used segregated bathrooms and other public accommodations and drank from a “colored” water fountain in her hometown, Louisburg, N.C.

In her first act of defiance, when she was 21, she went to the Franklin County Courthouse in Louisburg. Three white men confronted her there and demanded to know what she wanted.

“I’m here to register to vote,” she said.

They told her that she could register only if she could recite from memory the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. It was a common ruse, disguised as a literacy test, to turn away black voters. The valedictorian of her high school class, she complied without hesitation.

“We the People of the United States,” she said, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

“Well, little lady,” one of the men conceded. “You did it.”

She registered and cast her ballot that year, 1942, becoming one of the state’s first black voters since Reconstruction. She voted in nearly every election thereafter. For more than 40 years, she was a county poll worker on election days, and a special registrar commissioner, helping some 4,000 people to register to vote.

In 1950, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and for more than 60 years participated in protests against racial discrimination, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

During the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s, she and her family were threatened repeatedly by night riders, according to federal court papers. She awoke several times to the crackle of burning crosses outside her home. Farm equipment was damaged one night, and bullets were fired into a shed and into the farmhouse. One struck just below her bedroom window.

North Carolina’s effort, a half-century later, to impose restrictive changes on voting laws prompted Ms. Eaton to join a peaceful protest outside the Legislature in Raleigh in 2013. As she moved slowly with a walker, her friend, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, then president of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P., told her: “Rosanell, you don’t have to do this.”

“I know what I have to do,” she said

Read the full story of Ms. Eaton’s remarkable life here in The New York Times.

Funeral services will be this Thursday (December 13) at 1:00pm at Faith Baptist Church in Youngsville, NC.

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