By JONATHAN TILOVE
January 15, 2008
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Clarece Coney answers the phone in her home near the corner of George Washington and Martin Luther King avenues in Canton, Miss. “I’m crippled, sick and kind of old,” she says when I ask how she’s doing.
But of late, Coney also feels rejuvenated, thanks to Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat running for president.
“He’s not the same old thing; everybody seems to like him, black and white,” says Coney, who knows history when she sees it. In 1966, she opened her home to Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and 135 other civil rights marchers when they were tear-gassed by police on the Memphis-to-Jackson march while attempting to make camp across the street.
Obama is “a beautiful guy, a beautiful guy,” she says. “I hope and pray he can make it, but there are a lot of evil people out there in the world. … I don’t want him to get hurt.”
I first met Coney in 2001 while traveling with photographer Michael Falco on some of the hundreds of boulevards, drives, avenues and streets across America named for the Rev. King, a journey that yielded a newspaper series and a book, “Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America’s Main Street.”
Coming up on King Day 2008, amid a presidential campaign without precedent, I got back in touch with some of the people along King. I found that _ as with Coney _ Obama’s candidacy is inspiring a tender mix of pride, exhilaration and foreboding.
Forty years after King’s assassination, the streets that bear his name are alive with hope that Barack Obama may fulfill King’s dream, but also fraught with fear that he could suffer King’s fate. Each step of the way, Obama’s progress is being measured against an ingrained belief that, in the end, “America” won’t let a black man become president.
“The Bible says a hope deferred makes the heart sick, and every Negro in America can understand that our hopes have been dashed every year since this country’s been here for 400 years,” says Bishop Fred Caldwell, pastor of Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Church in Shreveport, La.
The America we think we live in is a facade, Caldwell says. In the real, behind-the-scenes America, the outcome is never in doubt. “It’s scripted.”
“Barack Obama is a phenomenal individual who no doubt is riding the crest of those that have gone before,” Caldwell says. No matter. “There are folks in this country who want this place to stay white and at the end of the day, we are going to end up with the same old same old.”
Or as Clyde Lister puts it, when I ask him about Obama: “I just got a feeling it’s going to backfire on him.” Lister runs the black funeral home on the MLK just over the state line in Center, Texas, and lives in a backwoods settlement there known as Africa.
Others get the same feeling. Some try to fend it off.
“Here in Huntsville (Texas) people in the African-American community think he’s not going to win, it’s already set up and rigged,” says Abd’ Allah Muhammad-Bey, who founded a local mosque and works as a drug and alcohol counselor at one of the prisons that are Huntsville’s bread and butter. “I’m saying, nah, if you think like that, that’s how they want you to think.”
Joanne Bland, as a child in Selma, Ala., was among those who on Bloody Sunday in 1965 marched to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and into a barrage of billy clubs, horses’ hooves and tear gas. Last March, as head of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, she marched across the bridge arm and arm with Obama, part of a commemoration that included Hillary Clinton.
A black and a woman competing for the presidency. “I thought of Dr. King,” Bland says. “If not now, when?”
Yet Bland fears that even if Obama wins the nomination, in the fall, “everybody will vote Republican, or do the Bush `haul-out”’ _ her term for a stolen election. “And it won’t be because I won’t be out there swinging,” she adds.
Black Americans were no better prepared for Obama than other Americans were.
This is not Jesse Jackson, a disciple of King, emerging from the black community to lead a crusade to “Keep Hope Alive” and looking for some white support at the end of the Rainbow.
This is someone out of the blue, son of a white mother and African father, who before the first serious test of black voter sentiment in South Carolina on Jan. 26 has already passed muster with white voters in Iowa, where he finished first, and in New Hampshire, where he placed a close second to Clinton.
At Marcus Books _ named for Marcus Garvey _ on Martin Luther King Way in Oakland, Calif., Blanche Richardson, who usually finds little to recommend in white behavior, is pleasantly mystified.
“I don’t understand what’s going on with white folks,” she says. “It’s gone beyond race, and that sure doesn’t happen a lot.”
Paul Knauls Jr.’s family’s beauty and barber shop, Geneva‘s Shear Perfection, is the hub of black life on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Portland, Ore. For Knauls, Obama is an “uplifting” alternative to the steady stream of media images of black people as errant athletes and rappers run amuck.
“I think he’s changing the thinking in America,” Knauls says. “You got a guy who went to Iowa and won. That’s huge.”
In Obama’s hometown of Chicago, Haki Madhubuti _ founder of Third World Press, which published the best-seller “The Covenant With Black America” _ theorizes why.
Madhubuti, a poet and professor at Chicago State University on Martin Luther King Drive, got his graduate degree in Iowa. And, as he explains, “the less contact you have with black people, the less you know us, the less you fear us and, of course, you get an articulate brown-skinned family man with a wife whose an articulate lawyer also and you say, `Wow, this could work.”’
What’s more, Madhubuti says, Obama connected with young people, who “do not calibrate race the same way their parents did and do.”
“He’s not running away from being black,” Madhubuti says. “At the same time, he wants to represent all America, and he could do it well.”
Still, Madhubuti fears for Obama’s life and psyche: “It’s going to get rotten and small and ragged out there. I don’t have my hopes up at all.”
Back in Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba, a radical attorney we first met at the Malcolm X Grassroots Center on MLK Drive in Jackson, considers Obama the candidate of “enlightened white supremacy.”
But Lumumba figures that raised expectations and dashed hopes when Obama loses _ or when he wins and proves unable to deliver real change _ are good for revolutionary recruiting. In the meantime, he encourages those who “really believe in the system” to vote for Obama.
“I don’t see we have anything to lose,” Lumumba says.
Jolivette Anderson-Douoning, a poet and activist we met when she was working on the Algebra Project at Lanier High School along Jackson‘s MLK, is not so sure. She prefers Clinton.
“I fear that some black people may hold Sen. Obama as the cure for racism in America, and that ain’t real for me,” says Anderson-Douoning, now at Purdue University’s Black Cultural Center.
Worse still, she says, white Americans may see Obama’s election as some kind of emancipation proclamation, freeing them of any guilt or responsibility for the after-effects of slavery and Jim Crow.
Finally, there is the way Obama is identified as black even though the source of his appeal is his biracial identity. “Could my brother do that?” Anderson-Douoning asks.
But there is no gainsaying Obama’s growing appeal along King, just as recent polls show him gaining a commanding lead over Clinton with black voters nationally, after trailing her by nearly as large a margin at last year’s end. A few days of fierce exchanges between the Obama and Clinton campaigns in the week before Martin Luther King Day, with each accusing the other of playing racial politics, probably only drew more black voters to Obama. (The two declared a truce on race in the hours before the Nevada debate.)
At the gas station on Jackson’s King, where the old men while away the days playing pool checkers, proprietor Quincy Brown gruffly dismisses Obama’s chances: “They’re setting him up for the Republicans to beat.”
Still, as Brown talks about the campaign _ he turns 70 this year and marched with King as a young man _ it becomes apparent how closely he is following it, and how deeply he cares.
“I might not live to see it, but the times is changing. It’s coming,” he says. “I would just like to see him be president, to see the change that would be. … I never saw him going this far.”
Likewise, says Beola Drummer, whom we first met through her daughter, Jessica, then a student at Lanier.
Drummer originally favored Clinton. “I really thought it was going to be her _ time for a woman.” Of late, she says of the New York senator and former first lady, “She ain’t what I thought; I just don’t feel her.”
As for Obama’s chances? “I think it’s possible. I didn’t at first, but I do now.”
Cartheda Mann, a high school teacher in Belle Glade, Fla., where Zora Neale Hurston set her masterpiece, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” underwent a similar conversion. She was partial to Hillary Clinton until she broke it down. “We loved Bill Clinton and she is not Bill.” Ultimately, she says, “I have a little more faith that Barack Obama will have my back.”
But what really turned Mann was seeing the contest through the eyes of the juniors in her Advanced Placement language and composition class, as they studied the rhetoric of the campaign: “I began to hear his voice through them, and something resonated with me in an area like this where people are pretty much voiceless.”
In the view of Lester Finney, a Belle Glade artist, inventor and entrepreneur (his latest venture is Muck Air Fresheners, the “muck” being the rich black earth that is Belle Glade‘s claim to fame), Obama’s rise will prove illusory.
“It’s really just a bluff before the battle,” Finney says. “I know people around here are all Obama gung-ho; they really believe he’ll win. I’m sorry. If they elected him, the Republicans will make sure we don’t want to elect another black person again in this lifetime.”
One of the last calls I made was to Franco Gaskin _ Franco the Great, the Picasso of Harlem, who used the riot gates placed on 125th Street after King’s assassination as his canvas for murals of black heroes. The street now bears King’s name.
When Bill Clinton moved into an office on MLK after leaving the White House, Gaskin added him to his riot gate pantheon, painting a mural near the Apollo Theater on which Clinton, in a baby blue dashiki, was flanked by images of King and Malcolm X. “Share the Dream,” it says.
But Clinton‘s image was twice defaced, and Gaskin decided to paint it over. King and Malcolm X now “share the dream” with Nelson Mandela, and, of late, with a crew of grass-roots Obama supporters who gather in front of the mural on weekends, bearing their own gleaming canvas _ of Obama peering heroically into the radiating light.
It is signed Franco the Great.