Where Have You Been? Sorry I’m Not Impressed By 100-Year-Olds Voting For The First Time

November 7, 2012  |  


Source: Shutterstock.com

These stories are supposed to be heartwarming, and on some level they are. You know the stories. They pop up around Election Day amidst the angry political ads, overconfident political predictions, and rumors of voter fraud. They’re the stories of 100-year-olds who are voting for the very first time and suddenly everyone is amazed.

In 2008, it was Dilla Freeman Burt. This year, it’s 99-year-old Rosie Lewis and 108-year-old Joanna Jenkins. Whenever I hear these stories, my first thought is “Awesome!” and my second is: Where have you been for the last 82 years?

Here’s a short history lesson for those of you who think Black people were granted the right to vote in 2008. Right after the Emancipation, Blacks began voting. In 1870, the 15th Amendment protected the right of every male citizen to vote without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The 19th Amendment passed in 1920, gave women (without regard to race) the right to vote, as well. The Voting Rights Act passed 1965, banned the local laws and traditions (such as poll taxes and literacy tests) which had been used to prevent Blacks from voting. In 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

So, from 1971 until 2012 these women (and other men and women just like them who didn’t make headlines) couldn’t find a single occasion to vote? Not even for a local election?  I simply cannot fathom that.

Granted, I didn’t grow up in the Jim Crow era and therefore cannot even begin to understand the irreversible damage that would do to a person’s mind. I don’t know what it’s like to be actively and legally discriminated against and prevented from even drinking out of a water fountain much less voting for a president of the United States. Still, I would think that after experiencing the implementation then eradication of Jim Crow, I would be first in line to cast my vote if someone even pretended to let me. I’d be at the polls not just in a presidential year, but every single year for every single election thereafter. Even if I didn’t participate in sit-ins and boycotts going on around me, I would hope to at least be appreciative of those people (who I likely would know personally) that fought so hard for Black people’s freedom. In that situation, I’d like to think that I’d show my appreciation by doing something as simple as showing up at the polls on a regular basis.

We tend to highlight those people who have shunned elections until President Obama came on the scene. We want to demonstrate how inspiring the President is by showcasing how he’s motivated old people to vote for the very first time. However, the people who are truly remarkable are those who grew up during the Jim Crow era yet have been exercising their right to vote since the moment they were allowed. In fact, President Obama’s election was made possible by the many people who have participated in the elections both by casting votes and by running for office. If we all waited until we were near corpse to suddenly care about the election, there would be no Obama to vote for.

I’m certainly not coming down on Dilla, Rosie and Joanna. I’m glad they’ve finally decided to participate. What’s alarming about these women who have stayed alive long past an expected expiration date and only just now deciding to vote is the fact that they represent plenty of other people who have not and will not ever vote. A full 35 percent of Black people didn’t vote in 2008 — and that was considered overwhelming turnout.

How many of our grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters are sitting at home today — well over the voting age — unregistered and not participating? These are the ones who we can only hope will be making headlines decades from now for finally casting a vote. In that time, their great-grandkids will be gushing, “Oh my great-grandmother cast her first ballot!” and I will be old, but not too senile to think, “Where was your great-grandmother in 2012?”

Choosing not to vote is inexcusable. In fact, as Philadelphia Inquirer, Annette Hall-Jones pointed out: Choosing not to exercise the right [to vote] is not a choice at all. In a year already rife with voter suppression, not voting amounts to self-suppression, the worst kind of disenfranchisement.

While I’m happy to hear that these women are voting, I’m not feeling the warmth and pride that the stories are trying to promote. Instead, I’m just saying it’s about time.

What do you think?

Follow Alissa on Twitter @AlissaInPink or check out her blog This Cannot Be My Life

*Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock


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  • Echo

    I get the point of this article, but it would have served the readers–and the writer, truth be told–better had the writer done some research. Why not contact these elderly, first-time voters and ASK them why this is their first time voting? Why not get the backstory, rather than trying to draw conclusions? Were these folks prevented from voting in earlier decades by hardships or social pressures of the times? Did they live in rural areas and lack access to information? Did they simply opt to abstain? You can still construct a commentary such as this writer’s with a little digging and fact-finding. For older generations of African Americans, there are any number of reasons–regardless as to whether or not we younger folks consider those reasons to be legitimate–that they may not have voted in previous elections. THAT’S the story, that’s an interesting conversation.

    • kierah

      According to Rosie’s family, Rosie was set in her ways and not really thinking about politics.
      That’s not interesting. Just lazy!

  • afroveda

    I have voted in every election since turning 18 in 2004, so my thoughts are only speculation. While I don’t agree, I think there are some people who don’t involve themselves in elections because they don’t think any of the candidates will make a difference.

  • C’mon son

    You *are* coming down on these individuals. Growing up during the Jim Crow era and surviving physically, mentally, and emotionally is a remarkable feat in and of itself. “I didn’t grow up in the Jim Crow era and therefore cannot even begin to understand the irreversible damage that would do to a person’s mind.” So how about you direct your spiel towards the young people in *this* generation who flat out refused to vote, who most likely were not being threatened, physically and mentally, day in and day out so that they wouldn’t vote.

  • get real

    How dare y’all question why a 90 yr old is voting for the first time? Maybe they didn’t want to vote for any white people (white men) considering what they’ve been through. And I don’t blame them. To he** with u not being impressed.


    • dbatt001

      you said that!

  • Candacey Doris

    I can agree. While some people are genuinely still afraid to exercise their right to get out to a polling station, get an absentee ballot. They will bring it to your HOUSE and you an vote in the comfort of your home. Nursing homes get the service brought to you as well. Voting is a right, not a privilege (as long as your not a convict) so get to it!

  • Ms_Sunshine9898

    Same exact thing I said. Why is voting important now all of a sudden a black man is in the running? Where were you 30 – 40 years ago? Have several seats. . .

  • Kee

    Someone is throwing shade.

  • clove8canela

    I completely agree with your thoughts in this article. I vote in every primary, mid-term election, major election and whatever else I can vote in. I do it because I think of those images and footage I’ve seen of black people being sicced with dogs as though they were animals for this very right. I think it’s great when anyone, whatever age they are, gets out and votes, but I’m kinda over these stories as well.

  • KO

    Excuse me did u ever think maybe some of these ppl just became US citizens so this is the first presidential election. Just a speculation

    • Candacey Doris

      Some, yeah. But most of the ones in the news have been citizens for years. YEARS.

  • MLS2698

    I guess they should have grabbed their ” good teeth ” and headed out to vote years ago, huh? * shrug *

  • IllyPhilly

    “Granted, I didn’t grow up in the Jim Crow era and therefore cannot even
    begin to understand the irreversible damage that would do to a person’s
    mind.” I think you answered your question to why they’ve been absent.

    • Nenah

      I think it’s hard for us to fathom growing up in a time that voting is not a part of our life. While these people were coming up, a lot of black people did not vote. I think this article is a bit disrespectful. We here a lot about how people died so we could vote, but most black people knew that if they wanted to live or wanted to keep their teeth, it was better to be quiet and not make a fuss.

    • kierah

      My mom isn’t in her nineties, but she is almost 70. She is from a small town in North Carolina and certainly grew up in the Jim Crow era. No she didn’t go with her parents as a child to the polls, but goes to EVERY election as an adult, including primaries.
      How dare the generations that broke Jim Crow still leave the noose around their necks? How many of these hidden Negroes are there? I wonder what we could have done if these people had been turning up to the polls all along.
      It is disrespectful of them to decline to vote all these years.