Rosanell Eaton, Queen Mother of voting rights, dies at 97

Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent | 12/11/2018, 11:33 a.m.
Considered a Queen Mother and a leader in the struggle and movement for freedom, justice and equality, Rosanell Eaton proved ...
Rosanell Eaton Contributed

Considered a Queen Mother and a leader in the struggle and movement for freedom, justice and equality, Rosanell Eaton proved a true matriarch to many civil rights leaders — especially when it came to the fight against voter suppression.

Eaton died on Saturday, Dec. 8, in her home in Louisburg, North Carolina.

She was 97.

“Ms. Rosanell Eaton was the 97-year-old matriarch in our four-year successful court fight against voter suppression, from 2013 to 2016,” Rev. Dr. William Barber, the architect of the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement, and president of the North Carolina NAACP, said in a statement early Sunday.

“While alive, she stayed focused on the prize of justice for all,” said Barber, who also serves as pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro and is president of Repairers of the Breach. “She once told me, ‘They think I’m gonna die before this case is over, but I’m not gonna die. I’m fed up and fired up.’”

Social media users joined the millions who mourned Eaton.

“May her memory be for a blessing,” wrote Jody Drezner Alperin on her Twitter feed.

“May she rest in peace and rise in glory,” Anne Hartley wrote on Twitter.

“RIP Queen Warrior,” wrote Olga Melendez on Twitter.

Said Veronica Wade, “Thank you for your legacy Mother Eaton. Now take your rest.”

In a tribute, The New York Times noted that Eaton was “an obscure civil rights pioneer in her younger years, who became a cause célèbre after President Barack 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,’ ” 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.”

As noted in the Times tribute, a year after the president’s letter, the Supreme Court, in a 4-4 vote, let stand a federal appeals court judgment upholding the lawsuit spearheaded by Ms. Eaton and other plaintiffs. The ruling struck down a North Carolina statute whose provisions “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” in what the court called an effort to depress black turnout at the polls.

One of seven children born on a farm in North Carolina, Eaton attended segregated schools and used segregated bathrooms. However, she always counted as an advocate for voting rights.

The Times noted that 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.