Theresa Burroughs, Voting Rights Activist, Dies At 89 In Alabama

May 25, 2019
Originally published on May 25, 2019 7:24 pm

Theresa Burroughs, who proudly called herself a foot soldier for the right to vote, has died in Greensboro, Ala. She was 89.

Greensboro is part of Alabama's Black Belt, a region named for its rich black soil, and known for its oppression of black citizens during the Jim Crow era, including erecting obstacles to the vote. She said no one around her talked about it then out of fear.

"When I was a child," she recalled in a 2016 interview with NPR, "I would see white people getting dressed and going on Tuesdays. And I would wonder where are they going? They said they were going to vote. ... And I said, 'Why can't we vote?' "

But as an adult she went to the county courthouse 10 times before the registrar finally recognized her right to vote. She says sometimes she was tested with irrelevant questions, one of which as she told Story Corps, was how many black jelly beans there were in a jar. Then, as she began to tire of trying, on one occasion she was told she must recite the preamble to the Constitution.

"I didn't say the preamble. I said, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' He said, 'You pass.' "

In 1965, Burroughs endured arrest and an attack by state troopers and sheriff's deputies as she and other civil rights demonstrators tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

She founded the Safe House Black History Museum in Greensboro to document the civil rights struggle for future generations. It's in the house where local residents hid the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr from the Ku Klux Klan on a visit to west Alabama in 1968.

In 2016 she told NPR she never missed a chance to exercise what she considered to be a sacred right. "Every time there's a vote, I go," she said.

She was frustrated that year because Alabama had curtailed driver's license offices in predominantly African American rural counties, yet required an ID to vote. She said it showed the continuing battle over voting rights.

"It's really not over. This is just another stage of harassing us and trying to get us, I don't know, to disappear?" But she promised, "We're not going to do that."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to take a few minutes now to remember one of the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. Theresa Burroughs died this week in Alabama. And while she might not be a household name, she played a part in protecting the right to vote for African Americans. NPR's Debbie Elliott brings us her story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

THERESA BURROUGHS: My name is Theresa, Theresa Burroughs.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: I met Theresa Burroughs three years ago in Greensboro, part of Alabama's Black Belt, a region named for its rich black soil and known for its oppression of black citizens during the Jim Crow era, including erecting obstacles to the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BURROUGHS: I'm a foot soldier and walked from Selma to Montgomery fighting for the right to vote.

ELLIOTT: She was arrested and endured an attack by state troopers and sheriff's deputies as she tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965. She was fulfilling a promise she made to herself as a young girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BURROUGHS: When I was a child, I would see white people getting dressed and going on Tuesdays. And I would - one day, I said, what - where are they going? They said they were going to vote. And I said, why can't we vote?

ELLIOTT: No one would talk about it back then out of fear, she said. As an adult, Burroughs made sure that history was documented for future generations as founder of the Safe House Black History Museum in Greensboro. It's in the house where local residents hid the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. from the Ku Klux Klan on a visit to West Alabama in 1968.

Burroughs described going to the county courthouse 10 times before the registrar finally allowed her to register to vote. She was told she must first recite the preamble to the Constitution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BURROUGHS: I didn't say the preamble. I don't know - I said, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable number of rights, and among these - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He said, you pass.

ELLIOTT: Burroughs said she never missed an election after that, exercising what she considered to be a sacred right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BURROUGHS: Every time there's a vote, I go.

ELLIOTT: When I spoke with her during the 2016 election, Burroughs was frustrated because the state of Alabama had curtailed driver's license offices in predominantly African American rural counties, yet requires an ID to vote. She called it part of the ongoing battle over voting rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BURROUGHS: It's really not over. This is just another stage of harassing us and trying to get us to, I don't know, disappear. We're not going to do that.

ELLIOTT: Burroughs died Tuesday at the age of 89. U.S. Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama called her a warrior for justice. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.