WASHINGTON — Keylon Simpkins, cooking catfish and country-fried steak at Ajax Diner in Oxford, Miss., said he really won't believe the United States has its first black president until Barack Obama takes the oath of office.
Simpkins, a 26-year-old African-American, graduated in 2007 with a political science degree from Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, just down the road from the popular eatery.
In late September 1962, President John F. Kennedy sent thousands of federal troops to Oxford to quell riots that killed two people and injured 300 when James Meredith attempted to register as the university's first black student.
"To say that we went from having the first African-American at Ole Miss just 40-some years ago to now having the first African-American president — that's one of those things . . . " Simpkins' voice caught for a moment ". . . I don't know how to describe it. I know it happened, but I'm still waiting on the inauguration for it to sink in. It's like a shining moment in history."
Obama's election was a historic event for all Americans, and for millions around the globe.
Yet, the inauguration of a Hawaiian native with a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya has special significance in the South, the center of American slavery for more than two centuries and still the home of more than half the nation's African-Americans.
Joel Williamson, a University of North Carolina historian who's written extensively about race relations in the South, said Obama's rise to power could be a turning point.
"Marvelously, we have taken a leap forward against racism in this election, and in taking that leap forward, we are dragging forward a centuries-old element in our culture that is racist," he said.
Williamson, a white, 79-year-old native South Carolinian, said the region has changed dramatically in the decades since police clubbed civil rights marchers, restaurants refused to serve blacks and nonwhite travelers often had nowhere to sleep.
Many young Southerners, black and white, have moved beyond their parents' and grandparents' struggles, Williamson said, yet pockets of racism and conflict persist.
"Obama's election in many parts of the South is just a disaster because too many Southerners still believe that black people are inferior to white people," he said.
In Longview, Texas, not far from the Louisiana border, Debbie Moniz often got a chilly reception when she told folks that she planned to vote for Obama.
"There's a lot of people here that are very prejudiced against black people," said Moniz, a disabled cashier. "I tell them off. I just say, 'They bleed the same color we do.'"
It's hard to draw firm conclusions from the election results about the progress of race relations in the South.
Even though the South remains the Republicans' power base, Obama carried Virginia, North Carolina and Florida — three populous Southern states that hadn't together backed a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
In North Carolina, where blacks make up 21.9 percent of the population, Obama drew 50 percent of the vote — almost 7 points better than the showings of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and former Vice President Al Gore, who's from neighboring Tennessee, in 2000.
Obama edged Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, by 13,692 votes in North Carolina, among more than 4.2 million cast. Bush drew 435,317 more votes than Kerry four years earlier, among almost 3.5 million total cast.
Such a change may explain why Michael Trobich, a white middle-school student in Charlotte, N.C., feels that the history books he reads are out of touch with the world in which he's growing up.
"Just dividing the U.S. into sections is kind of unfair," Michael said. "There are people in each section who have different beliefs than most people think they would."
Yet, even in a favorable election year for Democrats, Obama fared worse than Kerry and Gore had fared in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma and West Virginia (the U.S. Census Bureau places 16 states in the South, including Oklahoma and West Virginia).
Louisiana is particularly puzzling. Although one in three residents is black, Obama drew less than 40 percent of the statewide vote — a smaller share than Kerry's 42.2 percent in 2004 or Gore's 44.9 percent in 2000.
With 95 percent of blacks nationwide backing Obama — and blacks voting in proportionately larger numbers — you don't need a calculator to know that few white Louisianans voted for Obama, likely less than 10 percent.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, by contrast, was re-elected with 52.1 percent of the vote. The inescapable conclusion is that almost a quarter of those who voted for Landrieu, virtually all of them white, didn't vote for Obama.
In the South as a whole, Obama got 48.7 percent of the vote. That's 4.2 points fewer than his national total of 52.9 percent, but slightly better than the region's results for Kerry (48.3 percent) or Gore (48.4 percent).
A black presidential candidate outperforming white ones in the South amazes Charlotte Wooten, a native of Birmingham, Ala., where her younger sister helped integrate a Catholic high school.
When Wooten moved to Raleigh, N.C., in the 1960s to attend graduate school at North Carolina State University, not everyone welcomed her.
Some white friends who had her over for brunch after church were kicked out of their apartment by their landlord.
Wooten, a retired software services manager, volunteered for Obama last year, knocking on doors in largely white, Republican neighborhoods.
"I saw 70-year-old white ladies in a team room with Obama stickers on," Wooten said. "To see that now was so amazing for North Carolina."
For many African-Americans from the South, the region remains a place of dichotomy.
It's a land steeped in bloody racial history.
It's also a place of rebirth and opportunity where, thanks to the civil rights movement, blacks now dominate local governments from Birmingham to Memphis, Tenn.
In outposts like Greensboro, Ga., Obama's election means the world to rural folks who've fought battles against racial injustice.
Willie Adams, a local chicken farmer, is among thousands of Southern black farmers who were denied federal agriculture loans, and whose protests were ignored until they filed a lawsuit that took a decade for them to win.
"We're black farmers trying to hold onto the land," Adams said. "Obama understands the everyday common people."
Obama's election also resonates in the Upstate of South Carolina, one of the most conservative corners of the country.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, grew up in the Upstate and still lives there, not far from Bob Jones University, which didn't allow interracial dating until 2000.
In Graham's part of the world, folks still fly the Confederate flag, which remains displayed on the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbia.
Yet Graham, who was one of McCain's most ardent supporters in the presidential election, also represents a state whose population is 30 percent black, and one that cast 45 percent of its votes for Obama — a good bit more than it had cast for Kerry or Gore.
Graham is looking forward to having a front row seat to history on Jan. 20 when he'll join other lawmakers near the podium outside the U.S. Capitol, where Obama will place his hand on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration in 1861.
"There's a lot of pride throughout my state, quite frankly from all quarters," Graham said. "Barack Obama is a very talented politician. I will be sitting as a member of Congress when he takes the oath. This is a milestone in American history that we should all celebrate."
(Lisa Zagaroli, Halimah Abdullah and Barbara Barrett contributed to this article.)
More than half of all African-Americans — about 20.5 million — live in the South. All but one of the 10 states with the highest concentrations of blacks, plus the District of Columbia, are Southern states:
|District of Columbia||56.3 percent|
|South Carolina||29.2 percent|
|North Carolina||21.9 percent|
|New York||18.2 percent|
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2008