“FEARLESS ought to be required reading for every high school student in Virginia. It is the inside story of the struggle for basic American rights, told from the perspective of those who lived through the oppression and fought for change. Any discussion of the impact of the poll tax or civil rights in Virginia, would be incomplete without an understanding of the life and accomplishments of Evelyn Butts.”
— Chuck Robb, Former Governor and US Senator, Virginia
Evelyn Thomas Butts stood in the plaza outside the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C. waiting for an Associated Press photographer to take her picture. It was a cold and windy January day. With the wind chill, the temperature felt like fifteen degrees. She was wearing a black coat she had sewn herself. Every garment she wore that day was put together on the sewing machine she kept on the enclosed front porch of her two-bedroom house in Norfolk, Virginia. She had one black dress for formal occasions. The hat she wore was given to her by her sister Bunky, whose real name was Estelle. It was a soft faille hat with a band around it to hold it on her head. It was bigger than a beret, so it was both stylish and practical enough to keep her head warm. Every female in her family had borrowed the hat at some point. She wore it that day as a good luck charm. On ordinary days, Mrs. Butts could be described as a seamstress, an African American woman approaching middle age, mother of three daughters, wife of a 100% disabled World War II veteran. But on this day, she was the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against the State of Virginia, arguing that state poll taxes discriminated against poor persons like herself, which is why the Associated Press was interested in taking her picture. The year was 1966.
The photographer positioned her at a diagonal to the front of the building, on the right side. From that angle, the columns appear to be rising from left to right in back of her. The photo was shot from below, as if the photographer bent his knees or perhaps used a tripod. Mrs. Butts is not looking into the camera. She is not smiling. She is looking off into the distance, as though she has somewhere to go. It’s the kind of photo you would shoot of a CEO. She looks powerful.
And she was. I know this because Evelyn T. Butts was my mother. My two older sisters and I had front-row seats to many of the moments that led up to this photo. At the time it was shot in 1966, I was a junior in high school and my two sisters were grown and ready to start their own lives. In a sense, this photo, and her victory in the high court case that had brought her to Washington, amounted to something like her society debut. From that point on, my mother was an important political figure in Norfolk, and remained so until the last years of her life.
When she died in 1993, the Senate of Virginia passed a resolution honoring her. They called her “one of the most influential political leaders of the last three decades.” She was honored for eliminating the poll tax, registering nearly 3,000 voters in a six-month period, being the driving force behind a political organization called Concerned Citizens that helped elect both black and white candidates, serving the people of Norfolk for 12 years as an (unpaid) city housing commissioner, as chairman of the Second Congressional District for the Democratic Party, serving on the Citizens’ Advisory Commission, the Model Cities Commission, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and the State Housing and Community Development Board.”
The resolution continued, “WHEREAS, her outstanding accomplishments notwithstanding, Evelyn Butts’ most lasting legacy lives on in the entire generation of political leaders, both black and white, who owe their success to the tireless and inspired efforts of a Norfolk seamstress who overcame great odds to become an influential and successful community leader.”