On April 8th, 2016 we drove from Duke University to Louisburg, North Carolina to interview lifelong activist Armenta Eaton. Our interview took place at Armenta’s home, where she lives with her mother and lifelong activist, Rosanell Eaton. The walls of Armenta and Rosanell’s house are covered with Rosanell’s awards and newspaper clippings, crowned with a photograph of Rosanell at the White House in March, 2016. Books by Tim Tyson, Ari Berman, and Reverend William Barber were set on table beside Rosanell’s reading chair.
In this interview, we talk with Armenta about Rosanell’s influence on her, her opinions on the North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory case, and her evolving life as an activist. Below is the full interview along with a written transcript. We encourage watching the video or reading the searchable transcript box.
This interview was conducted on April 8th, 2016.
AE: Okay, thank you for this interview and this time. I grew up… I was born and reared right on this farm. It was a tobacco and cotton farm that my parents took care of and I helped as a little girl. I had two siblings, a brother and a sister. I had another sibling but he died before I was born, so I didn’t know him. As I said, I grew up right here on this farm. I did not like farming at all, because I was much smaller than I am right now. Even as a child I was smaller than the rest of my class. So when I had to pick up cotton or do stuff on the field with tobacco, I just did not like it and it was too hot. But anyway, nevertheless, those people around our neighborhood farm and growing up on a farm and with my parents, my father was kind of an outspoken type person. We own this farm, it’s a small farm – only 20 acres – which is extremely small. But my father came here from Cary, with his parents when he was 5 years old, where his mother and father purchased this farm. So he was not a sharecropper, my parents were not sharecroppers. My mother lived on a farm about a mile down the road from here. And her mother was a sharecropper. My mother’s father died when I think she was 2 years old. So then her mother ended up being a sharecropper, so she knew a little bit about sharecropping, my father did not. So, when my mother met my father, she moved up here, which was only a mile from her home. And so, as I said, my parents were considered fairly independent, if you compare with other black people lived in the area. Because they were either sharecroppers or they just worked on white men’s farm. Period. So I think that’s why my parents was fairly or a little bit more outspoken when it came to racial issues or when it came to racial injustices. And I think because of their attitude about issues, racial injustices and their, I guess stamina, they just addressed issues that didn’t appear to be right and they … Franklin County, where I live. Louisburg is the county seat, which is about 8 miles from here.
I was born in a little house in the yard, where y’all parked, that’s where the house was at the time I was born. Where this house is right now was either an alternate cotton or a tobacco field. That’s cause we used to alternate the crops, cause you didn’t have one crop in a field for years and years and years. You had to alternate, cause they just won’t bear the crop if you didn’t alternate. But anyway, as a child growing up… I was telling somebody not long ago, I’m not sure that I didn’t come from a dysfunctional family. Because at that time I thought it was a regular functioning family. Because there were times when my parents had to speak out on the issues such school segregation, just segregation in general or whatever. My parents were the members of the NAACP, the local branch in the NAACP. Which usually met in Louisburg at a church, whatever church you know they alternated churches.
Anyway, like I said on the various issues, they would speak out, but I just thought that was normal way of life, which I still think it is the normal way of life. But there were times when we would do it in repercussions from their outspokenness or whatever.
I used to wake up…Well my father was sick a lot; he was just not a healthy person. Sometimes, people would do things you know like, put stray dogs in the yard or tie animals on the porch, which was strange cause i don’t know why they would tear down their own animals, I guess, unless they were just stray animals they just have found around, to our porch or they would cut the chain or the rope of our cow or goats we had. We had one goat, couple cows, we had a mule. Sometimes, they let the mule out. I don’t know if y’all know what a mule is, but, heheh, it’s between a horse and a donkey I guess.
Anyway, they would just do things to aggravate you. My mother went to Henderson and found us a little house across Pepsi/Cola Company. And they gave us a little house to stand in for my brother and I go to school. My sister was older, 8 years older than I was. And she was 11 years older than my baby brother. So we never went to school at the same time. My brother and I went to school at the same time, but not my sister because she was so much more older. And so my mother secured a little house, just a three sided little shed that she had them bring and put at the intersection of our house. And one day, I think we use it about maybe 2 weeks maximum, and it was just bullet holes, we went there one day, it was just shot all up. I thought, oh man they just messed up our house, now it’s going to start raining because if it was a rainy day or cloudy day or snowy day, you still had to go to school, if it weren’t snowing too bad, but… So, it was just always little things, I don’t know if they were little thing anymore, and we never found out who did them. We did have a reputation at Franklin County of having a KKK type county and they didn’t mind putting out signs sayings “you’re entering KKK country” and down below Louisburg, we would see that signs. I was growing up know that I lived in what was considered a Ku Klux Klan county. And so, but we were never afraid of them. I wasn’t. And I never heard my mother say she was afraid, never heard my father say he was afraid of the KKK. Cause my daddy said, “I know how to shoot back, too.” And then it got to a place when my brother and I would go to the school, they would burn like large crosses, so I’m not sure who it was that was doing these things. They would burn crosses, probably, as I high as I was tall at that time, well I’m not much taller now either. Well anyway. And then they would put ‘em in the yard, they will all be burned the next day. Or I got to the place that there would be sometimes in the driveway, cause we didn’t have like a paved driveway, it was just… And sometimes they’d be smoldering from you know, being burned. My brother and I would be like “oh, another cross” and we’d just kick it on out the way and walk on down to the intersection go to school we maybe had to stand out in the rain again because our house was torn up.
On a farm. I know you all wouldn’t know this but it was called a slide truck. Nothing to do with a motor and all, or a regular truck. It was a thing that was not even on wheels. And it was on like boards and it had burlap bags around it. It was about as long as from David to that bench. And the mule would pull it or a tractor, which we didn’t have a tractor. But the mule would pull the slide truck down between the tobacco stalls. People will put the tobacco would put the tobacco into the slide truck and then bring it to the barn, and the women usually work at the barn. they would rap tobacco on sticks. I woke up one morning and the slide was torn up. We didn’t have but two. One of them was torn up in the yard. Even though my father was sick, he would try to sit up at night on a pillow, like this, holding a gun, which I thought that was natural, it was what he was supposed to do. And then he died in 63. I was 12, I was to turn 13 the month he died. So this time, my sister was away for college in Elizabeth City. And it was just my brother, Jesse and I, and my mother. So, I would sit up at night. So I said, who’s going to protect the house? And my mother said, I don’t know. My brother was too young and my daddy had taught me how to shoot and taught my sister and I because like I said my brother was younger. So, since we knew how to shoot and I mean my sister was gone, so it was up to me. So I thought, well, I gotta be the one to protect the house then. So I would sit up, sofa in the den, we had a sofa in the den. I would sit up, holding a pistol or a rifle. And I was 13 years old, by this time, between 12 and 13, because my daddy I was 12 when he died, but I was 13 in the end of the month. And I would try to sit up, watch for any suspicious activities, and then maybe 6 o’clock in the morning, I would lay my weapon down, take my bath, get dressed for school and go to school. And half the time, I would be at school, just about to fall out of my chair. Because I was sleepy. Cause sometimes at night, to be frank, I would doze off but I wasn’t suppose to dozed off. But anyway I did. And one night, I heard a gunfire, I had dozed off. Anyway, but that’s when someone have shot right below my mother’s bedroom window. Where it hit the bricks and then it went down the road shot into my uncle’s house, my mother’s brother. But it went clean through his house and missed my cousin. It went on out the backdoor. They say they never found the bullet. I dont know if it was a rifle or a shotgun blast but it was, I assume a shotgun because it was like an oval hole through the backdoor.
And then they went to Louisburg, whoever, they went. Then they were a couple of ministers homes that was shot in that very night. And they were all active members of the NAACP, except from my uncle. So, I don’t really know why he was targeted. And so, then I felt guilty, because I said “Oh, I was supposed to be protecting the house and I said we really can’t protect the house. You really can’t. You just think you could, and I could not have done anything about it. Once I realized, I got a little bit older, I said, there’s nothing I could have done about it. Anyway, I was just thankful that my mother didn’t get hurt, you know anybody got hurt. But it was one thing to another, all my life, as I said, my mother was active in different movements and I would go along with her you know when I could. She was, what was it called, special voter registrar. Cause they didn’t let anybody register to vote – I think that’s another way of voter supression – so in a county, you could register to vote in two ways: You could go down to the courthouse, back in the day, it was a courthouse where you had to register to vote, everything was in the courthouse, just about. And now you have the voted elections, you would go down, either to the courthouse to register to vote or a special registration commissioner would register you to vote. They probably had about four special registration commissioners in the county. I know my mother was one, and she would go out and register people. I’m getting older then, I’m in high school at this time and in college. And she would go door to door, registering people to vote and she would have voter registration drives. Well I couldn’t actually sign on the dotted line that you know I was, because I wasn’t the voter registration commissioner, but I would assist her you know: I would set up the table and if she was having a drive or I would go around with her you know from door to door and just do things like that, to help her register as many as people she could. And so then, when, I can’t remember what year, they did away with that process, procedure so after that I just felt free to knock and register people freely, on my own. So I was really carried away with that. I was excited that I could go. Somedays that would be my activity; I would go and register people. It didn’t seem like the world was small in a way, in a way it was smaller, because you kind of knew the people, area, and you didn’t have a lot strangers or people moving in. So, you just kinda, you could feel free to go up to somebody’s house and you know, we didn’t have apartments in this area at that time, later on they had some elderly apartments, so you just feel free to go into people’s homes, talking with them, you know, if somebody’s cooking something, give you something to eat and you just have a good time you know, doing that. So that way like sort of like the activities I loved to do when I was growing up.
ML: I have a question about that. Were you in particular trying to register black voters?
AE: To be frank, yes, black voters. Cause I figured the white voters could get somebody else to register them. But if I set up a voter registration drive, if you did a drive, then you would register anybody that came up, republican, democrat, you know, on drive you can’t turn anybody away, which I didn’t want to turn anybody if I had a drive. I just wouldn’t go in to white people homes necessarily to register them to vote. But if they came back, cause some of them would come to the house when mother was a special registration commissioner. If they knew about it, they would come here and she would register them to vote, so that’s no problem.
YM: So then you went to college, at Shaw University.
AE: First of all, I went to college in Durham College. It was Durham Business College at the time, it was on right off Fayetteville Street, down from NC Central. And then it later it changed to come to credit junior college as Durham College, but at the time I went it was Durham Business College, so I majored in secretarial science at that time. And then I came home, I lived down campus and then after graduation for two years, I got a job at my old high school, which was Riverside High School. And speaking of Riverside High School, that’s the school I had to go to when I became, was in high school, became high school age. Prior to that, because of segregation, I had to go to the elementary school in Youngsville. Okay then high school, Riverside, there for there, went to college, then from there I came to home, got a job at Riverside as a secretary to the principal. Stayed there for about a month, and then I got an offer to go to work at the civil rights organization, called the Commission for Racial Justice. And that was the social action arm of the nomination called the United Church of Christ. And so, I worked there for 20 years. I loved every minute of it. It was just great. I got to travel, I got to work with people in prison, work on such things as capital punishment. That was one of my main focuses, I didn’t believe in capital punishment, so and my boss just let me do whatever. But my job, when I went there was office manager. But I did probably everything else but manage the office, ‘cause it was very small office. My supervisor was Rev. Leon White, and he is from this area – as matter of fact, my brother was named after him. ‘Cause my mother used to say, when I have a little boy, I’m gonna name him after you. But anyways, so she did. So my brother was named, Jesse Leon. But anyway, so I had a good time working there. It was very uplifting and just enjoyable. And then I got to work with, I don’t know if any of y’all’ve heard of him, you should have though, cause he went to Duke. Rev. Benjamin Chavis.
ML: Yes, I have.
AE: He went to Duke Divinity School. Yes I know he did. Cause he was actually imprisoned when he went.
ML: He was there at Wilmington. He was a big part of the Wilmington ten.
AE: He was a leader to the Wilmington ten.
ML: He was imprisoned with Wilmington ten.
AE: I worked with him when he went jail. Cause I was working with the commission first, and then he came on board a couple of years, 2-3 years later. He’s younger than I am. He came later. And then, my boss dispatched him to Wilmington to deal with the school situation the segregation and the rises that was going on. Out of that is when he ended up in prison. Him and nine other people, which was my coworker and we just really, really hated that. But once he got to of certain point, then that’s how he ended up. Ralph Edwards, man named Ralph Edwards allowed him to go to school. Ralph Edwards is right here, that picture right here in that little red frame, that’s Ralph Edwards. He was the director of prisons. And his wife and I good friends right now, and she said her husband got a lot of flack for allowing Ben to go to school at Duke. He said he had a feeling about people. He branched out and let him go. So, every morning he would go with prison guards and you know that’s how he ended up Dr. Benjamin Chavis. So when he was hired as the director of Commission for Racial Justice in our home office, our home office was in NY. So he had to go to NY. So when he graduated and his installation ceremony with the Commission for Racial Justice, he had it at Duke. He wanted us to plan everything. I remember him saying, I want you to have plenty of flowers, except for gladiolas, I don’t know what he has against gladiolas, but anyway. When I worked with the Commission for Racial Justice, we got to work with the Joanne Little Case, that’s how I organized the Concerned Women for Justice, it’s a statewide organization; and it was called the Concerned Women for the Fairness of Joanne Little. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Joanne Little, her and her case. It was in 1974, that she was accused of killing her jailor. Cause she said her jailor raped her, anyways. He came in with a knife and she ended up killing him, and then she escaped. But then my boss Rev. White and a man named Golden Franks found her. I think somebody knew where she was, but they were protecting her. Anyway, she wanted to surrender but she didn’t know who to surrender to. Cause she was from Beaufort County, and that was a small county and she just didn’t. So anyway, my boss and civil rights leader called Golden Franks brought her in.
After that, a lady by the name Thelma Hopkins, out of Winston Salem. Earline Parmon was the senator. She just died last month as a matter of fact. And Mrs. Hopkins had died years ago. And myself, we and a couple of more organized what was called Concerned Women for the Fairness of Joanne Little. And what we did was supported of the fam of Joanne Little when they would bring her up to visit Joanne, you know, try to help her raise funds, try to raise funds for legal defense moneys, you know to help the carry of cost of her legal expanses. And then after she was acquitted, we still maintained our organization and we changed the name to Concerned Women for Justice. And so, we decided to branch out in different counties in the state. And we started out with about 19 chapters. And even up as far as Surry County, that’s up toward the mountains. You know we did a lot of things with them.
YM: What was the reason behind this organization being an organization consisting women? What does it mean being a woman fighting injustices? Because we know you are involved in Democratic Women of Franklin County and this is also a women’s branch, so is there a specific reason on why you are involved in women’s organizations?
AE: Well, I’ve never set out to necessarily to be a part of women’s organizations or try to head them up or do anything with ‘em. It’s just maybe because, I guess endearing of women or the endearment of that. I guess I was just prone and pulled toward women. But say for example capital punishment was not a women’s issue. More men on death row than women. It’s just so happens that, that’s just these causes I ended up involved in, nothing in particular other than, quite often I think women need more help in terms of support, support system. We are the people who have the children, so a lot of times when women get in trouble or need assistance, they need it for their whole family. Especially for the children, that’s how I see it. I never really thought that much about why, but I just knew it was just something especially needed for.
ML: I have a question. It sounds a little bit like, you’re saying that your passion when your activism is in criminal justice and working with wrongly accused and capital punishment, and how does that really… And your mother’s track has been voting rights, so do you think you share your mother’s track of voting rights justice as well or do you see that the criminal justice work is more your particular passion?
AE: Well, you know my mother’s track has pretty much been voting rights, but not necessarily. I think I followed my mother and been with her a lot on lots issues: desegregation, she’s tried to start a school by the school in Youngsville by my old elementary school to start a school. She’s been for a prison… She helped to… There’s an organization called Jessamine Rainbow, and that was. I have organized that. It was a home set up in Raleigh on Person Street, to assist female ex-offenders who were just coming out of prison, who needed some extra help in getting back on their feet. And what they could do was in this home for 6 months if they needed to, and we just charged them a minimum amount to stay there, I think it was about $30 a week. We’ll help them find jobs, and my mother was a part of that. She went to a hotel in Henderson and my brother’s very resourceful. I don’t know how she ended up over there, but anyway, they were renovating the hotel, the Holiday Inn, and she asked them if she could get some of their furniture they were gonna discard. And they said “O yeah if you could get a truck”, somehow she found someone with a trunk and they carried it to Raleigh, we set up and we called it the Concerned Women for Justice Room, and then she had the Rosanell Eaton room, with all the furniture that came but two or three sets of furniture came from the Holiday Inn. And to answer your question in a round about way, I pretty much have a passion for anything and any issue, even though I can’t branch out on every issue, is any issue that relates to injustices. So it’s just not one thing that, you know, have been involved in. It’s actually not just one thing she’s been involved in all during my life. It’s just later and later in years is what she’s been involved in. So, I share pretty much the same passions that she does, I mean. And in terms of voting rights, I feel that, and I know this, not just feel it, that voting rights is important to everyone and their future, the future them, the future of their children, the future generations to come, because if you don’t get to proper the person in office, that’s going to look out for your interest as much as possible, then voting determines how your pattern of life, other than what God provides. And He says to render to Cesar what is Cesar’s and to God what’s God’s. Cesar meaning, you know, the government. They’re gonna rule over you, so whomever you get to rule over you, you need to make sure if at all possible that’s the person that their attitudes and their desires aligns with yours as much as possible. So that’s why it’s important for people. You can’t elect the proper people to govern you, if you’re not registered to vote and if you don’t vote for those people. It’s up to someone else to put those people into office, so that’s why we know that voting and the voting rights are so important. Too many people died for the right to vote and they knew how important it is to vote. That’s why they sacrificed their lives in order that other people might have that right to vote.
YM: We are really wondering, because you are a plaintiff in the case, we don’t know your story you are presenting at the court. How are you being affected by this voter id law?
AE: I haven’t testified yet in court, but I have deposition for the attorneys in the event that I have to testify if we go back to court. And we will appeal if the case didn’t turn out in our favor, and the other side say the same thing. My position has been that the soft rollout was one the situations that I’ve dealt with, with pretty much people… Okay… Well… When they decided that they were going to pass this law, and they say it is, one of the positions that the General Assembly took, was that they would let people know how that this coming down the pike and they would have to soft rollout, and that people would be told that they would have to have an ID in 2016 in order to vote. So, I went around to different poling sites in our county in 2015 to see how self rollout was to be administered. I found out that every site had their own methods and some site had no method. My concern is I don’t believe that you necessarily have to have an ID in order to vote, because you attest that, when you register to vote, you attest to who you are. And that’s a felony if you lie when you’re registering to vote. Or when you come in to vote, you still sign a roll book saying who you are. Now, I’ve taken a lot of people to the polls in my lifetime, cause that was another passion that I had, making sure that people got to the polls. And I had certain people that I would always take because for some strange reason they would… well they didn’t have transportation for one thing, but then they would feel intimidated for some strange reason when they were going to the poling site. I never knew why but anyway, they were more comfortable with me, some of the elderly people that I knew in those days,so they would be more comfortable with me going with them. But I have never, in my life, heard one person say that they wanted to go back and vote again. So, I don’t see it voter fraud being an issue in NC. So, the GA was saying that we are trying avoid voter fraud, I have never even heard any of my friends say or any of the people I know say, that certain and such went to vote in twice. People just wanna get in and get out for some strange reason, I don’t know, they feel a little intimidated about being at the polls. So, my thing is we have to have a free and open society in order to vote. But the voter ID is not the main focus that I contention with. It’s the other laws that were put under the voter id law that was designed, I’m sure, to suppress the vote, so that has nothing to do with voter fraud, such as no out of precinct voting, such as no registration, you can’t register and vote on the same day on election day. What does fraud have to do with shortening the early days of voting? And all of the things that they’ve put in place for the sake of fraud they say to the public, you know any person who has any common sense and who know the other impediments they’ve put in place that, that’s not the case. And so, I just couldn’t sit idly of the back and just not put my two cents worth in, to do whatever I could in order to protest these laws and which protest is not uncommon to me, actually not protesting will be uncommon to me, because I did it when I worked for the Commission for Racial Justice, I did the Environmental Justice Movement down in Warren County, where I was arrested, I think, two or three times down there. Three times down there. That was back in I think it was 82 or 88, well I can’t remember. I’ve been through so many changes in to my life I can’t already remember the years. So if it’s a movement and if I think it’s something that I need to do my part in, and I’m all for it. That’s why I became a plaintiff in this lawsuit. I had been arrested in… I, actually, then a part of a protest in May of 2013 in Raleigh inside the legislature building. And then, later on, when they were asking for plaintiffs, who if anybody is interested in being a plaintiff then I was one of those who stepped up to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
YM: So they were searching for people who wanted to be plaintiffs and you volunteered?
AE: I don’t know how hard they were searching or anything like that, but I heard Dr. Barber mention it and I just stepped up [snaps her fingers] to the plate. Matter of fact I called him on the phone and said I would be a plaintiff.
YM: Your mother became a plaintiff in the same way?
AE: I think he called here and asked if she was interested in being a plaintiff. Because at that time we didn’t know they were even getting a lawsuit together. And she said, “Oh definitely she wanted to be a plaintiff” Cause see, my mother, I don’t think she had any intentions when I got arrested, that she had any intentions of getting arrested. I mean getting in the protest and engaging in civil disobedience. Because when I left here going to Raleigh she didn’t even know I was going. I left a note saying “I’m going to participate in a protest, the Moral Monday protest, cause they had only one Moral Monday protest and that was in April. And I saw it on the news, and I saw some of my old buddies. I thought “Ohh what is going on?” so I had paid attention to what was going on. So Nelson Johnson, Cojo N. he’s from Wilmington, he weren’t a part of the Wilmington 10, but he was there. I don’t know how he didn’t end up being in the Wilmington 10, but he ended being in the riots down in Wilmington. And I saw some more people, see Dr. Barber is younger, much younger than I am, so the people I saw were older, like John Mendez out of Winston Salem. And I thought, “Oh man, what is going on?” And Irving Joyner, he’s in Bethesda at North Carolina Central, law professor. And it was on television… Lord, so I call one of ‘em and they say, I thought [exclamation] So that was, I think that was April 29th of 2013 and so the next protest was May 6th, so I was gone then. I had gotten my days mixed up, I was thinking it was going to be on Tuesday, it was actually on Monday, and I’d gotten this email. And I thought, “Oh my God, it’s 3 o’clock, it’s today!” And so took a bad jump ready and put some pills in my pocket, because my high blood pressure medicine in case I would stay the night, in case I got arrested. So I put those in my pocket with a bottle of water. Wrote my mother note, she was taking a nap, that said, “Going to Raleigh to protest”. So that was off to Raleigh. When I got there, they had done, you do an orientation before. If you think you’re going to participate in civil disobedience, if you even have an idea that you might, then the NAACP gives you an orientation so you won’t be totally surprised to some things that may happen to you. When I got there, I had to find the church. It’s already late, didnt know what was taking place. When I got there the orientation was over but I didn’t care. They were getting ready to go to downtown to Jones St. in front of the legislature building. So they say, “Armenta you’re late” I say “Okay whatever”, so I caught a ride with somebody, cause I was gonna leave my car at the church. We got down there and Dr. Barber did a prayer and we went into the [state capital building] They said, everybody that who may engage in civil disobedience come up front, so I was one of those who came up front. No orientation, whatever. I have been arrested before. So I figured they weren’t going to eat me alive, so I would survive whatever. Anyway, so he said, we’ll go in by twos. And this tall gentleman, just as tall as David is, he came beside me, he grabbed my hand. He said “can I walk with you?” I said ”Yes sir” And he said, I thought he was joking, he said “I’m scared to death” and I said, “well weren’t you at the orientation?” he said “yes ma’am I was but I’m still scared to death”. And I said “Well, what are you afraid of?” We were walking on in. And he said “I just don’t know what to expect”, I was “Well didn’t they tell you what to expect at the orientation?” He said “Yes, but I still don’t know what to expect”, I said “Okay” he said “No, you’re not gonna leave me, are you?” I said “No, I don’t have any place to go” and …that man said to me “You’re not gonna leave me, are you?” and I said “No, just hold my hand sir, just whatever.” We got ready to go upstairs because we walked to the second floor, he barely turned my hand loose to make the steps. He was scared to death! Cause he did not leave home with any intentions of getting involved. He was just going to a rally. But he was so upset, because there was going to be something affecting his daughter. I can’t remember what he said that the legislature have done. It was enacting some law, I don’t remember what it was. So he got upset and angry and he came to the Raleigh to participate in protests. So he was with us the whole time, until the time they separated us. When we got arrested, the men from the women, they had to sit on one side in the detention center. And he would look over that way, I say “You’re over there in good company. You’re over the with all those ministers, you fine.” Then later he was just kind of relaxed, and he was okay. He’s very sick now, I’ve heard it from him a couple of weeks ago. Anyway… And then I was later arrested this past June I believe it was. That’s hasn’t been resolved yet. They threw the first arrest out court. But the one at where I was arrested last June, this deal hadn’t have been resolved. It just keep going back and forth to court. So I don’t know how that will turn out.
ML: Do you remember the first time you were arrested? Were you nervous then?
AE: In life or or this protest?
ML: No, in your whole life. You’re describing younger men, who was holding your hand.
AE: That was in 2013. But when I say in life, I mean, I was arrested in Warren County.
ML: Was that the first time you were arrested, was in Warren County?
YM: Were you scared back then?
AE: No, I wasn’t afraid. Let’s see… I don’t remember what year it was… I guess it was in 88… I can get back to with you on that in terms of the date or the year. Anyway. I can’t even remember. It was because they have dumped some PCBs on the side of the road, someone from New Jersey they said. The governor Hunt had instructed state of NC to dump, for the PCBs in Warren County in the black community, Warren County. And predominantly black community. 98% black. And that’s when they started what was called Environmental Justice Movement started in pretty much Warren County at that time. It was called the PCB movement. I think if you were on the road, I remember, if you impeded the truck when they were scraping the roadside, scraping their dirt up, which they would call getting PCB. And they were carrying it to the dumb. If you were down in the road and didn’t get out of the road, so that the trucks could pass, they would charge you with impeding traffic. And, so there were lots of us out there. There weren’t anything to be afraid of. I mean you just highway patrol would just put you in the paddy bus and hold you off to jail. And I think, first time I was arrested, I was bonded out right away. So I didn’t spend any time in there. The second time, I was arrested with a bunch of men. And they put the men down the hall and they put me in, I guess that must’ve been isolation. Because it was like a vault I remember, like a big vault that was a room. And they didn’t close the door, I believe. She didn’t lock the door or something. Anyway I hear my boss down the hall I remember. [Laughs] And I got up from the cot I was on, and I went down the hall and started talking to the men that were in jail. And the jailor, which was a women, Ms. Summerville I believe her name was, she said, “Why you down here?” I said, “Well, you didn’t lock the door, so I just thought I would come down here and talk” she said “no, you go back and I will lock the door” [Laughs]. So she locked me. I remember saying “are these sheets clean on this bed cart?” And she said “yes” I said “you changed them from the last criminal that was in here” and she said “yes” and I said “okay, in that case I’ll take a nap, because I am tired” So that was a certain I was not afraid. And then, I think I stayed in there for 6 or 7 hours and then they let me go. And then the third time, in Warren County, I was arrested, there were bunch of us… A lot of people that day. My mother, I don’t know how she managed not to get arrested, cause she was standing in the middle of the road. And they were picking up people. We were lying in the road. Maybe that’s the difference. She was standing up, running her mouth and the officer was just picking all of us up, taking us to the paddleway and they never bothered her. You know where she were? She had gotten out from a lunch hour. She though in Youngsville School. She asked her principal if she get off and they really didn’t have real lunch hours. Teachers don’t. She got off, she came to Warren county, standing up there running her mouth in the middle of the road. We are all laying in the middle of the road and they haul me off I’m yelling “Mama go back to work! Go back to work!” I don’t know what she was saying but anyway. I don’t even think she thought they could have arrested her. I think she thought that because she was standing up instead of lying down, but anyway she would do that on days, she would duck out of work and she would tell the principal about it. He knew about it. She had a really nice principal. He would let her come in, protest, come on back like nothing had happened.
YM: Life goes on.
AE: Yeah and so that time I think there were five of us being locked up in a cell and stayed overnight because Mrs. Evelyn Lowery who is the wife, she’s since died, the wife of the head of SCLC( Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Dr. Lowery’s wife, she came. Dr. Lowery came, representative Fontraw came from DC, Evelyn Lowry and them they would have come from Atlanta. She wanted to call attention to what we were trying to do down here so she said if I said overnight then some of my colleguaes, it’ll go all around the country that I got locked up in Warren County. So in order to bring some more attention to help down here, I’ll be willing to stay overnight. So Dolly Birdwell, Floyd McKissick’s daughter, another lady I can’t remember her name, Mrs. Lowery, myself, we stayed overnight. And then the newspapers they covered the story and just like Mrs. Lowry said it went like wildfire after that. People were coming from everywhere protesting. Students from Chapel Hill, that’s where I met a neighbor of mine, I didn’t know it at that time but he found out later he said “didn’t you get arrested in Warren county some years ago” I said yes he said “I was a student who came from chapel hill, UNC chapel hill, and I was arrest too” He was a student so anyway I’ve never been afraid when I’ve been arrested because Im assuming I’m going to behave myself and I’m going to assume that the arresting officer is going to do the proper thing of what they are required to do. So i’ve never been afraid. I’ve never been afraid of a whole lot anyway.
ML: We can tell.
YM: You look like a really strong person, emotionality and mentally.
ML: I have a question. You were describing the Warren County PCB movement and the movement to free Ben Chavis and the Wilmington Ten, which had a really clear racial intent behind the injustice that was going on. So do you see this case the 2013 Voter ID law, as having a clear racial injustice, or a clear intent toward racial injustice?
AE: I believe the intent of this bill is to foster the ability of the people who are in the legislature, which is predominately republicans, to maintain republican control of the general assembly. Once they maintain control and have a great majority, like they do have, then they can pass laws that have a criminal, I mean not criminal, racial injustices, intent. Just like the HB Bill two. I mean they can just pass everything. They put under that bill laws that are designed so that people can’t defend themselves in court against unfair practices in their job, such as racial profiling or racial injustice in their jobs. Then you can’t take them to courts in North Carolina and that’s what we used to do when I worked for the commission for racial justice and we would send people to the EEOC in Raleigh- Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Or we would handle cases where we thought that someone was unjustly treated on their job because of their race. To me, it’s all a snowball effect. If they stay in power then they can pass laws that would intentionally be prejudiced against races and not just races, against different types of peoples. That’s what it’s all about because they make the laws. That’s why I say voting is so important, and that’s why my mother feels it’s so important, and we feel like everyone should feel how important it is because in 2010 if people hadn’t let their guard down and been paying attention and gotten out to vote like they should have, the republicans wouldn’t have slipped in. And see once they’ve slipped in, gotten in… even though they’re talking about fraud, then they must have gotten in throughout fraud, have they thought about that, you know, if people are committing fraud then they should be all happy because in 2010 there was a lot of fraud committed as far as they would be concerned and they got in(laughing) That would not work to me, you know. But yeah it would have racial intents and racial overtones and taking moneys from these charter schools, private schools— taking money from the public schools, giving it to the private schools. To me that’s a way of initiating segregation within the school system. It’s just another way. Same old intent, it’s just another way of doing it. When I was growing up…Once you live long enough, you see things change but still remain the same or going back to the same old ways just though a different prism.
Just like my mother was standing there when I was eating and she was standing there at counter, at the bar. And she just said, and she’s usually not quiet, but that day I didn’t hear anything and then all the sudden I heard this little small voice say “you know, this is all turning back the way it was before I can get in the grave” It was like— if I can only get in the grave before this happens, it wouldn’t…. And i looked up at her and she was just looking so sad. A lot of elderly people I’m sure feel that way. I’m not considered elderly, elderly, I mean to you all I might be but you look at it and you say what on earth was all of this about that we was fighting for all these years? and then it’s just another way of the establishment coming back doing the same old thing. I could see why my mother is so sad about it all of this is coming back when you live through Jim Crow, segregation, integration and this it’s segregating under the cover again. I’ve lived through segregation, integration and this is another type and then it seems like a lot of people don’t realize that a history forgotten is bound to be repeated. And therefore if people don’t know their history, they need to be vigilant and be aware of different methods of repeating history through another door, they won’t even know what hit em. But when it, especially these younger people and middle aged people too they won’t know it, they won’t know how they got to where they are because it won’t look the same.
YM: It’s more like the past right?
AE: It won’t look exactly like the past. But at least in the past you knew. You knew because you had “white only”, “black only”. It was obvious. But if it’s a fog, you won’t know what is happening. A lot of these bills that are passed people just think oh this is “oh this is voter id”. It has very little to do with voter id. Or “HB2 transgender whatever whatever”. Just like last night there was a gentleman, he’s on the board of elections and he doesn’t know he said what is all this hoopla about this HB2 and people protesting. We said well let’s tell you what we know about it. He said, “Oh I didn’t know all that, this that and the other.” You know, he is an older gentleman. He’s older than I am but he didn’t know that the general assembly could put all kinds of bills under one certain topic in their heading and you think “Oh thats what thats about and that doesn’t affect me”. We have to be vigilant and research and everything because with this general assembly they are just tricking us everywhere they can. You have to stay on it, stay up on it, otherwise you miss out and you won’t even know what hit you, blind sighted. I feel bad for the younger people coming up that’s going to be blind sighted.
YM: What if you don’t win this case? What are the stakes for you, if you don’t win this court case?
AE: Well, if you don’t win the case ultimately then people will have to be educated more. More and more and as people come along hopefully will have to adapt to the new laws and you know laws can be reversed. It depends on who you get in there. So my job, as I see it for the rest of my life is continuing to work for social justice, civil rights, voting rights and so forth and to get people back in the office that think more about the people and not just staying in office holding power to turn back the clock, turn back the hands, because I don’t want the hand of social injustice, racial injustice to be turned back. We just got to try to regain some of the momentum we lost and try to educate other people that they need to do the same for their generations. I don’t have children so anything that I’m doing is for the generations here and the ones coming behind me. My mother doesn’t have any more children. She has some grandchildren but I’m the only child that’s left. My siblings are dead. So she has grandchildren. Anything that I do is for someone else. I figure I’m almost— well in a few months I’ll be 67 years old. Other people can deal with it, I guess I can escape in to heaven you know and somehow make it but it’s for the people coming, like you all, who’s coming behind us. How is life going to be for you? Everything is so expensive. Things will hopefully be made a little but easier for you instead of harder for you. And I think with the people we have in the general assembly right now, from the top to the bottom, from Washington all the way down, they are looking to make things harder for certain people, not easier for certain people. I’m not saying you need to go around in life with everything being easy but deliberately making things harder, and life as hard as it is in and of itself, I think it’s just cruel for people to do that. It’s just for a few people, and the masses of the people are going to be left out.
ML: Do you have a feeling if you think you’re going to win or not? This case?
AE: Well I don’t know what we are going to do. I don’t know what this judge is doing taking so long, long ruling, writing his decision. But I have a feeling ultimately, it may take years, but I think ultimately we’ll win, I do. I think that whoever wins in the middle district, whoever loses, will, they will, they’ve already said that they will appeal. And we will appeal if we lose. So we will just appeal until we don’t have any other measures. And then I believe ultimately, whether I’ll be here to live to see it or not is a different story, but I think that ultimately we’ll win.
YM: I hope so, too. You say you lost your momentum over years and that’s why republicans got like sneaked in too—
AE: I think people did lose their momentum and their interest.
YM: But like when is it time like to like you like constantly, there is an issue and you are working all your life, your mother has worked all her life, you are working all your life, and like our generation there are kids like our age who are still working some for this cause but when is it time to like not soon, I know it’s not going to be soon to stop but can’t you feel like you achieved it? I know you can’t but but don’t you feel tired?
AE: Oh yeah we feel tired. I feel tired. Very tired.
YM: Do you ever want to give up?
AE: Sometimes. Sometimes I want to give up but I don’t feel I should give up. And then I just have little days, but not often. I’ve done it so long I’m not sure I know how to be a regular person who don’t take interest in issues. I don’t know how I would feel, really. It’s an unknown, uncharted territory for me really. But it’s just times when you just get a little discouraged. We don’t get as discouraged with the system because I know people are always going to try to get over on you and do evil I know that’s just the way the world is set up, good and bad. But my faith tells me I have to keep going. My faith in God because it says “I was hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you came to see me. And the disciples said, When did we do this? He said, When you did to the least of these you would have done it unto me.” So that stays in the back of my mind so you still have to keep working. It’s just that I kind of get discouraged with people who maybe don’t have the same passion or the same desire to work on their own behalf or on behalf of their children, but that’s usually doesn’t last long. That doesn’t last long. Somebody may say something to me where they are not keeping up and I just say well this is going to have to be a teaching moment. Like Sunday night some relatives of ours came to see my mother because of her eye surgery and they just didn’t know a lot about what’s going- so we used that time to explain a lot to them so I mean I wasn’t angry that they didn’t know but I was just thankful for the opportunity. She was kind of slow when they first here, she was getting up from a nap but then she was wide open, boy in a teaching moment she can get phew right on it. We just sat in that den and we gave them a history lesson. So they left there and so I said “So y’all going to volunteer with us, right? because we gotta be working on the election stuff.” They said “oh yeah yeah we gonna help, we gonna do what we can.” So I get it back into the room and wrote their names so I’m compiling a list of volunteers because we’ve got to make some changes in our legislators and our governorship and whatever. And that would really help me a whole lot, getting that momentum back up. Now in 2010 my momentum was up and my mother’s momentum was up because she kept that headquarters open from 9 in the morning until 9 at night and she make phone calls and I’d be out in the street going from church to church on Sundays. We would ask the pastor to come and we would take with them about the importance because we knew it was the year for redistricting and if republicans got in, they were going to draw the maps just like they did. And some people would say, specially black people would say, well we got president Obama in, I said “he can’t do one cot damn thing up there in Washington D.C without a cabinet that’s going to help him. So I said just forget that president Obama is up there, I mean other than he’s up there, but he needs your help and you can help by making sure that you go out and vote and not just you vote but you make sure that you be a committee of one to get other people involved. Make sure your household, your church members, and so forth, I would tell people in the church, because I was really passionate about it, I said for most of you in here this is going to be the most important year of your lifetime and you have got to get people in office and make sure that they stay there and you know that these people are mad that president Obama is in there and the tea party has come out and they’ve been drinking tea ever since and we’ve got to make sure that he has a cabinet that he can work with. People just for some reason, the white, a lot of white people would tell us on the phone or in person “well that’s just a sorry bunch up there I’m just I just don’t want any of them to be up there so they’d vote for a republican. One lady said I know my son will never get social security so I said well, you going to vote for John May for the general assembly, for senate? Well why you not voting for him, I asked one lady, well I’m just not voting for any democrats. You know we would run into that all the time. I’m saying, you’re just hurting yourself and the lady said that you know. She was talking about her sons in a bad way, so they were mad you know. And so the black folks they got complacent, a lot of them because president Obama was in so oh well so in 2010 it all slipped out of our hands.
ML: That person you were just describing to talking on the phone, was a white person?
AE: Yes, it was a white lady.
ML: So, has there been alliance between poor whites and black people trying to motivate?
AE: Not that I can tell. Not in this county. And I’m very active in the political process in, because I hold three offices in Democratic Women’s Vice Chair, Democratic Party 2nd vice, African American Caucus of the Democratic Part 2nd vice. And I do not see, no, any alliance between the poor white people and…we tried to reach out to Hispanics but they seem to shy away from everybody in this county. Republican, democrat, you know they just don’t… Can’t get them to get involved.
ML: Why doesn’t that alliance happen? What presents that alliance?
ML: A multiracial alliance, between poor whites and blacks, between Hispanics and blacks?
AE: I think with Hispanics and blacks is perhaps a language barrier or a fear of getting involved for Hispanics to get involved in local politics, assuming you know small county like this. And I don’t know what the problem is with the poor white people and the blacks. I don’t know if, we’re not reaching out to each other as we should, or because poor whites feel that Hispanics and blacks are taking, the same old scenario, saying they’d always hated that we’re taking the jobs and we do this and then… Well, certainly, we’re not taking, certainly not the black people taking the jobs here. I know that for a fact. So I don’t know what it’s not much different now than it was before. And they’s still driving their confederate flags on the back of their trucks. So I don’t see it getting better, I think it’s getting worse, to be honest. Cause they will align themselves with the Tea Party before. And I don’t if it is a matter of ignorance or privilege or both? I don’t know what it is. But it seems like they don’t do things to help themselves, when we’re all on the same boat, you know, except for the wealthy people. So I really don’t know, can’t say what the problem is. And not blaming anyone, any race or any group of people. I just do not know.
YM: Could it be because of education or lack of communication?
AE: I think it’s both. Lack of communications probably first problem and then perhaps educations. Especially, with Hispanics it would be communication, for sure.
YM: Because it’s interesting every community is really separated and maybe do you ever think the education of poor white folks or increase in the communication of these communities would help?
AE: I think that it would help a lot if you could break that barrier. Whatever the screen is or the barrier, that keeps us from dialogue between the races. And I don’t know if, say for example, in the political, in the Democratic Party for example. I know we try to get Hispanics involved, but that hasn’t worked so far. But we didn’t not reach out to bring the poor white people, perhaps like we should. And I don’t know if it’s cause of a fear of doing it or we just hadn’t thought about doing. But I think that would need to be done, probably, reaching out to white people, it need to be done by white people, in this county for sure. They don’t seem, in the circles that I travel in, you know pretty much half and half, you know half white, half black in terms of the different organizations that I’m involved in. Seem like the whites don’t want to reach out to Hispanics nor white, nor poor white. It just most of the black talking about hispanics, but we don’t know really how to reach out and break that barrier with poor whites. I don’t know if it’s cause we know them more in terms of their history, and with hispanics we don’t have a history and that we are more susceptible or more likely or more amenable to talk with Hispanics if the language barrier wasn’t there. Cause I know, me personally, if I saw a white person with a confederate flag on his truck or his cap, and I saw hispanic man here, I think I’d rather approach the hispanic because of my history than the one with the confederate flag. You see a lot of that. You see a lot of it. Only time I see hispanics in the grocery store, somewhere like that.
ML: I’m interested in, you mentioned your faith giving you strength to continue in these movements, and it seems confusing to me that a lot of the lawmakers in the other side of the case, also claim to be motivated by faith, Christian faith. Do you have any thoughts on that? What’s going on?
AE: Well… I have some thoughts [Laughs], but I don’t if I should share ‘em. And my mother and I talk about it sometime. They all say “I’m conservative”, but to me when you say you’re conservative, I have two meanings, two definitions of conservative. If you’re white and you say I’m conservative, to me, you could be one or both of these. [emphasizing] Just in my mind. That you want but you don’t want others to have and you’re supposed to be a Christian, so, to me, you’re just a Christian racist. And that’s just the way I see it. And I hear that, because I go to an integrated church, so I hear that a lot about conservatism and this and that. And one of our ministers had a son, was on medicaid. But he was always downing medicaid. Then I found out his son was on medicaid. Cause he had a handicapped son. I said “You’ve been talking ugly about people on medicaid. And your son is on medicaid.” And he says, but I know what to do with my medicaid funding. And other people don’t. And I said, “Well you have one nerve to say that. When you’re acting like other people don’t know what to do with their medicaid benefits. And you do, so do you think medicaid was set up just for you? So in the whole world, you’re the only one who know what to do with the medicaid benefit, just you. It was set up years ago, just waiting for you.” So you know… He never answered that, but we ran into that a lot in our circles.. And see, we’re getting more people on the other side that we deal with, some many people moving into Franklin County from some other state. And they are usually Republican.
YM: Why do you think that? Why do you think people are moving here?
AE: Well they move to Franklin County, because they can’t afford to like Wake County. They come from other states because the living is easier, they’ve heard to come to NC. So they are everywhere in NC, but when they come to larger cities, like Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston Salem – well we’re closer to Raleigh, we’re 30 miles from Raleigh. So they come to Wake County, if they can’t get to Wake County, they spill over to Franklin County. And so, and we’re the southern end of Franklin County, which we’re closer to Wake. Then say if you were east of Louisburg, it looks pretty much the same down there. It’s not a lot of rooftops as they say. That’s how they devise tax code by the rooftops. So we have more rooftops, up here. And the people who’re moving in from all over the country, they’re mostly Republican. See we would have a few Republicans, we had a few Republicans in our neighborhood, but they wouldn’t let know they were republicans. When I was growing up say. And I’ve got older, that you didn’t know they were republicans. Because they were so isolated, they didn’t have very many other republicans, so they didn’t really let you know that they were republicans. So but now, since they have so many comrades, who are republicans, they don’t mind that you know that they are republicans. people that’s been here forever, you know they don’t know. Now, a lot of the times, my mother knew they were republicans, because when they would come to vote, she worked on the polls and in the primaries you had to declare what you are. And sometimes they’d say, One guy said, Ms Eaton, I just hadn’t gotten around to change my party affiliation. Listen, that’s up to you, you know. But he was embarrassed, see he was embarrassed to say he was a Republican. But see now, they are not embarrassed, because you got so many other Republicans who moved in, so they have their friends.I told my mother republicans going to ruin this county. Ruin this state. Period. And so, that’s how I feel about what you asked all around that way.
ML: Did you ever want to move? Out of Franklin Ct. Like did you wanna move to Raleigh?
AE: No. I’ve never wanted to move out of Franklin Ct. Not for one day. See I was born and reared here. And to me, Raleigh was first of all was a big city. I don’t like city life.I can’t stand cities. So I wouldn’t want to move to a city. The only place I’ve ever thought maybe moving the mountains when I got out but then I realized oh that’s too cold in the mountains, what was I thinking so no. I’ve never wanted to move anywhere, just stay right here in Franklin County.
ML: Do you anything else that you wanna say about the case?
AE: Well, we’re anxiously waiting for the judges ruling. And I can say if we lose, we will appeal and we would appeal it to the Federal Court. And we’ll just keep fighting as long as we’re able to do so. I will, and I believe my mother will as well. And fighting any other cases that or the issues that we feel passionate about. And so I’m looking forward to getting a positive outcome sooner or later. We will be working on the elections, trying to get some of the people removed out of the office, that don’t necessarily think like we do. And I’m glad to be a part of the voter id case, to be a plaintiff. You know to do my part, whatever, it’s gonna be very inconvenient sometimes, it can be very costly, cause the case is in, is heard in Winston Salem. So it can be costly to stay there for 3 weeks or 1 week or whatever. But I think it’s worth it. It’s worth the effort. I’m glad to be a part of the effort to fight this case. And I’ll be fighting as long as I can. Don’t plan to give up. I may give out but I don’t plan to give up.