"I remember when I couldn't vote," said the US Army veteran who served in World War II.
Dr. Robert H. Smith Sr. has seen a lot in his 99 years of existence. Born to a sharecropper on a plantation, he went on to serve in World War II and spent decades working at historically Black colleges and universities. He's now lived long enough to cast a vote in yet another presidential election; a right that was previously denied to him. "I remember when I couldn't vote," Smith told ABC News. The 99-year-old made sure his voice would be heard in the heated battle for the presidency between Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden by dropping his ballot off in-person at the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, last month.
If he can vote, we can vote.https://t.co/DgZdHS9TQF— Detrick says 🗣 KEEP FAITH (@DetrickManning) November 3, 2020
Speaking to CNN, the US Army veteran said he wasn't allowed to register in Louisiana when he turned 21 in 1942 and only cast his first ballot after returning from the war in 1946. Although the U.S. adopted the 15th Amendment in 1870 — which legally granted African American men the right to vote — the opportunity to exercise that right became a decades-long challenge with discriminatory voting practices in many states effectively barring them from voting until the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965.
African American citizens who lived in southern states suffered the brunt of it as white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan resorted to intimidation and violence, which Smith says is still a real issue in today's political climate. While the Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the civil rights movement became a landmark piece of federal legislation that prohibited racial discrimination on the state and local level, the Supreme Court made it much less powerful in 2013 by invalidating a key provision of the act. Smith, who lives in Hinds County — the most populous county in Mississippi, said he was cognizant of the struggle for voting rights as he waited in line for approximately 20 minutes with his son to drop off his ballot last month.
Robert H. Smith, Sr., has lived through a lot, including a time when many African Americans couldn’t vote https://t.co/HV2H7O2fUh— KITV4 (@KITV4) November 4, 2020
"I lived through the whole process of gaining the ballot, so being able to participate was satisfying for me," he said. Smith said he felt proud to submit his ballot after having overcome a number of obstacles throughout his lifetime. "Voting is an experience that every American citizen should have," he said, adding, "we the people decide who's going to be our leader." Although the line at the courthouse was long and moving slowly, the senior was happy to be there as people exercised their constitutional right. "It was very pleasing to see so many people out to vote," he said. "And to be a part of the excitement that was going on around me."
I just had the pleasure of putting a wristband on a 99 year old woman who came out today to vote... she told me, “people should vote and definitely this year more than any...” pic.twitter.com/blebssnicQ— Kacibelle 💛🐝💛🔥💛🐝💛 (@LikesKaci) November 3, 2020
Smith revealed that had been following the presidential campaign closely and paid attention to what both candidates said about their visions for America throughout their campaign trails. Born in May 1921 on a plantation in the small town of Rayville, Louisiana, Smith was the first person in this family to finish high school and attend college. While his father — a sharecropper on the plantation who left to become a Baptist preacher — had not finished elementary school, he consistently instilled in his children that "the only way out is to stay in school."
However, Smith's education was interrupted when he was drafted by the US Army in World War II. He was later promoted to the rank of chief warrant officer in the European Theater of Operations and upon returning to the US, he went on to obtain a bachelor's degree at Southern University, a master's degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Ph.D. from Florida State University. The recent anti-racist protests across the country reminded him of his time as a student activist, said Smith, adding that the current push for justice is just a sign the work is far from over. "I've been involved in this movement for the past 50 years," he said, "but there's much more to be done."