Civil rights battleground celebrates Obama's win

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 4, 2008 

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Eyes welled, tears flowed, and hugs and kisses ruled the night.

Barack Obama's resounding presidential victory Tuesday night brought supporters black and white in the epicenter of the civil rights movement to the Boutwell Auditorium to celebrate the nation's first African-American president.

As a measure of change, this moment of unparalleled racial progress took place in the auditorium where Strom Thurmond launched his racist "Dixiecrat" presidential run in 1948 and where Ku Klux Klansmen attacked Nat King Cole onstage during a "whites only" concert performance in 1957.

What a difference a civil rights movement makes, for a nation and for Birmingham.

Just outside the hall, Tommy Wrenn, the chairman of the Civil Rights Activist Committee, said the Obama victory was bigger than black or white people, bigger than politics, bigger, even, than the nation itself. "This is a statement to the world," said Wrenn, who was wearing a "We Shall Overcome" medallion.

Throughout the day, residents of this fiercely Democratic enclave in a ruby-red county and state were determined to get to the polls early, because Alabama doesn't offer early voting and long lines were expected based on national trends.

Horace Huntley, oral history project director of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, hit the polls with his wife at 5:30 a.m. As they waited in line, they struck up a conversation with a white man who had an interesting rationale for supporting Obama.

"He said, 'He's half black and half white, so I'm voting for the white half,' " Huntley said.

Not all area voters were Obama supporters. Wayne Martin, a retired sportswriter from nearby Mount Olive, said he was afraid of Obama because the freshman Illinois senator was an unknown quantity.

"He frightens me," Martin said. "His campaign is on 'change,' and we all assume that he's talking about change from the last eight years, but my concern is that his change would go beyond that."

Echoing frequent concerns that Republicans highlighted during the campaign, Martin questioned Obama's relationship with his former United Church of Christ pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He also worried that Obama might be Muslim.

"I wonder if we have a guy that we're going to elect for president who could not get a security clearance if he was applying for a job in a sensitive area of government," Martin said.

On the city's west side, Hattie Mae Woods celebrated her 90th birthday by voting for Obama at Robert E. Lee Elementary School. It was a sweet moment in an otherwise bitter year for Woods.

She and her daughter, Caffery Woods, 49, were the unintended victims of a January ambush that killed her daughter. Of the six bullet wounds that the elder Woods sustained, none hit a vital organ. She was hospitalized for a few weeks, but she suffered a stroke during her recovery.

As she headed to the polls Tuesday with her son, Don Scott, Woods said that she never thought she'd live long enough to vote for a black man, especially after the shooting.

"God is so good," she said. "Some days I just pray and cry and think. I just thank the Lord, 'cuz he has sure has carried me a long, long way."

As for Obama, Woods had a simple assessment: "He looks like he's a very nice person."

Don Scott, who couldn't vote in the past because he'd been convicted of a felony, recently had his voting rights restored. He, too, backed Obama.

"If I had to walk 10 miles and wait in line for 10 hours, I'd do it. It's worth waiting for. It's worth walking for," he said.

Sheila Tyson, a volunteer for the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said the group had helped 500 convicted felons in Birmingham secure voting rights.

Among them were people such as James K. Bell, who hadn't voted since 1982. Bell, 45, was released from prison in 2003 after serving 12 years for first-degree assault. He got his voting rights restored last week, just in time to vote for Obama.

"When all my family and everybody else used to go to vote, I'd always feel like I was missing out," Bell said. "Now I feel like I've got a say-so in what's happening."

(David Murdock of the American News Project contributed to this story.)

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