By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, forthcoming from NYU Press in 2009.
My wife and I were tired. We’re both African American and had spent the entire day in one of the poorest white neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio knocking mostly on the doors of young people who were registered Democrats but who had never voted before. “It’s Election Day,” we told these statistically unlikely voters, “and Barack Obama needs your support.” A handful of the people we encountered said that they had already voted, and a few said that they would do so later in the day, but most simply brushed us off. “How’s it looking out there?” asked the local Obama campaign manager when we returned to the office. “Hard to say,” I responded flatly.
As we submitted our canvassing materials, the office manager asked if we could pick up a couple who needed a ride to the polls. My wife and I glanced at each other hesitatingly. Sensing that we were feeling too exhausted to do it, the manager said, “They’re not too far from here and there’s no one else available.” “Might as well,” said my wife. “Why not,” I added grudgingly.
A half dozen people, all white, and most in their twenties, were milling about outside of the house when we pulled up. “We’re here to pick up some folk who want to vote,” I said half-heartedly from driver’s side window. “That’s us,” said a young white woman, who gave the newborn she was holding in her arms to the baby’s grandmother. “Hop in,” I replied, “and don’t forget your IDs.” As the pair got in, the grandmother said to me, “This is Amber. She wants to vote too. She’s a little slow and will need some help, but she knows who she wants to vote for. She knows the ballot issues too. Here’s her ID. You better take it. She tends to lose things.” Amber, who looked to be in her mid-twenties, stood quietly behind her, expressionless. “No problem,” I said.
As we drove to the polling place, the young woman who had been holding the baby said that she had wanted to vote for John Kerry in 2004, but had never got around to it. “Me too,” said her husband. In fact, he said, they had never voted before. Amber was quiet.
When we arrived, I escorted the trio inside. An election official quickly came up to me and asked that I remove my Obama button. Without giving the request a second thought, I removed the button and slipped it into my pocket. I pointed to the table where the couple had to sign in, then turned to Amber and motioned for her to follow me. “This is Amber,” I said to one of the poll workers as I handed her Amber’s state issued ID. “She needs some assistance voting, but she knows who she wants to for.” Amber was quiet. The clerk stared at us quizzically, but looked up Amber’s name anyway. “The addresses don’t match,” the clerk said after a moment. “Two of the street numbers are wrong.” Before I could respond, Amber spoke up. “This is where I live,” she said pointing to her ID. The clerk looked at Amber, and then at me. I had nothing to add. “Okay,” said the clerk after a short pause. “She needs to fill out a change of address form.” When she handed Amber the form, the young woman stared at it blankly. “You have to fill this out before you can vote,” I said. Amber picked up a pen and then waited for me to tell her where to put the required information. She followed my instructions exactly, but hesitated when she had to write the county in which she lived. “This is Franklin County,” I said. “How do you spell Franklin,” she replied.
After Amber completed the form and signed in, another election official directed us to a touch screen voting machine. The official rattled off a set of instructions and then asked Amber if she understood. Amber nodded perfunctorily. As the official walked away, Amber turned to me and asked, “All I have to do is touch the screen?” “Yep,” I replied. Amber smiled.
The first screen that appeared listed the names of the presidential candidates. It was at that moment that I realized that I had no idea who Amber actually supported for president. I looked at her as she studied the screen intently trying to figure out what to do. “There is where you vote for president,” I said. Amber replied excitedly, “I want to vote for Barack Obama.” Her burst of enthusiasm caught me by surprise. “Touch there,” I said, and she cast her ballot for Obama. The next screen listed a multitude of candidates for lesser offices. I asked Amber who she wanted to vote for in every one of these contests, and each time she said matter-of-factly, “I only want to vote for president.” So we moved on. When the first ballot issue appeared – a proposal for a school levy – I read the synopsis to her. When I finished, I wasn’t sure if she understood what I had been saying, but she responded immediately, “We need better schools. I want to vote yes.” After I read the proposal for a levy to improve wastewater treatment, she said, “We need clean water. I want to vote yes.” And on the most controversial issue on this year’s Ohio ballot – a constitutional amendment to allow a casino to be constructed outside of Cincinnati, she said, “We don’t need a casino. I want to vote no.” In profoundly simple ways, Amber had a fundamental grasp of these issues.
As we walked back to the car, I asked Amber if this was her first time voting. “Yes,” she said smiling. “How was it?” I asked. Her grin grew wider. “Easy,” she said, “I knew I could do it when the lady said all I had to do was touch the screen.” Then her infectious smile vanished. She looked lost her thoughts, but then she turned to me and said, “I hope Obama can do what my brother says.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “I hope he can change the world.”
Barack Obama won yesterday not because he transcended race and class, but because his message transcended race and class. He, of course, is not the first African American to present a universalist message. Throughout American history, African Americans have framed their struggle for basic civil and human rights, or what I call freedom rights, in universal terms. During the civil rights movement, for example, they fought for the vote in order to have a say in the decisions that affected their lives. African Americans wanted to participate as equal partners in American society in order to make life better for everyone, not just for African Americans. The universal nature of the African American freedom struggle, however, went unappreciated by most white Americans. Yesterday, however, proved that this is no longer the case. More than any other time in American history, African Americans and white Americans are on the same page. We share a common hope that President Obama can change the world.