On August 24, 1920—more than 40 years after Susan B. Anthony first penned 39 straightforward words as a proposed U.S. Constitutional Amendment to grant women the legal right to vote—the weight of that historic decision all came down to one man, Harry T. Burn, Sr., who, at age 24, was the youngest-elected member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
A year earlier, on June 4, the proposed 19th Amendment had won the hard-fought two-thirds "super majority" required of both chambers of Congress and, within nine months, 35 of the 48 states had ratified it. But the proposal had stalled.
Its fate, ultimately, came down to a decision by Tennessee, the necessary number 36. It was one of only four undecided states, but the only one willing to call its legislature into special session to consider the measure before the ratification process expired. Burn arrived at the state capitol that morning intending to vote against the constitutional change, as the red carnation on his lapel so indicated. Burn and 48 other legislators wore the crimson boutonnieres as a public sign of their opposition to women's equality. On the other side, 48 representatives wore yellow carnations to indicate their support. The measure seemed destined to fall short by one, critical vote.
But when the roll call was held, Burn—wearing a "nay" red carnation—switched sides and cast the decisive "yea" vote to ratify the 19th Amendment.
More than 144 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, nearly 58 years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and 72 years after the Suffrage movement was founded in Seneca Falls, N.Y., women had finally received the vote.
By this time, the Amendment's principle architects—Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—had been dead for 14 and 18 years, respectively.
After Burn's fateful decision, legend has it that he eluded physical assault by hiding in the attic of the capitol until the coast was clear.
Explaining his flip-flop vote, Burn said that he had discovered, in his pocket, a personal note penned by his mother, Febb E. Burn.
"Vote for suffrage!" she wrote to her son. "Don't keep them in doubt. I have been watching to see how you stood."
Said the legislator Burn to his colleagues, "A good boy always does what his mother asks him to do."
This powerful, but little-known story of one man's influence on history is, at one level, a poignant illustration of how one vote matters. But, at a deeper level, it's a reminder that our influence, our leverage matters as well. Others, to be sure, are impacted by how we feel and what we think.
Public policy decisions affect the lives of real human beings, and it is through our personal stories that we best make this reality understood. Yes, it takes conviction to make the phone call, to offer the word or to pen the note. But it may be just the thing another person needs to muster the courage necessary to resist the rising tide, to reject the scapegoating and to do the right thing.
So, during this important election year, here's to fearless Harry Burn. But, even more so, here's to his gutsy mother.
And here's a shout out to all who realize that standing on principle is easier when the encouragement of others emboldens us to take a stand for justice, just as God requires.
Harry Burn died at age 81 in 1977—when Jimmy Carter was president—an acute reminder that we still live in pivotal times. Your vote and your influence do matter.