Op-Ed: Ms. Rosanell Eaton: Washed in the Blood of the Martyrs

As early snow covered her hometown of Louisburg, North Carolina on Sunday, November 9th, voting rights champion Rosanell Eaton died at her home. She was 97 years old. For more than seven decades, Mother Rosanell fought to win and keep her right to vote. News of her transition to eternal life came as North Carolina, once again, dominated national headlines for being ground zero for voter suppression.

As I watched the snow fall on this place where Mother Rosanell struggled to be recognized as a full citizen for nearly a century, I thought of a line from the prophet Isaiah: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Is 1:8).

Mother Rosanell’s lifelong witness exposed the sin of voter suppression that stains America as a nation still. At 21 years old, she passed a literacy test in Franklin County, becoming one of the first black women in North Carolina to overcome Jim Crow and win enfranchisement. At 92, Mother Rosanell led the fight to keep that right as the lead plaintiff in the North Carolina NAACP’s challenge to the state’s 2013 voter suppression bill – an effort that shrouded its architects’ racial animus behind the myth of voter fraud.

During a hearing in Winston Salem, Mother Rosanell testified that it would be harder for her to obtain the voter identification that would be required by the law than it had been for her to recite the Preamble to the US Constitution 70 years earlier for her literacy test. “They think I’m gonna die before this case is over,” she told me after her testimony. But Ms. Rosanell stood tall as the matriarch of our struggle, following the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where Justices upheld the 4th District Court’s ruling that struck down the law, asserting it had targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.”

Undeterred by this ruling, the architects and defenders of voter suppression in North Carolina refuse to repent.  Despite losing their gerrymandered maps in court and their supermajority in the legislature, the all-white extremist caucus passed another voter ID requirement bill in a lame duck session just last week. As we established in our four-year-long court fight, in-person voter fraud—the kind of fraud that voter ID’s would prevent—is practically nonexistent in North Carolina. The only reason for imposing these requirements is that they will restrict votes that do not currently favor Republicans.

The same Republicans pushing this bill to law remain oddly silent in the face of legitimate allegations of election fraud swirling around Republican Mark Harris’s narrow victory in the 9th Congressional District. Harris operatives have already confessed to running an absentee ballot harvesting operation aimed at stealing votes from African-Americans in Bladen and Robeson counties and the State Board of Elections has refused to certify the race.

It’s clear that we’ve not yet won the battle for enfranchisement here in North Carolina and that we must continue this fight in the name of the martyrs of America’s struggle for voting rights.  Generations before ours have poured out their blood from the battlefields of the Civil War to the nonviolent direct action campaigns of Freedom Summer and Selma. Mother Rosanell was baptized in the blood of those struggles and gave her whole self to the fight for justice and human equality. We who fought with her and learned from her courage know that our nation’s sin of voter suppression stains the promise of democracy. But we can yet be washed like the newly fallen snow if we will turn from the demons of division to the better angels of our nature.

The America Mother Rosanell worked for has never yet been, but she nevertheless believed in its possibility until her dying day. Maybe the snowfall that marks her transition is a sign for the whole nation. When we follow her lead toward a multi-ethnic democracy that is truly for all people, our tortured past can be covered like the muddy fields of Eastern North Carolina on this snowy day.