Obama's election raises racial unity hopes

By Joel Hall and Johnny Jackson


J. W. Lemon keeps a campaign button of Illinois Sen. Barrack Obama, just above his bed, next to photos of known civil rights leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson, who tried and failed in seeking this nation's highest office.

"It feels good," said Lemon, 88. He and other area leaders are still embracing the news Obama has made history by becoming the first black American elected President of the United States.

The news, which came earlier than expected on Tuesday night, is particularly significant to Lemon, who voted for Obama by absentee ballot in September.

As the founding member of the Henry County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP), Lemon has spent most of his life fighting for racial equality.

Lemon said Obama's election is especially inspiring because of the office was earnestly won. "Some of us get opportunities, and we ruin them by doing wrong," he said. "Obama has done right and will work for everyone."

Obama effectively began his campaign in 2004, as a relative unknown, speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Mass., where he was first introduced to the nation and people like Lemon and his wife, Gladys. Part of Obama's campaign resulted in record numbers of young and first-time voters who participated in this year's general election.

"I think it was one of the greatest things that could have happened to promote Obama's campaign - the young people," said Lemon, offering up his advice for Obama. "I would tell him, don't change. Don't change his program and keep working on it, because there's a lot to do."

Henry County Commission Chairwoman-elect Elizabeth 'B.J.' Mathis said she believes Obama's election will help inspire the next generation to pursue their dreams.

"He will serve as an inspiration for young individuals to reach for their dreams," said Mathis, who, on election night, also became Henry County's first female commission chair. Mathis, herself, is part Irish and part Cherokee.

"I think it paints a better picture of what America is really about," she added. "We're just a wonderfully diverse country. [Obama] wasn't my first choice. But we need to all rally around America. At the end of the day, we're all still Americans."

Many believe that Obama's election represents a broad, national shift in racial attitudes.

In Clayton County, the joy expressed by some local leaders and elected officials - many, like Lemon, who rose to power during racially challenging times - was open and apparent.

"I cried the whole time because of the historic nature of it," said Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon. "I never thought this day would come. Going from segregation to where we are now, it's a testimony that we have gotten to where Dr. [Martin Luther] King said the dream could."

Wynn-Dixon said the election "raises the bar" for all children and believes Obama's victory will shake America out of a "pity party mode."

"There are no more excuses," she added. "We can't be apathetic anymore. You don't have to be a doctor or a lawyer, but you can go to trade school. You should just master what you do. That can stop the gangs and let us have a sense of community again."

"We just all broke out into jumps of joy," said state Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale). "I literally screamed at the top of my lungs. It just had to come out."

Seay recalled her struggle to become a black elected official in the early 1990s. At the time, the Clayton County offices of the NAACP on Roundtree Road in Riverdale had been firebombed.

"Here in Clayton County, back in 1992, when I was first elected to the school board, our local NAACP was bombed, so we are in the Deep South," said Seay. "I ran for office long before it was popular. This has been a long, hard road, but it was worth every second to get to this point in our nation's history. This victory means everything."

Seay, a proud grandmother, said that before Tuesday night, she had never told her grandchildren they could become the president of the United States, because she knew there were "limitations." Now, she believes she can do so in good conscience.

In 50 years, Clayton County has moved from being a conservative, destination suburb for mostly white baby-boomers to a increasingly liberal and diverse community south of Atlanta. In the general election, about 83 percent of the Clayton County electorate voted for Obama - a higher percentage than any other county in the state of Georgia, according to the New York Times Presidential County Results.

Many older Clayton County residents are still adjusting to the changes. In Jonesboro, where there are a substantial number of older, white conservatives. Jonesboro City Councilman Rick Yonce said some Jonesboro residents are watching Obama closely to see if he will deliver on his promises.

"The county has changed demographically over the years," said Yonce. "I'm sure people are going to be watching with cautious optimism. The economy affects everybody and I think they are going to be watching.

"I think either one, who is in office, is going to have a hard time," said Yonce, who voted for McCain in the general election. "The president is an important guy, but he's not Congress. I hope that Congress can work together and push some things forward. I think Obama is a bright guy. I hope he is going to come through with some of the programs he was talking about."

Diana Nicholson, an educator, a Republican, and a former contender for the Clayton County School Board, was pleased to see the large number of African American voters in the general election. However, she hopes the high level of participation would not be "a one shot deal."

"If the next election comes up and there are two Caucasians running, I hope that they will still come out," said Nicholson. "I'm afraid that they only went [to the polls] because of what they saw.

"I met a woman last night, putting up signs, who was 46 years old and this was her first time voting," Nicholson continued. "I hope that she will continue to vote and continue to care."

In both Clayton and Henry counties, elected officials and leaders saw Obama's win as a major civil rights victory, one which the entire nation can build upon.

"I think it's an historic event that I thought I would never see in my lifetime," said David Ashe, a Democrat and a former member of the Clayton County School Board. "I think it's probably going to turn out very good for America. Just him being elected is going to help heal relations overseas."

Ashe said that Obama's victory may help raise the self-esteem of Clayton County's students.

"It gives the kids a role model," he said. "Right now, they don't really have a lot of role models that aren't athletes, movie stars, or singers. The kids can see that they can come from Clayton County and become the president."

Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell, believes the election will have a far reaching impact and encourage people, locally and nationally, to take a more introspective look at their communities.

"I think you will see kids now, who will hold their chin up high, start examining their character, and I mean all kids," added Bell. "They will say, if this person can go from welfare to the White House, so can I. This is going to give the country a chance to examine a lot of what is happening in our communities, with an eye on stepping up our game."

Bell, a 33-year veteran of the Atlanta Police Department and a former police chief, recalled becoming an officer at a time when the force was still segregated. Delegated to patrolling only black neighborhoods, Bell said that he was required to call for backup from white officers in order to arrest white suspects.

"In 1961, I entered a segregated police force," said Bell. "I could not arrest white citizens, even if they were in black neighborhoods causing a disturbance. The white officers met on the upper floors and we met in the basement, so we were segregated on the inside and outside.

"I see this as an opportunity for us to gather around diversity," he continued. "Obama's election represents to me an opportunity to bring this nation together and indeed, the world, together ... to embrace, truly, Dr. Martin Luther King's dream that we have to work together."

Stockbridge resident, Jim Nichols, the chairman of the Henry County Democratic Committee, said he supported Obama as an agent of change in the nation's foreign and domestic policies. "It was an historic election, the people have spoken," said Nichols, 28. "The people really want to get back to good economic policy. Now, it's time to get to work."

Nichols said Obama's election was an exercise of American ideals in opportunity. "As someone who's grown up in the South, it's just monumental," he added. "I do believe his story speaks to what's great about America and that we can overcome that racial divide. I believe this is a significant step to move past some of the negatives in this country's history."

Dexter Matthews, the Clayton County NAACP president, said it was encouraging to see "that the American people are looking past color and race, and voting for the best candidate. We still have a long way to go in Georgia, but the nation as a whole was able to look at both candidates," said Matthews. "That is what we have fought for as an organization for 100 years. We have never asked for a handout or anything, but just to be treated the same.

"This is a great victory for minorities, but I think its is greater victory for non-minorities," Matthews added. "This shows people all over the world that [Americans] can look past race, religion, and sex."

Rev. Daniel Edwards, the outgoing president of the Henry County Branch of the NAACP, and a pupil of J.W. Lemon, expounded on those sentiments. "I paid attention to how people responded around the world," Edwards said. "I looked at the numbers who voted. It would have not been possible for him to become president had it not been for his white supporters, his Hispanic supporters ... There was a rainbow of people responsible for his support."

Edwards said he believes it will take people of all races and creeds to address the looming issues affecting people around the world.

"What I believe should be next is [that] all of those supporters and non-supporters realize that America is in bad shape right now, and it's going to take all of us working together to face the issues that we will face," he said.

"The eyes of the world are going to be on him, as they should be. But the question will be, will we give him the opportunity, and not expect an overnight fix? One man can't do it alone. It's going to take all people to say, 'What can I do to make it better?'"