Why My Father Never Voted by Gershon Ben-Avraham

Older men declare war. But it is the youth that must fight and die.
— Herbert Hoover

All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.
— Al Smith

+++++++There are many reasons that a significant percentage of
eligible American voters do not vote. The reasons are as varied
as the voters themselves. They range from something as seemingly
simple as the inconvenience of getting to the polling station to
something as complex as the inability to find a candidate whom
one can support unequivocally. Some voters, frustrated by what
appears to them to be the recurring need to select the lesser of
two evils, turn pessimistic, drop out, and elect to stay home.
My father never voted, not once in his entire life, but I have
never seen his reason listed in any of the analyses of voting
results I have read. His reason was rooted in something that
happened when he was twelve years old. I did not learn about it
until almost twenty years after his death, and then quite by
happenstance.

+++++++I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. It was a
difficult time to be there. Mississippi was harshly segregated
along racial lines, and violence, including murder, was often
used by white supremacists to deny Blacks their economic and
civil rights. Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP in
Mississippi, was assassinated in the driveway of his home in
Jackson in 1963. In 1964, three civil rights workers, James
Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by
the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 1967, the Klan
bombed the only synagogue in Jackson, as well as the home of its
Rabbi, Perry Nussbaum. However, not only Mississippi was in
turmoil. At the national level, the country endured the
assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and
Robert Kennedy, the Watts riots, the tumultuous 1968 Democratic
National Convention in Chicago, not to mention a divisive war in
Southeast Asia that eventually claimed over 58,000 American
lives. As a young man growing up in the 1960s, I felt that my
country was coming apart.

+++++++Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I had a Civics
class at school. In Civics, I learned about my rights, duties,
and responsibilities as a citizen of Mississippi, and as an
American. I learned about how our government is organized, our
political system, and political parties. I learned about
democracy, and the importance of voting. I was not yet old
enough to vote, but I was aware of what seemed to me to be an
injustice, young men old enough to be drafted and sent to fight
a war, but not old enough to vote for or against the politicians
who sent them.

+++++++I decided to talk with my father about how I felt. I wanted
to know if he believed things could be fixed and, if so, what he
thought needed to be done. I wanted to know for whom he voted,
and why. When I discussed it with him, he told me that he had
never voted. Never. I was shocked. My father had lived through
the Great Depression. He had served in the military in World War
II, and during the Korean War. He had lived through the McCarthy
era, the beginning of the Cold War, and the Cuban missile
crisis. I felt certain that he must have voted, at least once. I
was wrong. When I asked him why he never voted, all he said was
this: “I once knew a man who killed a man over an election.”
That was all. I was so deferential to my father that I did not
even think to ask him for details; and for his part, he did not
volunteer any.

+++++++My father died in 1976, and my mother in 1986. It is not
uncommon, I think, that the death of parents leads a person into
exploring his family’s history. It certainly did me. In the
early 1990s I went to Asheville, North Carolina, where my father
had been born in 1916, to research his side of the family. I
knew that his father had been born in a small place called
Democrat, North Carolina. I visited Democrat, really just a
small crossroads a short distance off I-26 north of Asheville.
Nearby, I found a two-story square log house built along Sugar
Creek, according to local tradition in 1825, by one of my
father’s ancestors. Not far away, at Morgan Hill Cemetery, I
visited the graves of my grandfather and grandmother. I walked
around, took several photographs, and then returned to
Asheville.

+++++++In Asheville, I went to the public library to do a
newspaper search. I knew my great-grandfather, Lee Plemmons,
father of my father’s mother, had died in 1928. Not sure of the
exact date, however, I slowly worked my way through the
microfilm records of the Asheville Citizen newspaper for 1928.
In the edition of November 9, I found what I was looking for,
“Plemmons Rites This Afternoon.” I also found something that I
was not looking for, a subheading that read, “Inquest is Held.”
In the article I read the following:

+++++++Lee Plemmons, merchant of 75 West Haywood Street,
came to his death ‘from a blow with a blunt instrument
at the hands of his son, Zeb Plemmons,’ according to
the verdict of the coroner’s jury at the inquest held
Thursday morning…The injury to Mr. Plemmons is said
to have resulted from an election day quarrel between
father and son, the elderly man supporting Hoover and
the son, a World war veteran, supporting Smith.

+++++++The man my father knew who had killed a man over an
election was his uncle; the man who was killed, was his
grandfather. At the time of my great-grandfather’s death, my
father was twelve years old. He was living in Asheville. I have
no record of how he felt about what happened, but the impact of
it would last his lifetime. No matter who was running, no matter
how important the issues, he would never, ever, vote.

+++++++My great-grandfather Plemmons was buried in Green Hills
Cemetery in Asheville. The newspaper listed his survivors. I
used the list to search the Asheville phonebook to see if anyone
might still be living. I found a daughter named Lillie Gee. I
had never met her. I decided to call her. My opening question
was “Did you have a sister named Minnie who had a son name
Ralph?” She said, “Who wants to know?” I said, “Minnie was my
grandmother, and Ralph was my father.” She asked me what that
made us. I told her she was my grandaunt, or, if she preferred,
my great-aunt and that I was her grandnephew. I asked if I could
come see her. She said yes.

+++++++When I met Lillie, I asked about the death of my great-
grandfather. She told me that she had been sitting on a counter
in her father’s store. Her father and her brother Zeb had an
argument over the election. Zeb went outside and in anger threw
a stone through the store window. It struck his father in the
head, fracturing his skull. I asked if she would mind going with
me to visit her father’s grave. She said she would like to.

+++++++We drove to Green Hills Cemetery. She easily directed me to
the grave. I stood at the foot of my great-grandfather’s grave
thinking about him, and what I had learned. After a few moments,
Lillie touched my arm and pointed to a flat stone marker beside
her father’s grave. I walked over to it. It was a veteran’s
marker. It read:

ZEB V. PLEMMONS
NORTH CAROLINA
CPL CO C 1 MACHINE GUN BN
WORLD WAR I
APRIL 27, 1893 JULY 24, 1958

+++++++That was the first and last time I ever saw my grandaunt,
Lillie Plemmons Gee. She died on February 1, 2005. She was one
hundred and one years old at the time of her death. Like her
father and brother before her, she was buried in Green Hills
Cemetery in Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina.

+++++++In August 2016 my father would have turned one hundred
years old. Do I think he would have voted in the 2016 election?
I would like to think so, even hope so, but I think the answer
is no. Some wounds are so deep they never heal, no matter how
long the convalescent period.

-End-

 

Gershon Ben-Avraham lives in Be’er Sheva, Israel where he writes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. His short story “The Janitor” is in the current issue of Jewish Fiction .net. His nonfiction piece “I Didn’t Mean To Do It” appeared in the Fall “Forgiveness” issue of Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing.