Born on a plantation in Rayville, Louisiana, on May 9, 1921, to a father who was a sharecropper, Dr. Robert H. Smith Sr. has seen and experienced it all with regards to voting rights and how people of his kind had to shed blood and tears during those times in pursuit of that.
And though old age may have caught up with the 99-year-old, he’s not letting that get into the way of continuing to perform his civic responsibility of voting as he’s very well aware of how crucial and indispensable it is.
“I remember when I couldn’t vote,” Smith, who cast his vote via absentee ballot in the just ended 2020 U.S. election, told ABC News in an interview.
The historical timeline surrounding voting rights for African Americans and how they were ultimately enfranchised details a long, torrid journey. Even though the 15th amendment – which was passed by Congress as far back as 1870 – stated citizens (excluding women at that time) should be allowed to vote irrespective of race and so on, African American men still faced intimidation and discrimination, coupled with voter suppression tactics, including poll tax.
These discriminatory practices persisted until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson eventually ensured African Americans would no longer be denied the right to vote on the local and state level.
“I lived through the whole process of gaining the ballot, so being able to participate was satisfying for me,” Smith, who is a retired educator, told CNN.
Also a US Army World War II veteran, Smith said he was prevented from registering to vote in Louisiana in 1942 when he was 21, adding that he only voted for the first time in 1946 after he returned from the war.
Though times have changed, Smith, a student activist during the Civil Rights Movement, told ABC News the recent happenings in the country with regards to the demonstrations against racial discrimination, mean there’s more work to be done.
“I’ve been involved in this movement for the past 50 years … but there’s much more to be done,” he said.
Nevertheless, Smith, who said he keenly followed the run-up to the elections and scrutinized the campaign messages of both presidential candidates, expressed his satisfaction with the voter turnout when he showed up to submit his ballot over a week ago.
“It was very pleasing to see so many people out to vote. And to be a part of the excitement that was going on around me,” he told CNN.
“Any time you can play a role in the selection of leadership it’s a good feeling.”
Smith holds a bachelor’s degree from Southern University and A&M College (previously known as the Southern University for Colored Students) as well as a master’s degree from the University of Illinois. Also Ph.D. holder, Smith was a professor at Florida A&M University, and later served as dean at Jackson State University and Tougaloo College, according to CNN.
He retired in 2002.