An Appreciation of the Hard-Fought Right to Vote
I had the privilege of knowing my great grandmother for the first 16 years of my life. By the time I was born, Ernestine left the house infrequently. She attended church on Sundays, visited her hairdresser and occasionally made a trip to Belden Village to find a new dress. Her daily life was predictable. Yet there was one outing that seemed to break through her routine and carry special significance: voting day.
In the days leading up to an election, chatter from WHBC would reverberate throughout the house. The (Canton) Repository would be passed back and forth between Ernestine, my grandmother Doris and whomever else might be nearby. Phone calls about the latest election news were constant between aunts, uncles and friends. The house was filled with a first-day-of-school kind of energy and everyone could feel the excitement, anticipation and pride.
On Election Day, Ernestine and Doris would wake up early, have coffee together and prepare to cast their votes. They always wanted to be among the first to the polls and they deemed the event worthy of their best attire. Before I became a full-time student I would go with them to the polls. One particular Election Day I remember waiting in the car with my mother while they cast their votes. When they returned, I excitedly asked, “Did you do it?” With the same excitement, one of them turned to me in the backseat and said, “We sure did!”
Certainly, there were times when the votes did not swing in their favor. There were most definitely hopes and dreams that were unrealized on the Democratic stage. Yet they were never deterred from voting in every national, state and local election available to them. Voting never became casual or lost its luster. For Ernestine and Doris, voting was not about any particular candidate or party. It was about the right and the responsibility. In this, they left an indelible impression on me, a gift that I cherish greatly as a Black person, as a woman and as an American. So, when I consider my family’s history, aligned with turning points from our shared American history, I can more fully understand the enthusiasm of Ernestine and Doris on voting day.
In the late 1800s, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—the Civil War Amendments—were passed. In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment of 1868 confirmed citizenship for all persons born or naturalized in the United States. In 1870, the 15th Amendment stated that the right of citizens to vote cannot be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Unfortunately, these amendments were unenforced, while women’s rights were unconsidered. The long journey toward voting equality would continue.
The fight for women’s suffrage would last for decades. In 1913 my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, marched in the Women's Suffrage Parade in Washington D.C. as their first act of service. They knew they were marching to offer white women the opportunity to vote. They marched knowing their own opportunity to vote would be faced with discrimination in many states. They marched anyway. Seven years later, in 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed to ensure that the right of citizens to vote would not be denied or abridged on the account of gender. Ernestine was six years old.
Voting for Black Americans remained a challenge well into the 20th century. Discriminatory practices such as literacy tests, the grandfather clause and the poll tax were used to deter Black people from exercising their right to vote. With growing pressure from Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act was created to eliminate the discriminatory mechanisms used to prevent individuals from voting. It was signed just 17 days after my father was born.
It feels surreal. I am just one generation removed from the enactment of voting legislation that demands equal treatment for Black people, a powerful right that can be taken for granted. When I consider history and all that Ernestine and Doris witnessed as the United States of America journeyed toward equal voting rights, I am filled with a deep appreciation. Through it all, they held on to the hope that by voting they could make their voices heard, and by voting they could be active participants in democracy.
A few years ago my sister turned 18. My mother gave her a precious gift: a voter registration card. I thought of my grandmothers. They would be proud to see that the importance of voting is still important to us. Now, each voting day, my family shares photos with each other to proudly display our voting stickers. It’s as if we’re saying to Ernestine and Doris, “We sure did!”
Courtney Brown has been the Director of Community and Family Partnership at Habitat for Humanity, East Central Ohio, for the past seven years. She is also the Ministry Operations Manager For Habitat International's Young Leaders Conference.