Louisburg, NC – Mother Rosa Nell Eaton, an African American voting rights activist who successfully helped challenge voting restrictions, has died. She was 97.
Eaton grew up on a farm and attended segregated schools, and later served as a precinct judge for many decades. As a young woman she encountered, and overcame, Jim Crow restrictions, including being told to recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution before she could register to vote—which she did, from memory, without a mistake. Over the years she faced other racist attacks, including burning crosses in her yard and having bullets fired at her house, according to her daughter, Armenta Eaton.
Eaton travel the state registering more than 4,000 citizens to vote, but came to her greatest prominence at age 92 as a lead plaintiff in a North Carolina lawsuit that was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. That 4–4 decision upheld a lower court decision that had determined that ballot access rules adopted in 2013 were “written with almost surgical precision” to discourage black voters, who tended to support Democrats. The high court’s ruling defeated, for the moment, efforts by the Republican majority in the North Carolina legislature to disenfranchise blacks and other minority voters.
Eaton’s lifetime of civil rights advocacy brought her to the attention of President Barack Obama, who invited her to the White House in 2016. According to Armenta Eaton, her mother agreed to go meet the president only on being assured the visit wouldn’t conflict with an upcoming primary election. “She didn’t want to go until the primary was over,” she said.
Reverend Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President NC NAACP noted, “While we mourn her loss, at the same time, we celebrate. We celebrate her steadfastness and her strength. We celebrate her commitment and her conviction. We celebrate her righteousness and her resolve. What an inspiration it was to watch her lead the way for us to fight and win the monstrous voter suppression bill of all. Mother Eaton kept her eye on the prize.”