Rosanell Eaton, a resolute African-American woman who was hailed by President Barack Obama as a beacon of civil rights for her role as a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against a restrictive North Carolina voting law that reached the Supreme Court in 2016, died on Saturday in Louisburg, N.C. She was 97. Ms. Eaton’s daughter, Armenta Eaton, said she died in hospice care at the home they had shared in recent years. Caught up as a witness to history in one of the nation’s major controversies, Ms. Eaton, an obscure civil rights pioneer in her younger years, became a cause célèbre after Mr. Obama cited her courage in his response to a 2015 article in The New York Times Magazine about growing efforts to dismantle the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “I was inspired to read about unsung American heroes like Rosanell Eaton in Jim Rutenberg’s ‘A Dream Undone: Inside the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act,’ ” Mr. Obama wrote in a letter to the editor. “I am where I am today only because men and women like Rosanell Eaton refused to accept anything less than a full measure of equality.”
A year after the president’s letter, the Supreme Court, in a 4-4 vote, let stand a federal appeals court judgment upholding the lawsuit spearheaded by Ms. Eaton and other plaintiffs. The ruling struck down a North Carolina statute whose provisions “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” in what the court called an effort to depress black turnout at the polls.
In 2017, after regaining its conservative majority with the appointment of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal to revive the case, effectively overturning a far-reaching effort by Republicans to counter what they contended, without evidence, was widespread voter fraud in North Carolina.
A lifelong devotee of voting rights who vividly remembered the terrors and degradations of the Jim Crow era, Ms. Eaton, one of seven children of a North Carolina farm family, attended segregated schools, used segregated bathrooms and other public accommodations and drank from a “colored” water fountain in her hometown, Louisburg, N.C.
In her first act of defiance, when she was 21, she went to the Franklin County Courthouse in Louisburg. Three white men confronted her there and demanded to know what she wanted.
“I’m here to register to vote,” she said.
They told her that she could register only if she could recite from memory the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. It was a common ruse, disguised as a literacy test, to turn away black voters. The valedictorian of her high school class, she complied without hesitation.
“We the People of the United States,” she said, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
“Well, little lady,” one of the men conceded. “You did it.”