No right is more precious in a free country
than that of having a voice in the election
of those who make the laws under which,
as good citizens, we must live. Other rights,
even the most basic, are illusory if the right
to vote is undermined.
—Justice Hugo Black, 1964

Sometimes she wrote about the weather—
how hot it was, or yet another lightning storm
gone as quick as it came. In the catalog
of her days: a dress she was sewing, car trouble,
pay day, laced with declarations of love
to the man who would become my father—
her body bright with desire, a threshold
I would soon cross into being. Two years
before Loving will make their love
legal, my mother writes about marrying
despite an unjust law; and because it is 1965,
Mississippi in turmoil, she writes about a cross
burned at the church next door, interracial
outings at the beach, and being followed
by police—all of it side by side in her letters’
tidy script. Reading them, I can’t help thinking
how ordinary it seems, injustice—mundane
as a trip to the store for bread. And I know
this is about what has always existed,
side by side, in this country. That summer,
my grandmother brought The Movement
home. It tells the story in pictures, and it is
beautiful, my mother wrote, adding, I think
you know the way I am using the word.
On the cover: a black protestor, caught
in a cop’s chokehold, his mouth open to shout
or gasp for air. Inside, pictures I could not bear
to look at as a child: a man tied to a scaffold,
his body burned blacker, the fire still smoldering
beneath him; two boys hanged from a tree
above the smiling white faces of the revelers
turned back toward the camera: a young couple
holding hands, ordinary as any night out
on a date. Now I think of my mother, in love
and writing love letters, cataloguing her days,
those terrible/beautiful pictures on the table
next to the crocheted lace doily and crystal bowl
my grandmother kept for candy: butterscotch
in cellophane wrappers, bright and shiny as gold.
It is July 20th 1965, two months before my parents
will break the law to be married, and my mother,
who’s just turned twenty-one, signs off—her rights
basic as any other citizen’s—Have to run, she wrote;
Got to get downtown to register to vote.

This poem originally appeared in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (Penguin Random House, 2019)). Copyright © 2019 by Natasha Trethewey. Used by permission of the poet.