Listen carefully when Jotaka Eaddy speaks, and you hear her heart pulsating to the beat of a hollow gourd.
It keeps rhythm with Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey and the Rock tapping out “Ella’s Song.” When Eaddy describes what propelled her into activism you can almost hear that female a cappella group harmonizing, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” It’s a synchronized percussion that started more than 20 years ago in Eaddy’s life, and shows no signs of stopping.
Peering over the fence of a football field, Eaddy was in grade school when she felt the pull of a movement. Jesse Jackson was there encouraging people who wanted fair treatment. Local plant workers in her hometown of Johnsonville, S.C., were on a picket line. “Ladies in the church were cooking,” Eaddy recalls. “I remember taking food to strikers. I was moved by that. I knew folks were fighting for something.”
And then the beat got louder for the woman who serves as the NAACP’s senior director for voting rights. In seventh grade, she discovered that juries sent minors to death row. “From that moment on, I committed myself.” Eaddy said. “I thought I’m going to do something about this. I’m going to abolish the death penalty,”
In 2005, at only 23 years old, Eaddy’s work contributed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, which did abolish the juvenile death penalty. A court ruling that stood for more than 100 years old had been overturned. And it wasn’t the first time this Root 100 honoree created long-overdue change. When she was elected student body president at the University of South Carolina, Eaddy was the first black woman in the school’s 210-year history to hold that office.
She confesses that sometimes the struggle is tiring when she hears about moves designed to suppress voting. Sometimes Eaddy thinks she’s ready to turn to another passion, singing. But then she changes her mind. In her interview with The Root, listen to the heart of a woman who will not rest until freedom comes.
Christy Oglesby lives in Atlanta. She's a veteran writer for newspapers, websites and television.