Dorothy Cooper, voter-rights symbol for Chattanooga, turns 98

photo Dorothy Cooper, whose struggle to gain a voter ID card drew national attention in 2012, opens gifts as she is honored by a surprise 98th birthday party Wednesday at the Boynton Drive Senior Center.

Dorothy Cooper had no desire to start a fight. She just wanted to vote.

But when she was denied a voter identification card at the Cherokee Boulevard Driver Service Center in 2011 after producing four pieces of identification including a birth certificate, she became a national symbol of how new voter ID laws could prevent a person from voting.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and City Councilman Chair man Yusuf Hakeem were among the elected officials who visited her Wednesday, almost two years after the voter ID fiasco.

They came to pay their respects on Cooper's 98th birthday.

"You're never too young or too old to stand for your community," said Berke. "She had every right to sit in the background and wait for others, but we have people in Chattanooga who want to stand up for the rest of us."

The Republican-led Tennessee General Assembly passed voter ID legislation in 2011, saying it was needed to stop voter fraud. Opponents claimed it was a tactic to keep poor people and minorities, who are more likely to vote Democratic, from casting ballots.

Cooper was turned down, but she never gave up.

She was talked about on syndicated radio programs, she visited twice on the Rev. Al Sharpton's talk show on MSNBC and her face appeared in newspapers across the country.

Cooper also got calls from the office of Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who offered his assistance with getting voter identification. She eventually was issued a voter ID card and was able to participate in the 2012 elections.

"You are a role model for all of our young people," Hakeem said Wednesday.

Cooper has missed only one election since she started voting in the 1940s, she said.

Hakeem, Councilman Moses Freeman and former state Rep. Tommie Brown were among the elected officials passing out ice cream and cake to the more than two dozen Boynton Terrace residents attending Cooper's birthday celebration.

Charline Kilpatrick, former executive committeewoman with the Hamilton County Democratic Party and host of Cooper's birthday celebration, told residents that attempts to suppress their vote will happen again in 2014 and they should start immediately to ensure they have all they need to meet voting requirements.

Then Cooper spoke. Her voice was soft and low.

She said blacks and women were not always allowed to vote.

"Vote because there is opportunity," she said when asked why younger people should vote. "Vote so they'll get better jobs."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or call 423-757-6431.