Overcoming Barriers to Voter Registration in the South

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There are many unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. One of them is a Dayton-area woman named Flonzie Brown-Wright who became one of the first blacks to be elected to office in Mississippi after Reconstruction. WOSU’s Sam Hendren spoke with Brown-Wright about her work for racial equality and about the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Flonzie Brown-Wright met Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. on two occasions. Once in 1966 when she and a small group of supporters got together with the Civil Rights leader in Mississippi.

“After we were talking about what we were going to do at the courthouse that day and then he prayed and then he asked if I would sing this song Oh Freedom. And I sang it.

Oh freedom

Oh freedom

Oh freedom over me

And before I’ll be your slave

I’ll be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free

Flonzie Brown Wright was only 12 years old in 1954 when Emmett Till was brutally murdered in the Mississippi Delta. Nine years later, when Medgar Evers was shot to death in Jackson, the young woman knew she’d be a part of the Civil Rights movement.

“When Medgar Evers was assassinated, something just happened to me and I have not been the same since. My train of thought was, If a man could just be shot down just like an animal, because he attended a meeting or because he was the president of the NAACP of Mississippi, what did that mean for me?’ So it just simply meant that I had to get my head out of the sand, and I had to begin to educate myself as to what this separation and segregation and inequalities were all about.

So Brown-Wright says she tried to register to vote. But it was tough in Madison County, Mississippi were only 100 blacks were registered to vote, even though the potential black voter population was 10,000. She tried to register anyway and was confronted with barriers.

“When Blacks went to register they had to fill out a 21-item questionnaire. As opposed to our white counterparts who filled out a 6-item [questionnaire]. And the registrar had the autonomy to decide what questions were contained on that application. And some of those questions were as ludicrous as how many bubbles are in a bar of soap? How many polka dots are in a yard of fabric? And you had to answer those questions to his satisfaction. And he had the power to say either that you passed or you didn’t pass.”

Brown-Wright says she failed her first exam because she could not define the legal term habeas corpus.

“The greatest thing during that time for an African American to be able to do was to sign their name in the book. Oh, that was just like getting new religion. And so I asked him, ‘Well how did I do?’ He looked at me and said, You didn’t pass.’ And I said, Well, what was my mistake?’ And he told me, he said, N****r, I said you didn’t pass and get the hell out of my office.’

She left, vowing in her heart, she said, that one day she would have the registrar’s job. Two years after she sang for Doctor King, Flonzie Brown-Wright was elected – in 1968 – as the elections commissioner of Madison County, Mississippi. She became the registrar’s boss. Now she says she’s looking forward to Barack Obama’s inauguration.

“I will feel such a sense of pride because his candidacy and his election represents for me the manifestation of this whole struggle that we have been in for more than 40 years. I never thought that in my lifetime that I would actually see an African American man become president. I knew it would happen I just didn’t know when.”

Flonzie Brown-Wright lives near Germantown Ohio and is the author of Looking Back to Move Ahead.

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