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Black voters remember fight against racial divides

Cassandra Spratling
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

(Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

Serving proudly in the Army in the 1940s, Samuel Green sought to exercise a basic right of citizenship. He wanted to vote.

While stationed overseas, he requested an absentee ballot. But officials in his home town of Montgomery, Ala., said no.

He had not paid the poll tax, the roughly $2 fee that kept many black people from voting.

"Here I was overseas, fighting in World War II, and they denied me the right to vote," said Green, who moved to Detroit in 1945. "We could hardly afford to live, let alone pay a poll tax."

For African-Americans like Green - who lived through segregation and the country's hottest stretch of racial violence since slavery - the rise of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as a viable candidate for president is more than amazing. It represents the realization of a future they never thought they would live to see.

They are elated, not just because a black man is the presidential front-runner, but because voters appear to be judging Obama for his qualifications, not his skin color.

Today, at 85, Green is proud once again.

"I think this was what Dr. King was talking about when he had that March on Washington," Green, a retired Detroit Department of Public Works supervisor, said of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "I never believed in my lifetime I would witness this."

Obama's run signals the significant maturing of the American voting public, said DeWitt Dykes Jr., associate professor of history at Oakland University.

"Until recently, most persons of African descent would not have been considered by the majority of white Americans as the nominee of a major party, and that he was able to convince people to look beyond race and to look to program and qualifications and ability is remarkable," said Dykes, who specializes in civil rights history.

"For all its shortcomings of the past ... for even some of the shortcomings for some citizens today ... America is now ready to look to individual ability, individual appeal and to promote, as much as possible, those who are capable."

Although Congress passed the 15th Amendment granting all American men the right to vote in 1869, it was nearly 100 years later before the Voting Rights Act made it illegal to hinder black people from voting.

John Hardy's Detroit home is filled with Obama paraphernalia - a collection of buttons, T-shirts and hats.

"If my mother and father were alive, they would be shouting in the streets that we've come so far in a relatively brief period of history," said Hardy, who voted absentee a couple weeks ago.

"I feel a lot of emotion bubbling up when I think of the fact that here we are in 2008, I'm 68 and I've just voted absentee for an African-American for president of the United States," said Hardy, an actor and retired Detroit teacher. "And I've voted for him not solely because he's an African-American candidate, but because he's the candidate that best represents the high standards people would expect for a leader. I'm beaming with pride.

"No matter how it goes, it's history."

For Hardy, Obama's story is especially sweet.

As a college student at what today is Tennessee State University, Hardy participated in sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters and went into rural towns in Mississippi to encourage and teach black people to vote.

On Sept. 7, 1961, Hardy had to escape the small town of Tylerton, Miss., after he escorted two black people to the Walthall County courthouse to register to vote. The registrar took a pistol and brutally hit Hardy about the head. Afterward, Hardy was arrested for "bringing an uprising among the people" and breaching the peace.

A few days later, he was released from jail. One of the townspeople put him on the floorboard of a pickup truck and covered him with a blanket to get him out of town to safety.

Ultimately, attorneys from the U.S. Justice Department intervened, and the charges against Hardy were dropped.

Detroiter Geraldine Blackwell Bledsoe grew up in one of the few black families in Mississippi that could vote. Bledsoe's father was a widely respected dentist in Meridian, Miss., and he could afford to pay the poll taxes.

But she, too, had a close brush with danger.

In the early 1950s, she drove civil rights activist Medgar Evers around town as he tried to organize black people to register to vote. Years later, a Klansman gunned Evers down in the driveway of his home.

"I knew it was dangerous, but I didn't think it was that dangerous," she said. "I drove him around, and I didn't dream he would reach this fate."

Today, the retired teacher is overwhelmed by the possibility of the first black president.

"I'm so proud and so happy," she said. "I feel that all this voting I've been doing has been worth it, however it turns out."

Mary Upshaw McClendon, 84, a Detroit community organizer and retired domestic worker, had her voting precinct delegate review her absentee ballot with her because she wanted to make sure she cast it correctly for Obama.

"I just felt uplifted and everything," said McClendon, who never voted until after moving to Detroit from Red Level, Ala., in 1955 at the age of 32. "It was like a flash of freedom, like when I first voted in the city of Detroit."

"I believe our ancestors prayed for this day to come," said McClendon, whose grandmother had been a slave. "They used to say, 'Things goin' to be all right in the by and by.' Obama done made the by and by come."

McClendon's precinct delegate is Pearl Reynolds, a neighbor in a senior citizens apartment building. At 91, Reynolds still actively volunteers in political campaigns and encourages people to vote.

When Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, she was at a victory party at Bert's Marketplace in Detroit's Eastern Market.

"It brought tears to my eyes, tears of happiness," Reynolds said.

Reynolds, a retired laundry factory worker, didn't vote until after moving to Detroit from Oak Ridge, La., in 1941.

M. Juanita Walker McGill, 83, also has already voted.

"The ballot came one day. I read it, signed it and posted it the next day," said McGill of Detroit, a retired social worker. "I wanted to make sure it got back in time to be counted.

"I feel if you don't vote, you're missing a golden opportunity," said McGill, who helped black people in Virginia register to vote when she was a Hampton University student in the 1940s.

When Joe Greene began teaching in the early 1960s at the South Panola Colored School in his hometown of Batesville, Miss., not one of the approximately 60 teachers was registered to vote.

"I thought because we were teachers and we were teaching students about being citizens, we should be registered to vote," Greene, 70, said.

He convinced 11 teachers to go to the courthouse one morning to register to vote. Only one followed through - Greene.

"Fear either paralyzes you or it makes you do things you should be doing," Greene said. "I was always afraid, but I was also afraid to sit around doing nothing."

The clerk asked Greene to copy a portion of the Constitution. He carefully copied it word for word, knowing that even a misplaced comma could disqualify him.

The clerk took Greene's copy, read it and handed him a registration form. Greene signed it; he was officially registered to vote. He has voted ever since.

A few weeks ago, Greene cast his ballot for Obama.

"To be able to vote for him was one of the highlights of my life," Greene said. "Where I grew up, there were no rights for African-Americans - not to vote, not to run for anything. To come this far to where an African-American can not only run, but be seriously considered for president, is to come a long way."

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