Obit of the Day: Fighting for the Right
Lillian Bonner Sutton’s mother Bernice decided to become a “citizen.” Now Mrs. Bonner was born in the United States and lived her entire life in South Carolina, but because she was Black she was unable to vote. For her, citizenship was only possible through the ballot.
So the Bonners and two other women went to the Gaffney, SC courthouse to register to vote. It was 1940 - a quarter century before the Voting Rights Act was passed.
The four women headed to the courthouse. (The could find no men who would agree to join them.) Lillian Bonner Sutson did not tell her mother that before they left she had armed herself with a pistol and a straight razor, just in case.
They headed to the second floor to register. As the women approached the door to the registrar’s office it was slammed shut. They asked if the office was open, and when told it was, one of the four women forced the door back open.
Unfortunately that was as far as they got that day. Crowds started building in the lobby as news of the four Black women trying to register spread through the town. The four women would leave, and were only able to pass unmolested because of lawyer who offered help and the fact that Mrs. Bonner Sutson was pregnant was made known to the crowd.
Mrs. Sutson, Mrs. Bonner Sutson and their friends sued the registrar board for violating their Constitutional rights. Their lawyer? Thurgood Marshall. Mr. Marshall lost the decision but it would serve as basis to argue for voting rights in the future.
Lillian Bonner Sutson, who fought off an intruder in her home in 2011 by stabbing him in the thigh when she was 97, died on July 29, 2013 at the age of 99.
Sources: Miami Herald and National Museum of African American History and Culture (this is actual a post written by Mrs. Bonner Sutson’s grandson and features audio of Mrs. Sutson retelling the story of her experience in 1940)
(Image of Lillian Bonner Sutson, left, her grandmother Katy Moorehead-Petty, and Bernice Bonner is courtesy of the NMAAHC page and a Sutson family photo from 1939 - one year before the voting incident.)
Other civil rights-related posts on OOTD:
Patricia Stephens Due - Civil rights leader in Florida
Willie Louis - Witness at the Emmett Till murder trial
Clara Luper - One of the first individuals to lead a lunch counter sit-in
Fred Shuttlesworth - Leader of the Souther Christian Leadership Conference
Dr. Joe Williams - St. Louis civil rights leader