“A non-voter is not a half a citizen.”
— Interview with H. D. Coke, 1984
Like Coke, many of the elderly African Americans interviewed for the Working Lives Oral History Project remember the struggle to register to vote during the first half of the 20th century. Click on the links below to listen to the audio version of these interviews and read along with their transcripts.
Thelma Walton remembers having to go with a white person, to vouch for her and read all the documents involved. She says, “They had to do all the writin’ for us… Only one thing we had to do, practially, is make an X.” Even if she couldn’t read, she wanted to cast her vote.
James Armstrong, a veteran, recalls trying to register during the late 1940s. He was turned down half a dozen times before he succeeded.
Polling officials asked Armstrong unnecessary and often unrelated questions, from where he lived and who his senator was to how many steps there were from city hall to the post office. He remembers some of his friends being asked even more ridiculous things, like the number of windows in the courthouse, seeds in a watermelon, or even bubbles in a bar of soap!
Armstrong’s teacher had taught him about voting and motivated him to do it. He says, “It’s somethin’ that you’re determined to do. You just kept goin’. I felt like, you spend four years in the army…overseas and exposin’ your life for this country, then you come home, try to do the best you can to make yourself a full citizen.”
Like Armstrong, C. S. Johnson was asked to name his senators as well as to recite the constitution. Beginning in 1950, he made repeated trips to attempt to register, once facing the question, How many gallons of water are in the Alabama River? He didn’t have much trouble once his foreman sent him. Like Walton, it appears as though having a white person vouch for you was sometimes the only way to make progress.
The Reverend C. C. Welch tried for the better part of a decade to register to vote, finally “passing” in 1936. Once, he failed simply because he couldn’t remember the name of the Speaker of the House. When asked why he thinks they finally passed him, he laughs and says, “You want the truth? I think they took pity on me. … I worried ’em so long I think they got tired of worryin’ with me.” He cites the NAACP as their “best friend” in helping get people registered.
The right to vote wasn’t something any of these men and women took for granted. They were willing to endure so much they shouldn’t have had to, just to be able to register. If you’re registered, make sure to take time to vote tomorrow!