Two critical pieces of U.S. voting rights legislation mark anniversaries this August: the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920 guaranteeing women the vote and the 1965 Voting Rights Act ensuring every citizen regardless of race or language equal access to the voting booth. Unfortunately, there is little time to celebrate past victories. Critical new battles are underway in the struggle for equal voting rights.
This past June the Supreme Court dismantled Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4 required states with a history of racial discrimination to receive prior federal approval before making changes in voting regulations. Immediately some states moved to implement laws previously blocked by Section 4. Others proposed radical new legislation restricting access to voting.
Many Americans seem to forget how hard fought the battles for voting rights have been, how many suffered and died. Maybe they don’t read their history books; maybe they don’t pay attention to what’s happening around them. Others simply don’t care. They apparently believe in full democracy only when it suits their own purposes.
The history of the 19th amendment and the decades of effort before its final ratification were not included in my schoolbooks. I learned these lessons from my childhood friend, Miss Georgiana Fulton. She told of the suffragists who picketed President Wilson at the White House in 1917. She urged me to read about the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, and how abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s eloquent speech helped convince delegates to include Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s controversial demand for women’s suffrage.
I met Miss Fulton the spring I was eight. She was in her seventies and lived alone in a ram-shackled cottage without indoor plumbing. Most of the other kids thought she was crazy. But I loved the sweet smelling hyacinths in her overgrown garden and one day she invited me in.
Soon I was stopping every few days on my way home from school. Miss Fulton told wonderful stories–of leaving Shreveport, LA on her own to study art in Paris in 1900, of the artists she knew in New York, and of places nearby where wild violets grew in abundance. She helped me with my schoolwork and often asked me interesting questions I couldn’t answer. Some of the questions were about issues we now refer to as civil rights.
Miss Fulton was fierce in her determination that I understand that women had fought for the right to vote. She once lectured me when I told her girls could be class president just like boys. Her words are still alive in my mind. “That’s fine, child, but mark my words, there’s no equality yet. And don’t you ever let them say, ‘women were given the right to vote’. They say that now, I know they say it, but it’s not true, not true!”
I was in seventh grade when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v the Board of Education. Our teacher told us the decision was one of the most important in decades and that our lives would be better because of it.
Miss Fulton had a different reaction. “Child, listen to me. There will be trouble home in ‘Luziana; they won’t like this at all.”
I tried to argue with her. “It’s only fair, how can someone say people have to be separated because of the color of their skin? That’s not right!”
“Ah, child, you are not listening. You know nothing about this.” Miss Fulton’s voice was sharp, and her words stuck in my head, “I’m not saying the decision was wrong, I’m saying things can be right and still not succeed.”
“Change comes hard, child, very hard,” she continued, “You mark my words, girl, these things are much more complicated than you or your teacher know. You’ll learn.”
Miss Fulton was right; I had a lot to learn. And the foundation for much of my learning started with her stories.
We all have stories to tell when it comes to things we care about—our own, or those we’ve made our own because they’ve touched and impressed us. People need to hear these stories. They convey more than information, they carry emotion, conviction and care.
Change does come hard, and people do fear it. Stories that lodge in the mind and linger in the heart can make a difference. Such stories inspire commitment and sustain perseverance. An abundance of both is required in the unfinished struggle for equal rights–in the voting booth and beyond.