Reflections Of A Centenarian: Why You Must Exercise Your Right To Vote

right to vote

Imagine what it must have been like to have lived 100 years ago. Now imagine being able to find out, first hand, from someone who lived it. Meet my mother, Ida Keeling, who turned 101 this past May and understand why it is so important that you exercise your right to vote.

In 1915, Woodrow Wilson (D) was president. A new car could be purchased for $490. A gallon of milk cost 25 cents and gas was 15 cents a gallon. However, there was no minimum wage, housing codes were almost non-existent and the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was still 5 years away. It was into this world, on May 15, 1915, that my Mom, Ida Potter (Keeling) was born.

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NYC, 1915, March for Women’s suffrage

She has very vivid memories of The Great Depression. Granddaddy lost the family home forcing the entire family to live in the rooms behind the grocery store he owned. While they suffered economic hardships along with the rest of America, there were good times. She recalls playing in the streets, not the sidewalks, the streets, of Manhattan. Can you imagine doing that today?  But she could because horseless carriages (automobiles) were rare. And then there was her second-grade outing where her teacher explained the use of the new-fangled traffic light on the corner. Yes, there were long lines of the unemployed waiting for a free meal, but hard times gave her a strong work ethic and taught her lessons about saving that she still practices and taught her children.

16 Nov 1930, Chicago, Illinois, USA --- Notorious gangster Al Capone attempts to help unemployed men with his soup kitchen "Big Al's Kitchen for the Needy." The kitchen provides three meals a day consisting of soup with meat, bread, coffee, and doughnuts, feeding about 3500 people daily at a cost of $300 per day. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
16 Nov 1930, Chicago, Illinois, USA – Notorious gangster Al Capone attempts to help unemployed men with his soup kitchen “Big Al’s Kitchen for the Needy.” It provided three meals a day consisting mostly of soup with meat, bread, coffee, and doughnuts. The kitchen fed about 3500 people daily. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

It was in the middle of the Depression that Mom, for the first time, exercised her right to vote. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (FDR), a former Democratic New York governor, was running for President. He offered America hope for a way out. Called “The New Deal,” his policies involved a great expansion of the role of the federal government in the economy. Mom thought programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) would help revive the economy, put the unemployed back to work and give Americans renewed hope. So in 1932, she cast her first (of what would be four) votes for FDR.

FDR’s famous December 1941, “A date that will live infamy” radio broadcast, that signaled the United State’s entry into WWII is still a vivid memory. During WWII she watched as all of her brothers and friends joined a segregated military that went to Europe to fight against Hilter, a monster. Lucky for me, she saves everything, so she still has newspapers from the WWII era. This absolutely fascinated me as a teenager, so I read the accounts frequently. I once asked her what was her most poignant memory from WWII? She showed me a newspaper clipping of a mass grave with emaciated bodies piled high and a doll on top of the pile of bodies, and said “this“.

That memory still makes me cry.

However, there was a really good thing that came out of the war. One of my uncles introduced her to a man he’d served with, Lawrence C. Keeling. They fell in love, married in 1948 and a year later, I was born.

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Ida and Lawrence Keeling, Honeymoon, 1948, Tampa, Florida

Our lives would mirror each other in several ways over time. Years after WWII, she offered me comfort and support as I went through the same ordeal as she had, watching my friends go off to war; this time, it was to Viet Nam. And I learned my own lesson about the importance of voting and how it could change the world in which we lived. When I was 18, the voting age was 21 while the draft age was 18. By the year 1973, the voting age was 18 and the draft had been abolished.

She was my inspiration for becoming and staying involved in the Civil Rights movement. She was an early activist and follower of Marcus Garvey, and later, Dr. King and Malcolm X. We shared a dream when we both attended Dr. King’s 1963 march on Washington and heard about King’s dream for America. We comforted each other, only a few months later, as we, along with the rest of America and the world, were shell-shocked by the assassination of our beloved president Kennedy, in 1963.

Through it all, my mother has been a staunch Democrat all of her life. It is the caring and concern of Democrats for “the least among us” that has kept Mom a loyal Democrat for her 100 years. And in 2016, she’s looking forward to having a woman’s touch in the Oval Office. 

Seven years ago, she voted for Barack Obama and again only 3 years ago. This was monumental. Because that was 133 years after African-Americans, like herself, were allowed to vote. Now she looks forward to November where, at the age of 101, she will be casting her vote for America’s first female President of the United States. She remembers when, nearly 96 years ago, women were finally given the right to vote. Now she has the opportunity to use her vote to vote to make history once again. She has witnessed America changing and evolving.

What an amazing 100 years it has been for America and for my mother and really, all of us. What my mother taught me was that my voice is important and what I have to say was worth hearing. So I will pass that along to you. Vote. Be heard. You have that right. Exercise it in November.

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Ida Keeling, May, 2015, at her 100th birthday party.
This is her two weeks before her 101st birthday at the Penn Relays. She broke the world record for the 100-meter dash and became the first woman in history over 100 to complete that run.
This is Ida Keeling two weeks before her 101st birthday at the Penn Relays. She broke the world record for the 100-meter dash and became the first woman in history over 100 to complete in that run.

Featured Image: Public Domain: http://lbjlibrary.org/collections/photo-archive/photolab-detail.html?id=225