“Voting is an experience that every American citizen should have,” Dr. Robert H. Smith Sr. told ABC News, adding, “we the people decide who’s going to be our leader.” And indeed, in October, 99-year-old Smith went to the polls with his son to submit an absentee ballot in Jackson, Mississippi. But Smith, who was born the son of a sharecropper on a plantation, said, “I remember when I couldn’t vote.”
Black Americans were not able to vote until far too recently in U.S. history. Legally, Black men were given that right in 1870 with the adoption of the 15th Amendment. However, the legal right to vote didn’t translate into an actual right to vote for quite some time after 1870. Poll taxes, voting laws, outright violence at the polls, and literacy tests were all cropped up across the country to stop people of color from participating in democracy. Many faced voter intimidation and violence from white supremacists and were punished if they did vote. In fact, only 55 years ago, in 1965, did the Voting Rights Act prohibit racial discrimination on a federal and state-wide basis. That act has since been gutted.
Smith’s father greatly encouraged his education, and he went on to earn a bachelor’s at Southern University, a master’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Ph.D. from Florida State University. At the University of Illinois, Smith said that Black students were not allowed to eat at certain cafeterias, so to fight discrimination, Smith participated in sit-ins and served on the community relations community. After earning his Ph.D., Smith worked as a sociology professor at Florida A&M University, dean of liberal studies at Jackson State University, and dean of freshman studies at Tougaloo College. And remarkably, 99-year-old Smith retired from teaching just a decade ago. Smith said, “I’ve been involved in this movement for the past 50 years … but there’s much more to be done.” His story is a reminder of the all-too-recent history of voter discrimination in the United States, and his existence is a testament to living history.