When the Supreme Court shot down a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act — which required that certain places with a history of discriminating against voters get federal approval before making new changes to their voting laws — lawmakers in North Carolina wasted little time in passing sweeping new rules around voting. The state issued requirements for specific kinds of photo identification, cut back on early voting and preregistration. Supporters of the new laws, who were overwhelmingly Republican, insisted that the measures were necessary to prevent voting fraud. But voting rights experts and advocates said that voter fraud was extremely rare and that the rules would make it much harder for younger voters, poorer voters, and black people — groups that were more likely to vote for Democrats and less likely to have official identification — to cast their ballots.
To Rosanell Eaton, the restrictive new laws seemed familiar. Eaton was the granddaughter of enslaved people who grew up under Jim Crow in Louisburg, N.C., and had been fighting against rules meant to keep black people from voting for nearly as long as she was legally eligible to cast a ballot. In the early 1940s, after she turned the legal voting age, Eaton traveled by mule wagon to register to vote at the Franklin County courthouse. But she found herself before three white men, who confronted her and tried to stop her. They demanded that she recite the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States — a common “literacy test” used to discourage and block and turn away black people from voting voters.
Eaton, unshaken, recited the entire thing. The men conceded and allowed her to register, making Eaton one of the first black voters in North Carolina since Reconstruction.
Eaton, who died on Saturday at the age of 97, was a well-known advocate for voting rights among Carolinians — she was a member of the NAACP, a county poll worker and a special registrar commissioner, helping thousands of people register to vote — but it wasn’t until she became the face of the lawsuit against the voting rules that North Carolina adopted in 2013 that she gained national prominence. Eaton, then 92, used her biography to place her state’s new rules into a larger history of disenfranchisement. “We have been this way before, but now we have been turned back and it’s a shame and a disgrace, and absolutely disgusting,” she said to a crowd at voting rights rally.