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Amelia Boynton Robinson, 101-Year-Old Voting Rights Activist, Attends The Democratic Convention

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Jamelle Bouie

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On Thursday afternoon, an old lady in a wheelchair and her caregiver waited near the exit of the convention center here, delayed from their next stop by one of the week's intermittent downpours.

The woman in the wheelchair was Amelia Boynton Robinson. Five decades ago, she offered up her home in Selma, Ala., to civil rights activists for use as a base of operations in their voting rights efforts. The Selma-to-Montgomery marches were planned there, and they would have seismic implications for the American political landscape.

"We were working to get the right to vote," Robinson, who is 101 years old, said slowly. In 1965, as she and other protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a voting rights demonstration, they were brutally clubbed with nightsticks and tear-gassed by state troopers.

"I was the one that was left for dead, if you saw the picture of the person who was lying down," she said. That photo of Robinson, laying unconscious and bloodied in a man's arms, appeared in publications across the country, and that march became widely known as "Bloody Sunday."

The outrage over the violence put political pressure on the federal government to intervene and protect the voting rights of African-Americans. Just a few months after Bloody Sunday, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee organized a voting rights panel earlier in the day, just a floor up from where Robinson was waiting out the weather. During the panel, Arlene Holt Baker, the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, told a story about life before the Voting Rights Act. "I remember asking my mother … 'mother, I need a pair of shoes,'" Baker said. "Poor domestic worker. Made less than four dollars a day. She said 'baby, I can't buy this -- I 've got to pay my poll tax.' 1965 changed that for my mother. And I think for me and for so many of us, we're not going back. we can't go back."

For voting rights advocates, there's a straight line between poll taxes and voter ID laws. Before the Voting Rights Act, states and towns would require onerous poll taxes (or literacy tests with shifting rules for passing) to cast a ballot. Those practices were legal, but their real purpose was to make it so hard to vote that black people would be discouraged from trying.

Since 2011, 11 states have passed laws requiring voters to present government-issued ID before they can cast their ballots. Supporters of the laws say they are necessary to prevent people from pretending to be people they aren't when they vote. The states that have signed those laws all had Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.

But people looking for in-person voter fraud haven't really found any. And the groups of people who are least likely to have government IDs would thus be barred from voting -- blacks, Latinos, young people and the poor -- are groups that tend to cast their ballots for Democrats. Keeping enough people from those groups from voting, advocates argue, could swing a key state and possibly the presidential election.

"My grandma who is 96 lived long enough to see the end of one poll tax and the [beginning] of another," Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP said at the panel. "She said quite plainly, 'the only thing you can do when there's a new poll tax is pay it. And that's the only way you can get rid of the fools who put it in place in the first place."

Robinson had lived through those dangerous marches and the civil rights movement to see the election of the nation's first black president -- an election victory fueled by record turnout among black voters. She said she had never met Obama, but said he mentioned her in a speech during a Birmingham stop during his first presidential campaign.

For Robinson, everything had come full circle. "I wasn't surprised," she said. "Because it was coming. The way we were treated, it was coming."

She was tired from talking and asked to be left alone to rest. Her caregiver pushed her wheelchair over to a wall. They waited some more. The storm still hadn't passed.

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Around the Web

Amelia Boynton Robinson - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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