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Voting Rights Activist Rosanell Eaton Dies At 97

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Back in 2013, the North Carolina State Legislature passed new restrictions on voting, things like strict voter ID requirements and a reduction in early voting. The measures disproportionately affected young people, seniors and especially African-Americans. For Rosanell Eaton, these measures felt all too familiar.

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ROSANELL EATON: We have been this way before. But now we are getting turned back, and it's a shame and a disgrace and absolutely disgusting.

CORNISH: Eaton was an outspoken activist for voting rights. That's her speaking at a rally in 2015. She died Saturday at 97 years old.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Eaton grew up in the segregated South, the granddaughter of slaves. She recalled the Klan burning crosses in her yard. And when she turned 21 and went to the county courthouse to register to vote, she was stopped by a group of white men who said she could register only if she could recite the preamble to the Constitution. She did and became one of the first black voters in North Carolina since Reconstruction.

WILLIAM BARBER: She would often tell us the story that the reason she had to fight now - because she had to fight then.

CORNISH: That's Reverend William Barber. He protested alongside Eaton against North Carolina's voting restrictions. He encouraged her to become the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging those measures, a lawsuit she won.

BARBER: Well, one day, Rosanell - Mother Rosanell came. And she was on a walker with - that had the wheels on it. And she and another lady - they were both over 90. And she got in line to be one of the persons that would submit to civil disobedience. I went up to her and said, Miss Rosanell, you don't have to do this. This was in the summer. And she said, I know what I'm doing. You don't have to tell me what I don't have to do. I do have to do this. And on that day, she actually led 150 people into the Legislature who submitted to civil disobedience. She gave a speech in the rotunda that was just powerful and moving.

I remember also when we were in court in Winston-Salem and she said, you know what, Reverend Barber? They think I'm going to die before this case is over. That's why they keep changing the dates and altering the time. She said, but I'm not dying. I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to see this through. And she did.

CORNISH: I notice you called her Mother Rosanell. Is that something other people used as well? Is that symbolic of her role in North Carolina?

BARBER: One of the highest honors in the black community is to be called a mother of the church or a mother of the community, a matriarch, if you will - Mother Harriet Tubman, Mother Fannie Lou Hamer. It is a term not only of endearment but of empowerment. It says to that person, we respect you as we would our own mothers.

CORNISH: How do you think she will be remembered? What do you think her legacy will be?

BARBER: I think that she will be remembered as one who had a commitment to justice for all people. I think she will be remembered as someone who in her 90s refused to give in, refused to sit back and just hand the baton off to other people. I think she will be remembered as one who taught us - in one of her favorite statements, she said, I'm fed up, and I'm fired up.

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EATON: At the age of 92, I am fed up...

(CHEERING)

EATON: ...And fired up.

(CHEERING)

EATON: I said fed up.

BARBER: She taught us that you can't just get fed up with what's going on in a democracy, that you just to work for it. It's hard. And when things are going wrong, it should fire you up. It should make you more willing to engage. And lastly, I think that I will always remember her as a woman of deep integrity who spoke the truth to whoever. We visited Eric Holder in the middle of our case. I remember when Mother Rosanell said to Eric Holder, tell your lawyer don't play with us; we're here to fight. That's the kind of tenacity and love and commitment that she will always be remembered for.

CORNISH: Reverend William Barber - he's remembering Rosanell Eaton, the voting rights activist who died Saturday at age 97. Reverend Barber, thank you for sharing your stories with us.

BARBER: Thank you so much, and God bless to your listeners. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.