'Until the Building Falls Down': A Fight to Vote

Theresa Burroughs, with her daughter, Toni Love, at a StoryCorps booth in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

hide captionTheresa Burroughs, with her daughter, Toni Love, at a StoryCorps booth in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

When Theresa Burroughs came of age in the late 1940s, she was ready to vote. But in her Alabama town, it took two years of effort just for her to register.

Accompanied by J.J. Simmons, a minister who would not let her back down, Burroughs went down to the Hale County Courthouse on the first and third Monday of each month.

"The white men," Burroughs says, "they would not let us register to vote."

The chairman of the board of registrars, remembered by Burroughs only as "Mr. Cox," posed questions meant to disqualify black voters, such as "How many black jelly beans in a jar? How many red ones in there?"

When Burroughs responded that Cox didn't know how many jelly beans were in the jar any more than she did, the answer was quick: "Shut your black mouth."

But Burroughs, with Simmons' support, kept on going, despite the embarrassment.

"We're going to go until the building falls down," Simmons said.

On the day that Cox finally relented, he asked Burroughs and Simmons a simpler question — to recite part of the preamble of the Constitution — and also gave her a final insult.

"You're going to pass today. Because we are tired of looking at your black faces," Burroughs recalls him saying. Then he handed over the slip of paper that meant Burroughs was a registered voter.

Burroughs voted in the next election. And she hasn't stopped since.

"It shouldn't have been this hard," she says. "I knew it shouldn't have been this hard."

Produced for 'Morning Edition' by Katie Simon. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Sarah Kramer.

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