In 1940, 19-year-old Rosanell Eaton took a two-hour mule ride to the Franklin County courthouse in eastern North Carolina to register to vote. The three white male registrars told her to stand up straight, with her arms at her side, look straight ahead and recite the preamble to the Constitution word-for-word from memory. Eaton did so, becoming one of the few blacks to pass a literacy test and make it on the voting rolls in the Jim Crow era. Eaton, a granddaughter of a slave, is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. She’s devoted her life to expanding the franchise, personally registering 4,000–5,000 new voters before losing count. “My forefathers didn’t have the opportunity to register or vote,” she said. “It is my intention to help people reach that point when they could do something.” Now, as a result of North Carolina’s new voting restrictions—widely regarded as the most onerous in the country—the 93-year-old activist could be disenfranchised by the state’s voter ID requirement because the name on her driver’s license does not match the name on her voter registration card.
Eaton testified in federal court in Winston-Salem this week against North Carolina’s voting law, as part of a challenge brought by the Justice Department and civil rights groups to enjoin key provisions before the 2014 election under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. “Voting should be free and accessible to everyone,” she told Judge Thomas Schroeder of the Middle District Court of North Carolina.
Eaton was always the first one in the courtroom, looking resplendent in a fashionable pantsuit and matching hat. Her presence and testimony was a reminder of the long struggle to win the right to vote and the serious consequences of restricting that right today.
Eleven witnesses—a mixture of civil rights activists, legislators and election experts—testified against the law, known as House Bill 589, over the course of four days. I spent the week in court alongside Eaton.