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How a WWII veteran's act of voting inspired a teenage Martin Luther King Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. And on this Martin Luther King Day weekend, the story of a man who inspired a teenage Dr. King. We should warn this story includes a description of racial violence. U.S. Army veteran Maceo Snipes was serving in World War II. In 1945, he returned home to Taylor County, Ga., where he became the first African American to cast a vote in his county primary.

RAYNITA SNIPES JOHNSON: But the day after he voted, four men drove up on the family farm, and they shot him. My grandmother went down and reported this lynching, but no one was ever arrested.

INSKEEP: Raynita Snipes Johnson is Maceo Snipes' great niece. She only recently learned her uncle's story and shared it with her friend, Gene Robinson.

JOHNSON: Right after he was shot, there was a note on a church door, and it said the first N to vote won't vote again, and anyone who preaches about Maceo Snipes better dig a grave for themselves. So our family never discussed what happened to him.

GENE ROBINSON: Wow.

JOHNSON: But after his killing, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to the newspaper as it related to the killing of Maceo Snipes. When I found that letter, it really resonated because he expressed how he felt about the injustice to our Black citizens not allowed to vote and nothing's being done about it. You know, my uncle knew what he was doing when he walked into that election office, and he didn't let intimidation turn him from exercising his right.

ROBINSON: He was a warrior and a true American because he took the weight and said, I'm going to do what everyone should do.

JOHNSON: My uncle, a man I have never met, was a determined man. And when I look at his picture, I can see the sternness in him, but I can see the love that was in him. And through spirit, I feel him calling me to say, your vote matters, the Black vote matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "TWO DOLLAR TOKEN")

INSKEEP: Raynita Snipes Johnson speaking with her friend, Gene Robinson. Today, members of the Snipes are working to get a historical marker for Maceo Snipes erected in Taylor County. Her story was recorded in collaboration with FRONTLINE as part of a series called Un(re)solved, which documents cold case murders during the civil rights era. And this conversation is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jarrod Sport