Sometimes we need a reminder of the contribution that the generation before us made to the advancement of civil and human rights.
Evenly T. Butts is a woman who provides us just such a reminder. Many are familiar with the street named after her in Norfolk, which cuts though the Oakwood Community. However, some might not know her history or the legacy she left behind and how that not only empowered the city of Norfolk, but the entire United States.
Here is her story and why my generation owes women like Mrs. Butts such a debt of gratitude.
There was a time in Virginia when paying a poll tax was a prerequisite for registering to vote in state elections. This not only placed an undue financial burden on lower income communities, but had the effect of disenfranchising people of color who could not exercise agency by voting in state elections. Virginia had such a tax until Mrs. Butts challenged its constitutionality in 1963, making Norfolk one of the focal points in the battle for civil rights at the height of the movement.
Her and four other plaintiffs from Northern Virginia came to be represented by the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who, at the time, was the Solicitor General. Eventually the case was ruled in her favor by the Supreme Court in a 6 to 3 split decision that led Virginia to become a more inclusive and participative democracy.
Shortly after the ruling, Mrs. Butts became a community advocate in Norfolk and registered more African American voters in a six-month period than the total population of some small cities in the Commonwealth. Her dedication to advancing civil rights during a very challenging period of American history directly contributed to the presence of a vast number of African Americans in elected office today.
The legacy of Mrs. Butts’ activism and community engagement is what inspired me to run for State Delegate of the 89th District in Norfolk. As a young community leader, the measurement of your own leadership is often balanced against the successes and failures of how you affect change around you. One of the ways to assess this is to ask a simple question: Am I making progress in the social movement that our grandparents fought so hard for? This is a common questions that new leaders often grapple with – especially those who have big shoes to fill – like those of Mrs. Butts.
That is why her family’s endorsement of my candidacy has meant so much to myself and my supporters, because we all know there is still work to be done in safeguarding those rights. Moreover, when we look at the complex challenges that our communities in Norfolk still face, and how those challenges are being exacerbated by pernicious policies at a state and federal level.
For example, we still have over 100,000 citizens who don’t earn the federal minimum wage and are disproportionally impacted by income inequality. Women are still fighting for equal pay for equal work, while out of touch anti-choice policies continue to progress throughout the General Assembly. In the past seven years, there have been upwards of 75 pieces of anti-abortion and anti-birth control legislation alone. And while LGBTQ protections have advanced, we must ensure that equality is enshrined as the status-quo throughout the Commonwealth. Fighting against discriminatory legislation such as the Physical Privacy Act, or dreaded ‘bathroom’ bills, must remain a priority.
Mrs. Butts was a true civil rights pioneer in Norfolk and has become a pillar in what became the modern progressive movement. Every time I am blessed enough to interact with our community, whether at an event or simply going door-to-door to introduce myself, I reflect on her enormous contribution. And how her courage paved the way for people like me to engage in the best version of what our politics can become.