The envelope sealed, we put my grandmother’s absentee ballot in the mail and sent it to Chickasaw County, MS, her home for 103 years. Rapidly closing in on 105, her life has been nothing short of awe inspiring. She joined us in Indiana almost 2 years ago after we came to the painful conclusion that she could no longer live alone in her beloved Mississippi home. As I prepare to cast my vote in this year’s mid-term elections, my thoughts are with her, my great-grandparents, and all those I’ve known who fought to ensure I had the right to vote.
Back in college I decided to interview my grandparents about their struggle to legally vote in Jim Crow Mississippi. I had seen a bedraggled voter’s registration card in my grandmother’s things and noting that it was from around 1970, I wondered why she had held onto it. It was then she let me know that it was her first registration card and that it held great sentimental value for her. I knew that the Voting Rights Act had been passed in 1965 and wondered what took her so long to get registered. She and my grandfather sat on the old couch in my mother’s living room and shared their story, interrupting one another, sharing hidden looks, and at times recalling minute detail of what it took to get them into the voting booth.
They lived in Chickasaw County, MS, a tiny town in the NE part of the state. The area was once dubbed the "Bread Basket of the Confederacy." Both began life on small farms in neighboring counties and both later became educators. My grandfather met his new bride when he became principal of the small country school where she taught. They supported each other’s educational goals each receiving college degrees, and they both ended up teaching at Okolona Technical College, a small black Episcopal college. My grandparents were very active in their small town. As educators they understood the importance of community and they were totally committed to improving theirs.
Having endured unending racial inequality, they never ceased fighting for their rights. They knew that without the vote they had few options of creating any sustainable change. They decided to work within the system and began an annual pursuit to register to vote. They passed the literacy test and basically jumped over every hurdle put before them. Somehow something was always amiss and their applications were rejected. “Sorry Mrs. Raspberry, you should have registered over in Houston, I’m not sure why they sent you here,” the registrar would state. For a time, the county had two seats allowing a voter's limbo for African Americans who were shuttled between the two seats with no one taking responsibility for their registration.
Finally my grandparents signed on to a federal lawsuit aimed at dismantling the archaic, and at this point, illegal system that denied the black vote. They testified in court about their experiences. Their eyes twinkled as they recounted the testimony of one of the voter registration workers who could not read the names of the voters roll he was responsible for including his own. The judge noted that he was illiterate and with that and other equally ridiculous testimony and evidence, the case was won. So, in 1971 my grandmother got her card and cast her first vote. She was 65 years old. Her own father voted for the first time in his late 80’s. He was later interviewed by the Tupelo Journal where he remarked, “Today I feel like a man.”
Their bravery paid off. My grandmother’s niece is now the Mayor of their small town, buoyed by the spirit and efforts of those who worked tirelessly before her. My grandmother was dumbstruck to think that she would be casting a vote for a black presidential nominee. She just couldn't get her head around it. We had to remind her that she helped make this possible. Voting as you may have deduced, is a serious matter for me. I go behind the curtain and give pause and thanks for the opportunity. My grandparent’s story told those many years ago serves as a constant reminder of what they did to allow me to engage in this act and I will never dishonor them by not exercising it.